All You Can Ever Know – BookBar Book Review
“Back then,” Nicole Chung writes in her memoir, All You Can Ever Know, “I still had to think of adoption as an unqualified good, a benefit to every adoptee, sure proof of unselfish love, because to do otherwise felt like a betrayal of my family and their love for me.”
The “back then” Chung is referring to is her early twenties, and the time when she sat across from a young couple—friends of a friend—who were considering adoption and wanted to know if she, a Korean woman who had been adopted by a white family as a baby, had ever “minded it.” It being not being white, like her parents. It being growing up in a primarily white town, sheltered from the diversity of a larger city. They wanted to know if Chung was okay, if there had ever been any issues for her as a child. They wanted to know if she thought they should adopt.
Even though Chung eventually tells the couple they “absolutely” should adopt, she spends the rest of the book trying to fight a truer answer to their questions, and by doing so, sheds a light on the complexity and loss inherent in adoption that, until now, most people have never seen.
The story her adoptive parents gave Chung was one of fated outcomes and God’s will. They depicted her birth parents as selfless, wanting only the best for her after she was born premature. Though loving and supportive, her adoptive parents never addressed issues of race and identity with Chung, taking a “color-blind” approach that left her alone amid childhood cruelty and our culture’s ever-present prejudice and discrimination. When she becomes pregnant with her own child, Chung is hungry to fill in the gaps in her identity and begins the process of finding her birth parents.
The search uncovers two sisters, and the truth—a birth mother who had been abusive, sisters that had been told she was dead, an extended family in Korea who doesn’t know she exists and many more revelations. Despite the questions and uncertainties that remain, Chung forms a deep bond with her sister Cindy, and learns what it means to have a rightful place in the world.
All You Can Ever Know is a poignant reflection on questions of identity and belonging and what it means to face the truth. Chung writes that she no longer thinks of adoption “in terms of right and wrong.” It is complex, and for some, loaded with questions and loss. She shares words she once heard from a birth mother: “If there is something that everyone should know about adoption, it’s that there is no end to this. There is no closure.”
Chung’s memoir is a brave exploration into this deep, open-ended, and sometimes unknown territory. As readers we are shown the value of knowing our roots, and are forced to reexamine all we’ve been told about family, ancestry, and the adoption narrative. Like Chung, we too must “seek and discover and tell another kind of story.”
All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir is published October 2, 2018