Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Knowby Deena ElGenaidi
All You Can Ever Know
In a memoir about her transracial adoption, Nicole Chung tells the story of growing up as the only person of color in a white family and her search for some sense of understanding of her past. Her parents abided by a somewhat color-blind system, their daughter’s Korean background never being an issue. However, this doesn’t stop Chung from feeling like an outsider in her community and her family. She describes instances of being bullied in elementary school and an inability to connect with both the Asian community as well as the white one.
Chung describes a moment later in life, when a couple looking to adopt asks her what it had been like to grow up the Korean child of white parents. Chung writes, “I didn’t want to tell them that I had minded not being white every day for years on end. That sometimes it still bothered me, because while I had finally found another life for myself, my story was still not quite what others expected when they saw me.” Though she is Korean, Chung describes growing up and feeling more white than Asian, adding, “sometimes, it was shocking to catch a glimpse of my face in the mirror and be forced to catalog the hated differences.” Chung’s memoir provides insight into life as a transracial adoptee, an experience that is not often talked about.
Chung tells an important story, exploring notions of identity and race and the complicated nature of both. As the memoir progresses, she describes her search for her birth parents—a search that coincides with the birth of her own daughter, out of a desire to learn about her roots before raising a child of her own. Eventually, Chung connects with her biological sister Cindy and learns of Cindy’s painful and abusive childhood, a childhood that Chung herself seems to have escaped. Suddenly, her feelings of abandonment and her own sense of identity become more complicated.
“The hopes I’d once harbored about talking with my birth mother, getting to know her—even the simple vision of us meeting face-to-face, embracing as parent and child—seemed so foolish now . . . I would never again be able to think of her as someone I had been meant to stay with,” writes Chung. Up to this point in the memoir, Chung wonders what life would have been like had her birth parents decided to keep her. Would she, for instance, have felt a deeper sense of belonging? However, when she learns of the abuse her biological sisters faced at the hands of her birth mother, that idea of belonging becomes even more unclear. Chung parses through these multifarious emotions and ideas with clarity and grace, I found myself captivated and moved by her writing throughout.
Chung’s memoir is deeply emotional from the very start. Her search for family and belonging raises important questions about identity and what constitutes family. In one heartbreaking scene, Chung recalls a phone conversation with her mother, shortly after discovering the abusive nature of her birth mother. Pregnant with her first child at the time, Chung asks, “What if there’s—I don’t know, a child abuse gene, and she passed it on to me and I hurt my baby?” At that, her mother reassures her that that would never happen, and when Chung asks how she knows, her mother responds, “Because I have known you your whole life . . . Because I’m your mother.” In this moment, Chung reminds the reader that though she often felt out of place in her own family, the people that raised her are her parents.
Chung’s memoir sheds light on the complexities of family and the search for identity. She illuminates the difficulties of being a transracial adoptee and feeling out of place in the only family you know. Chung’s memoir is an important one for a number of reasons, but more than anything, her writing is poignant and emotionally compelling throughout.
DEENA ELGENAIDI is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has also appeared in Electric Literature, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Heavy Feather Review, and other publications.