The Fraught Business of Identity: Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know

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It’s easy to scoff at the whole fraught business of identity, of thinking about how race and gender and family history shape how we think of ourselves. It’s not about who you are; it’s about what you do. But what happens when much of your own identity is unknown? That’s essentially the plight of Nicole Chung, the editor-in-chief of Catapult magazine and the Korean adoptee of white parents, as she writes in her debut memoir All You Can Ever Know. Growing up in a small town in southern Oregon, Chung doesn’t meet many other Koreans until she goes to college, and the Asians and adoptees she sees in movies and other narratives prove less than enlightening. In short, Chung had no stories to tell her who she is.

Which actually, if squinted at in a certain light, sounds like something American culture would consider a boon. Chung is indeed a self-made woman: she doesn’t shy away from marrying and having kids young, propelled by “an adoptee’s innate belief that family was something you made—something you built through sheer force of will.” But she’s also isolated, constantly finding herself on the margins of other people’s understanding because of her race and adopted status. She writes,

A wide sea seemed to separate the lone island of my experience from the well-mapped continents on which other people, other families, resided.

All You Can Ever Know, then, is an attempt to bridge that ocean, or at least to provide a glimpse of island life. It also underscores how deeply we all need to be told truths about ourselves, and how parentage and heritage can serve as answer keys to the deeply bewildering question of the self.

Though, of course, the book is not just about the author herself. Chung only embarks in earnest on her search for her birth family when she decides to have children of her own (which makes for some dramatically timed moments later in the book)—because, she realizes early on, fully providing for your kids includes helping them understand who they are. Chung knows all too well that living without a narrative of your own existence is a constant, heart-wrenching struggle. But All You Can Ever Know insists that the stories we use to understand ourselves should be allowed as much complexity as the truth dictates. Because, as Chung eventually discovers, the circumstances of her adoption are so freighted—by abuse, shame, and the complexities of race—and the people involved so ill-equipped to fully grapple with it emotionally, that everyone comes up with neat stories about what happened that sweep all those complicated feelings aside. And these stories, based on partial information and wishful thinking, can’t help but fail to serve after a while.

Early in the book, Chung describes her adoption from the point of view of her parents—Polish and Hungarian, and both very devout Catholics, the definition of well-meaning white folks—who see her as an answer to their prayers for a child. “What did the child’s color matter, in the end, when they had so much love to give? It would be unseemly, ungrateful to focus on a thing like race in the face of such a gift.” There’s an unmistakable hint of doom in these sentences, because that line of thinking is also an easy out when it comes to tackling the racism and bullying Chung inevitably faces. And, as she sharply notes,

If adopting a certain child is fated, ordained, it is easier to gloss over real loss and inequity, to justify the separation of a parent and a child.

At the same time, she points out, no one warned her parents that race might be an important issue they should prepare for, no one gave them any resources to do so, and no one throughout the process raised any questions about whether the adoption was a good idea—not their relatives, not the social worker (“I’m sure you’ll all be fine”), not the judge (“Just assimilate her into your family and everything will be fine”).

During college, Chung finds herself counseling a young white couple thinking of adopting a nonwhite baby of their own. They ask her if there are any big issues they should know about, and after hesitating, Chung “stretche[s] [her] mouth into a smile” and assures them, too, that everything will be fine. “Clearly everything in my life had worked out fine. Their child would be just fine, too.” But “fine” isn’t good, as any squabbling couple can tell you. Immediately following that section begins another, much more complicated and harder to read: “I was in second or third grade when I heard my first slur.”

Racism is itself founded on bad stories formed from limited information. The most enraging thing about the racist taunts Chung endures throughout her childhood, slung at her on the playground and even by her own relatives, isn’t that they’re hurtful, or that they’re based solely on the way she looks (since she’s being raised exactly the same way as everyone else in her town, her tormentors don’t even have cultural differences to fall back on). What’s most enraging is the sheer unimaginativeness of the insults, how hackneyed they are. People pull back the corners of their eyes at her, speak gibberish, “compliment” her English, ask her where she’s really from, tell her to go back to China. What a boring way to think about real people. How uncomplicated, how lazy—and how omnipresent.

Clueless white people don’t have a monopoly on the urge to simplify. Chung eventually does contact both of her birth parents, and is shocked to learn that their solution to dealing with the complicated, sad event of her birth and adoption is simply to paper over it, telling her sisters that she had died in the hospital. And Chung has her own closely held narratives to unlearn. “That pleasant fiction, that lie about parents who had loved me so much they had to give me away, had never been precisely true,” she writes, continuing on to say:

In more honest moments I could admit that I’d have preferred a truth closer to the shiny, sanitized fantasy I’d entertained as a child—the dignified, self-sacrificing immigrant ideal that had been cooked up for me by others.

But Chung never gives in to that siren call of comforting fictions—instead, what’s most admirable is her deep commitment, every step of the way, to sit with the hard truth of the matter and accept it. She cringes every time someone in her family, birth or adoptive, says that her adoption was “for the best,” which she calls “this line we all said to try to make something simple out of a deeply complicated situation.” Even when she’s searching for someone to make first contact with her birth parents, she insists on finding an intermediary “who wouldn’t view my birth parents or me as a cause,” who would see all parties involved as “individuals with our own feelings and histories to be respected.” That conviction is also baked into the structure of the memoir itself, as its point of view shifts between Chung, her parents, her sister Cindy, and even the attorney who handled her adoption.

Now, Chung says, she dispenses with thinking about adoption as either right or wrong, good or bad—instead, it’s a complex process that only benefits from more knowledge and compassion on all sides. Oversimplified stories based on meager information will never be better than the truth, no matter how painful. All You Can Ever Know’s main lesson is that the truth is far more interesting anyway.

Chelsea Leu is Books Editor at The Rumpus, and a writer and critic who's written for The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, WIRED, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Believer, and other publications. More from this author →