by Nikhat Hoque
At the heart of this memoir lies the 'truth was that being Korean and being adopted were things [Nicole] had loved and hated in equal measure'.
All You Can Ever Know is Nicole Chung’s writing debut, in which she narrates her experiences with family, from her adopted family to starting her own family to finding her biological family. With increasing conversations about the need for more diversity and representation, this book is important as it tells the story of transracial adoption from the perspective of an adoptee. Although the experiences of adoptees are at the core of this memoir, it will also strike a chord with any person who has felt like they do not fit in with their respective families. The concept of not ‘fitting in’ is so painfully stark as Chung is 'different' both on the inside and out.
Chung is born prematurely, with health problems. She grows up in a white community, where she does not meet another Asian American until she starts university. She finds herself conflicted between her 'family’s "colorblind" ideal', and the obviousness of their differences. To her family, she is 'one of them', however, to her schoolmates and the community, she does not 'belong'. She keeps a 'secret tally of every single Asian person [she] had seen in public'. She internalises this racial isolation and alienation from her schoolmates, and her psychological self-hate manifested as physical hair-pulling. Chung cannot help but feel that 'If you were pretty, if you were normal, if you were white, then the good things everyone saw on the outside would match the goodness you knew existed in the inside'. This feeling is all too familiar to anyone who experiences racial discrimination as a child. Chung notes, she could never vocalise the racially charged bullying as her parents had never discussed that she might 'encounter bigots within my school, our neighborhood, our family'. Throughout her memoir, Chung urges adopters to reconsider the ways in which they ‘assimilate’ their adopted children and pay careful attention to racial differences.
'If you were pretty, if you were normal, if you were white, then the good things everyone saw on the outside would match the goodness you knew existed in the inside'
It is only when Chung is about to become a mother that she finally seeks answers to the questions that have existed in her mind all her life. Her driving force is to discover any medical issues that could affect her children, as they had affected her. With the help of an intermediary, or 'search angel', she tracks them down. She had always been told, 'Your birth parents were very sad they couldn’t keep you, but they thought adoption was the best thing for you'. The truth, it seems, is even stranger than this fiction.
As she connects with her birth family, many secrets are revealed for both sides. Chung's quest to know more about her birth family’s medical history unravels deeper questions about her psychological stability. It resurfaces the nature vs nurture debate. How much of our behaviors are actually a result of how we have been nurtured? Can we escape our true nature? She questions whether she will be a good mother, or will the natural instincts inherited from her birth parents take over. Nicole confides in her adopted mother about her fears of inheriting 'a child abuse gene' from her birth mother.
Chung’s writing is exceptional, as she pours herself into this memoir her fears, and her personal revelations. Her portrayal of loss and discovery is captured in correspondence with her sister, where there is an immediate familiarity, but also a deep-seated resentment for not having known each other throughout their lives. Chung’s memoir is a reminder in caution regarding “absolute conclusions”, as human emotions and relationships are more complex than what can be expressed in absolutes. Towards the end of the memoir Chung notes, '[r]eunion had given me many truths, some of them difficult to bear… [and] has done more than restore relationships that had once been beyond my ability to fully imagine: it has enabled a shifting in existing ones'. All You Can Ever Know is a seminal text on adoption. As Chung herself concludes, 'identity as an adoptee is complicated, fluid, but then so is everyone else’s'.