For a number of reasons, I looked forward to Nicole Chung’s new memoir, All You Can Ever Know, about growing up as a transracial adoptee in an all-white US town. The book did not disappoint, a beautifully written and highly moving account. (Chung does not name the town, just stating it is in southern Oregon, and she has taken on her birth surname, all apparently to keep privacy for her and her family.)
Chung was born to Korean immigrants in Seattle, then adopted by a white couple at two and a half months. Born severely premature, she still weighed less than six pounds at the time. She writes of being raised by loving parents who did not fully realize the taunts, cruel jokes and above all, isolation, that an Asian kid might suffer in an all-white setting. She had no real school friends until high school. Meanwhile, though likewise being devoted to her parents, she developed an intense desire to connect with her birth family, a yearning that she kept largely to herself. Much later, when she is pregnant with her first child, she starts that process of connection, ultimately with mixed results.
Chung’s account, though apparently fully open, brings to mind questions not raised in the book. I have the impression that Chung’s angst was due much more to her semi-pariah status in school than to her being adopted. Had her parents lived in a more cosmopolitan locale, such as Seattle with its large Asian population, so that Chung would have little or no problem “fitting in” at school, I surmise that her interest in connecting with her birth family might have been at most mild. She writes about being shocked whenever other adoptees have expressed to her such views regarding their birth parents.
I can empathize. Growing up as a Jewish kid in East LA and the San Gabriel Valley, there were various anti-Semitic remarks. Kids can be mean. I must say that my wife and I, visiting Eugene, Oregon this past August, were startled by the stark “whiteness” of the city. Presumably Chung’s hometown was smaller than Eugene, and even whiter and less tolerant, back in the 1980s when she was growing up. Maybe her town is less white today, at least due to a Latino presence.
As we all must, Chung eventually learns the validity of the old adage, “The grass is [misleadingly] greener on the other side of the fence.” Though she develops a precious, close relationship with a birth sister, her search for roots also leads to profound disappointment.
In addition to her unhappiness at school, the fact that Chung spent the first months of life in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, devoid of parental touch and nurture, must also have taken a heavy toll. Yet in spite of all the angst, she comes across as more self-confident and upbeat than her birth sister.
Oddly, as a non-adoptee, I have very little interest in my own roots. I met only one of my four grandparents, and know very little about them. Further back than them, I know absolutely nothing. When I mentioned this recently to a friend, he asked in an emphatic tone, “Why?!” I’d never been asked that before, and had no real answer.
Bottom line: Chung’s book is a powerful read, a courageous laying bare of her psyche. Adoptees and adoptive parents should find it especially moving, but it is a compelling work for any reader interested in race, parenting and so on.