A Conversation with Nicole Chung

The memoirist speaks on her journey to finding her family and the value of families we choose ourselves.

Nicole Chung

Nicole Chung was born severely premature, placed for adoption by her Korean parents, and raised by a white family in a sheltered Oregon town. From childhood, she heard the story of her adoption as a comforting, prepackaged myth. She believed her biological parents had made the ultimate sacrifice in the hope of giving her a better life, and that always feeling slightly out of place was her fate as a transracial adoptee. But as Nicole grew up—facing prejudice her adoptive family couldn’t see, finding her identity as an Asian American and as a writer, becoming ever more curious about where she came from—she wondered if the story she’d been told was the whole truth.

With warmth, candor, and startling insight in All You Can Ever Know, Nicole tells of her search for the people who gave her up, a quest that coincided with the birth of her own child, and resulted in a moving chronicle of surprising connections and unearthed family secrets.

Recently, Nicole spoke with Read It Forward’s Abbe Wright about the joys of reconnecting with her sister, how journaling helps her, and the inherent power of immigrants telling their stories.

Read It Forward: For those who haven’t read it yet, your memoir, All You Can Ever Know, is about your upbringing as a Korean girl with two white adoptive parents in an essentially all-white community, then your eventual search for your birth parents and siblings, and your journey to becoming a mother of your own. Why did you feel you had to tell this story?

Nicole Chung: In a sense, it’s a story I’ve been telling my whole life in different forms. It started as bare bones, the story of my adoption as told to me by my adoptive parents. And I grew up telling this story, carrying it and telling it. Because my adoption was transracial, because I didn’t look like my parents, I ended up fielding a lot of questions. It was definitely something I just had to get used to talking about at a young age.

But I wanted to write this book because it was a journey of re-examining and re-claiming that story and that history. In part, so I could share it with the next generation, with my own children. I’m very interested in the power of storytelling. And because I did get pregnant and find my birth family at the same time, there’s a lot to incorporate into my story all at once. It was just a very meaningful experience for me, obviously, and I thought sharing it would be a good way to contribute to the conversation about adoption and race and identity and different types of families.

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RIF: Did you have to give yourself space to process all you were learning before you could put pen to paper?

NC: I never thought I’d write about this as it was happening. I kept a journal all my life, and I had a good reason to keep one while I was searching for my birth family and expecting my first child. I wanted to have a good record, and an accurate one to share with her. It took me a while to find my way to the essay and to memoir as forms. I never thought I’d write a memoir at that point in my life. It wasn’t even a vague possibility as I was searching. Many years later, as I started to write and think more about it and look back on those journals, I’d start to explain it to my kids because they were old enough to listen and process some of it. I started to think maybe writing about it for other people would be a good thing to do.

RIF: One of the things I thought was so fascinating is how your adoptive parents did the well-meaning thing where they’re like, “Oh, we don’t see race in this family. We’re all bound by love.” But you actually make the point that it’s slightly damaging to do that to children in a transracial adoption situation.

NC: I think in my parents’ case, certainly it was well-intentioned, and they were following the advice they’d been given by people they thought were experts in adoption. I wrote in the book about how they asked the judge who finalized my adoption if they should do anything in particular, and how they had a similar conversation with the social worker. And they were told this was what they should do, which was kind of ignore my race, like it wasn’t really important. The most important thing was that they assimilate me in to the family.

I think because they were encouraged to think about it in these terms, and because they love me, it truly wasn’t relevant to them. Of course, it wasn’t the most important, but I think what no one prepared them for—and what no one prepared me for—was that outside our home, outside our family, nobody else is going to be color-blind where I was concerned.

RIF: Right.

NC: My parents aren’t color-blind anyway. Maybe they were where I was concerned, but nobody is color-blind when it comes to racial differences. I don’t mean to overly defend them, but I think it really was a case of them trying to do what they’d been told by experts, and not being fully prepared for what it would be like to raise a child of another race in a super-white community. I still carry scars from that experience. It’s hard to see how it would have been prevented, given what they were told, and the way people spoke about transracial adoptions back then.

RIF: Right. I completely empathize with them, when they’re so happy to have a baby that’s healthy and that they love, and then when you arrive to the playground and meet the bullies for the first time. How jarring that must have been for you—like, “I’m just like everyone else.”

NC: No one ever suggested to me that it would matter. And for my first year of school, it probably didn’t. But certainly by second grade, it was something I noticed, that other kids noticed, that they were starting to comment on. And some were cruel about it. I didn’t even know to describe it as racism, what was happening to me, because I had mostly been taught that race didn’t matter. The lessons we got about racism were that it was all in the past, and we’ve moved on. I also thought of it as much more serious and much more violent than what I was personally going through. I didn’t know what these micro-aggressions were.

Not to minimize them, but what was happening to me was just words. I thought real racism involved violence—physical violence, intimidation. I just didn’t have the words to describe what was happening, and so mostly when it happened, I didn’t really tell anybody.

RIF: You didn’t learn Korean as a child, and probably didn’t grow up eating Korean food. Tell me what it was like to explore your birth culture and language as an adult.

NC: It’s exciting. I still feel really insecure as a Korean, having grown up with that complete disconnect. There were no Koreans I was close to growing up. I didn’t meet any, or at least become close friends, until college. I think it’s been wonderful, especially to share this with my kids. I’m always profoundly and deeply aware of how hard I’m trying, how difficult it is for me, how it doesn’t feel natural. I had to get over the feeling that I was appropriating my own birth culture in some ways.

And it’s still quite painful to be confronted with how much I don’t know, and how much can’t be recovered. I certainly know other Koreans and children of immigrants who also feel separation from their parents’ and grandparents’ culture. So, I know it’s not just because of my adoption. But for me, it is the biggest reason. It’s something that I continue to work on.

RIF: You speak so beautifully in the book about how becoming a mom made you understand differently the decision your birth parents made to give you up as a baby. Was becoming a mother transformative in the way you thought about your own adoption?

NC: I think so. I had accepted for so long that they didn’t have a choice, and it wasn’t something they wanted to do. I thought I really understood it. It was difficult to revisit that as I was expecting, and then having, my own child. It was much more painful to consider it because I could not imagine being separated from my kid. She’s 10 now, and I don’t want her to go to college ever. Obviously, I want her to be happy and do what she wants to do, wherever she wants to do it. But it was important for me to think about that because it helped me think about my birth parents as my family in ways I hadn’t had the context to before.

I was thinking so much about what I could pass onto her: what I would tell her about our family, about adoption. I realized more with each passing year, adoption is not this isolated incident that stays in the past. I continue to see the impact on my sister and my own kids and the way that I parent. They are Korean like me. They are also Korean in a different way, maybe than they would have been if I hadn’t been adopted. I’m actually reading this book with my older daughter now. It’s not like I ever hid this, but every year I tell her a little bit more. Eventually, I want her to know everything. Watching her listen and ask questions and process it all, and how deeply she thinks and feels about the next generation of this complicated family with this complicated legacy, all of that sharing has affected how I think about my adoption legacy and the future, far-reaching effects.

RIF: Another part you touched on in this book is your relationship with Cindy, your birth sister, and I felt like I was getting to know her, just as you were, as I was reading. How has finding your birth sister enriched your life?

NC: Cindy is like the hero of this book. She’s amazing. She knew so much less than I did. But as nervous as I was, as many gaps as I had in the story, she was working with even less. And so, as strange as it was for me, I think it has to be doubly strange for Cindy. So many people would have been so shocked. They wouldn’t have known how to respond, or they would have said, “I don’t need this drama in my life right now.” Like, I’ve been okay for however many years without knowing this and without knowing you. No offense, but I’m not looking to complicate my life.

RIF: I’m good, yeah.

NC: But from the very beginning, she was just so honest and generous and eager to know more about me. And I was so thankful for that connection. When I set out to look for my birth family, I would not have expected this is what I would come away with. She means everything to me. I love that my kids have always known her as their aunt. We didn’t get to grow up together, and we’ve had to get to know each other as adults, but to them, she’s just their Aunt Cindy. I think that’s amazing. Right now, they kind of take it for granted, but I know someday we’ll tell them everything, and they’ll understand what we had to do to put our family back together. It’s just really special. Cindy’s actually going to be at my book launch, which is amazing.

RIF: Oh, that’s so exciting.

NC: I’m really excited about it; it means so much. I’ll probably be a nervous wreck, and she’s the most steady person.

RIF: Yeah, she seems very calm and even-keeled.

NC: My mother’s the same way actually. So, the two of them together—I’ll be fine.

RIF: What do you hope people who aren’t adopted themselves, or don’t have any connection personally to adoption, learn by reading this story?

NC: Oh, that’s a good question. First of all, I think everybody can relate to the idea of family secrets or curiosity about the thing your family does not talk about. Because there were so many things in my adoptive family, and I guess in my birth family, that just weren’t talked about. And some people, they learn to live with that and accept it. But then there are people like me and Cindy, who get to a point where it’s just not enough anymore. It doesn’t necessarily resolve or fix things, but knowledge can be very powerful. I hope people will relate and see aspects of their own family in uncovering mysteries and bringing things out into the open that probably should have always been.

And I think people who subscribe to the idea of chosen families, and how important and life-giving that can be, will relate, because a lot of the book is about that as well. It’s about the family you make for yourself, not just the family you’re born to. It’s interesting that a lot of interviews haven’t necessarily tested much on the motherhood angle, and it’s been nice to talk about that with you. I think there’s a lot here for people who are in a place like I was in, where their family is extending in different ways, and it changes everything. How do you incorporate this new identity and move forward in life? And of course, I hope readers will consider issues specific to adoption and race and identity even if they aren’t adopted themselves or don’t know someone who is.

RIF: Yeah.

NC: Now that I think about it, the odds of not knowing anyone are slim. You never really write a piece of literature, or I wouldn’t, to be instructive. This is very much not intended to be advice. But I think if it’s read with an open mind, it would eliminate a lot of issues around transracial adoption, around different family configurations. We don’t have enough stories about multiracial family. I don’t think there are enough memoirs by Asian Americans, or enough parenting-related stories by people of color and by children of immigrants.

I’m really cognizant of the fact that in certain ways, this book is one of a few in a lot of different categories. I hope it’s worthy of inclusion in these conversations that are so important, and I hope it also helps make space for future stories, because we need so much more than we have.


Author Photo: Erica B. Tappis

NICOLE CHUNG has written for The New York Times, GQ, Longreads, BuzzFeed, Hazlitt, and Shondaland, among other publications. She is the editor in chief of Catapult magazine and the former managing editor of The Toast. All You Can Ever Know is her first book. Follow her on Twitter at @nicole_soojung.

About Abbe Wright

Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Editor of Read It Forward. As a kid, she used to get in trouble at summer camp for using a flashlight to read inside her sleeping bag after lights out, but these days, she lives in Brooklyn, where nobody minds if she stays up late reading. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.