Memoir Review: All You Can Ever Know
All You Can Ever Know tells the story of Nicole Chung, born to Korean parents and adopted by white parents in suburban Oregon. As she grows up, Chung faces racism and alienation as a trans racial adoptee that she hides from her adoptive family.
Her parents see their adoption of her as an act of God and tell it to her in a story that almost becomes myth. But as she grows up, she begins to fantasize about her birth parents as well, longing to meet them. She was adopted as part of closed adoption, and her parents do not want her to reach out to them, fearing the repercussions.
When she finally seeks out her birth parents it is just as Chung is pregnant with her first child. The questions she had about being a mother spurred her to proceed with what she had not been able to in the past.
She speaks about her own pregnancy and longing to have another person in the world with whom she has a biological connection. She also has practical questions about giving birth, her health history, and why her mother gave birth so prematurely, that she does not feel she can get from her own mother, who has never given birth.
The reality of the family she finds is more complex than she could have imagined as a child, including two sisters. As she comes to know her biological family, she is forced to face the fact that the idealized version of how a reunion would go and what these people would be like is not what she imagined as a child.
Eventually, she does forge relationships with some of her biological family, learning for the first time what it is like to share a family history. She also discusses the joy of having a sister, describing that inexplicable bond she had only before seen with her husband and his siblings:
“their common history had supplied them with a code, an understanding, unique to the three of them.”
As she learns of both the good and bad of her biological family, she also worries about negative familial traits she may have inherited and if they would appear in herself someday. In the end, she finds a way to balance her new discoveries, the people that have entered her life, her adopted family, and the family she has created on her own.
Chung talks about the complicated issue of adoption and how people often say things like “it was for the best” when discussing the role of either the birth parents, the adoptive parents, or the child. She knows it is much more complex than that especially when babies are adopted across racial and cultural lines.
She admits to feeling alone and sometimes unseen by her adopted white family for being Asian and a person of color and was able to have conversations with her mother that they had not had earlier in life. She has been able to face both the difficulty of growing up adopted as the only Korean she knew and also the difficulties that came with reuniting with her biological family. She does say that she wishes her parents would have done more to find out about her birth family, but she says that:
“to be adopted is to know only the rewritten story, one of an infinite number possible.”
She also came to accept the words of her birth father who said, it was the:
“best option in a sea of imperfect ones.”
As with any memoir, Chung’s story continues. She quotes a birth mother who once said to her, “If there’s something everyone should know about adoption, it’s that there is no end to this.”
In the years since she met her birth family, she has had another baby and she has become an aunt to the baby of the sister she never knew. Her family continues to grow and one day she hopes to visit Korea with these relatives to experience a world that had been foreign to her, but that is part of her history.