Book Review: Nicole Chung’s “All You Can Ever Know”

BY: A.M. Larks

It is our origin stories that shape us. How we came to be in this world matters almost as much as what we do in it. There is a natural and innate curiosity to know the facts that happened before our consciousness, that ties us to our personal histories, to our culture, and to a larger family history. “Family lore given to us as children has such a hold over us, such staying power. It can form the bedrock of another kind of faith, one to rival any religion, informing our beliefs about ourselves, and our families, and our place in the world,” Nicole Chung writes in All You Can Ever Know. These stories are often simplified down to almost anecdotal summation, like my spouse who blames his perpetual tardiness on being late for his own due date. He came out a month late but only by inducement. He was late in the beginning and therefore will always be late.

For adoptees like Nicole Chung, her own narrative revolves around a common ideology of adoption–specifically transcultural adoption–that her birth parents were noble and self-sacrificing. “They thought adoption was the best thing for you.” This simplified narrative of her existence also serves to uncomplicate the stories we tell about adoption; namely, that it is always good and will lead to a better life. “Above all it was a legend formed and told and told again because my parents wanted me to believe that my birth family had loved me from the start; that my parents, in turn, were meant to adopt me, and that the story unfolded as it should have.”

But as a Korean child of a white family in white small-town America, Chung had logical questions about her birth family and her history. “I didn’t know what to tell people about surviving a loss I couldn’t even remember, or how the face I saw reflected in the mirror often seemed like a stranger’s.” Only as an adult–and under the guise of pregnancy–did Chung act on her desire to know more. “I felt as though I’d been staring at a waiting chessboard all my life, and now the dusty old pieces were finally beginning to move.” The decision to alter her life was not an endeavor to be taken on lightly. “Contact has always been a risk. I had pursued it because I felt it was important; because I knew not everything in life could remain simple and compartmentalized forever.” Which is exactly the point; adoption is anything but simplistic, but the social concept of adoption carries the same anecdotal three-word phrase: for the best.

“I thought of all the times I had heard that phrase—for the bestor one like it. I was sure my sister believed it was true, and perhaps it was in my case. But I was growing so tired of it, this line we all said to try to make something simple out of a deeply complicated situation. It was no longer enough.”

If adoption is multifaceted, then so, too, is reunion. As a child, Chung had no realistic example for such a fantasy “Few of these movies [with a dramatic reunion or a child rescued from the clutches of a life of loneliness and destitution] or shows or novels ever showed what happened after the tears or the hugs or the accusations, when people had to cope with new knowledge, to move forward—and choose whether to build a relationship from nothing since the moment of rupture. That was always the part that intrigued me, the part I found difficult to imagine.” “… I saw the appeal of such simplicity—though I still longed for stories in which the unvoiced questions, the quiet drama of the everyday adopted experience, did not remain so unexplored.” The easy narrative may warm your heart but fails to reflect all of the trappings of reality.

Chung’s own behavior does not escape her critical eye. She, too, was caught up in the trouble-free ideas about reunion and adoption.  “The hopes I’d once harbored about talking with my birth mother, getting to know her—even the simple version of us meeting face-to-face, embracing as parent and child—seemed so foolish now.”

Even after reunion there are lingering doubts about love and acceptance. “Sometimes, when he closed himself off from questions, or reiterated that he didn’t want anyone else in the family to know about me, I still feared he was ashamed of me. Or, if not me, at least the history I represented.”

It is the nuances of such interactions that Chung brings to the story of adoption that are important, even distinctions made in her own thinking. “From the time I was young, I had assumed the same truth that freed me would also free my birth family—that rush of air and light sweeping away the secret would come as a relief to us all. If I learned one thing in the early days of our reunion, it was that I could not compel another person to feel comforted, to feel whole, to forgive themselves. The peace, I’d wanted so badly to give my birth parents, all along, was never in my power to give.”

Each adoption is unique, and even within each adoption each individual has a different perspective. “For all my wondering and questions as a child, it’s taken me a long time to understand that, as adopters and adoptee, my parents and I will always view my adoption in vastly different ways.” And while one party may find resolution, that does not ensure that all involved will. “I finally understood what my birth parents did not: my adoption was hard, and complicated, but it was not a tragedy. It was not my fault, and it wasn’t theirs, either. It was the easiest way to solve just one of too many problems.”

But the greater problem was the societal narrative constructing one facile story about adoption. “To fault only my white parents for not fully understanding the things they were shielded from—first by professions and later by me—is to miss the larger point: we were and are representative of so many transracial and transcultural adoptions from that era.” It is why Chung’s work is so vital. It makes everyone involved–even her mother–question tenets that were always taken as absolutes. “The question represented the possibility we had never before acknowledged. That she might be willing to reconsider the sacred scripture of my childhood—adoption as not just a  ‘good thing,’ …” However, Chung is the first to acknowledge that each adoption is individual, and armed with some of the missing information regarding the circumstances of her adoption and her birth family, she cannot definitively say that it was wrong or right. “But just as I bristled when people clung to platitudes about adoption giving kids a ‘a better life,’ I was unsure what ‘better off’ would have meant in my own case.” “‘Being adopted probably saved my life,’ it wasn’t an appeasement, a melodramatic or magnanimous offering. Reunion had given me many truths, some of them tragic and difficult to bear. This one I would always believe.” And although this fact remains true, it doesn’t mean that she has not suffered losses and heartache, which is exactly the point. The correct answer, to quote Facebook, is “it’s complicated.” If we can use that phrase about our romantic relationships, we have to be able to use it for our familial ones.

“…[M]y adoption no longer feels like mine alone to wonder about, or not—if it ever was. It is part of my sister’s legacy, and our children’s too. So I don’t try to convince my daughter that the way I lost one family and entered into a new one is entirely natural, that it was an uncomplicated happy event. It was happy, in a way, but it has also been a source of grief for many. It meant years of wondering and confusion for me; for her, it means she will know less about Korean culture than many other Korean kids whose parents were not adopted. It’s okay if she sometimes feels sad when she thinks about that, about everything we’ve lost.”

Adoption is a single part of Chung’s personal history, one she is continually grappling with, as are all people adopted or not. “Introducing her [Abby, the author’s eldest daughter] first to her aunt, then to her biological grandfather, and now to this first symbol of our shared heritage—these were all aspects of healing, though I hadn’t realized I still needed to be healed. My identity as an adoptee is complicated, fluid, but then so is everyone else’s.”

A.M. Larks writes fiction and nonfiction. She has performed her stories at Lit Up at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, California. She contributes reviews and interviews to and is a reader for The Coachella Review. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, a Juris Doctorate, and is currently pursuing her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California–Riverside Palm Desert’s low-residency program. She lives in Northern California.