This review is going to be a little different than most reviews I publish. It’s definitely going to be a long form review—and will include quite a bit of my personal history—so feel free to skip it if it’s not your thing.
When I heard about Nicole Chung’s memoir, All You Can Ever Know, I was extremely excited. I had never read a book about someone who was adopted and East Asian—but, like many of my books, it fell to the bottom of my TBR. Chung is someone quite a few people I follow on Twitter follow, so sometimes I’d see the articles Chung had written on my timeline. After reading the first one, I knew I immediately wanted to read her book, but I still put it off. It took a long time to figure out exactly why I hadn’t pre-ordered it or tried to get my hands on it as soon as possible. It finally occurred to me that I was nervous about what I would find in the book. It felt like it would take me on an emotional journey; it felt like one of those moments where everything you had previously thought and dismissed, assembles at the forefront of your mind in a long line, just waiting to be examined.
Chung’s articles already resonated with me in an incredibly personal way—she seemed to say everything I had felt, and several things I hadn’t realized I had privately noticed until then. Her article in the guardian about how all adoptees feel differently about their adoption helped put into words many feelings I had experienced in the past, but had never fully formed. This quote particularly resonated with me: “When you grow up being told how lucky you are to have been adopted, how ‘blessed’ you are that your parents ‘took you in’ and ‘brought you up as a Christian, in a country that actually values girls and women’”. Her point is that all adoptees are almost conditioned to feel like this, but not all should have too. Like Chung points out in her article, all adoptees feel different and I personally do feel lucky and blessed that my mom adopted me. But that doesn’t mean those who don’t are bad people.
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Not to my surprise, All You Can Ever Know was fantastic. It was poetic—Chung is a masterful writer—but it also was blunt with unfailing honesty. I’m guessing some of her journalism career influenced that. And more than that, I think it was so thoughtful. I think it’s really easy for people to place a lot of blame on the biological parents—it’s easy for them to shrug it off and just say, “They didn’t love the child enough.” But nothing is so simple as that and Chung expresses this with the kind of care and respect the subject deserves. It made me reflect a lot on my adoption; how it has affected the person I am today and how I want to engage/acknowledge it. It helped me reflect on how other people react when they find out and helped me silently create some personal boundaries of what I do and don’t want to share.
When I was a teenager, and even parts of being in college, I was extremely insecure. I wanted to people to like me—and being adopted from another country, was and still is something relatively novel about me—especially as I’ve moved to a largely white part of the US. There were quite a few kids (my sister included) who were adopted from China in my school growing up, but none of them were in my grade. When I went to college, it was in a small town surrounded by a lot of white people. At first, I told everyone willingly when they inevitably asked. “What is your ethnicity? Oh your parents are then?” they’d say. And I would reply, “I’m Chinese, but I’m adopted so my mom is white.” They’d ask all sorts of questions like if I knew my parents (I don’t), if I wanted to find them (I don’t), and if I’d ever been to China (I have now, but not back then).
I answered all these questions willingly, but over time it became exhausting—especially because it would hijack the conversation. Instead of getting to know me as I am now they were more interested in my personal history—and it’s a testament to my internalized bias and racism that I thought it made me special because they asked all these questions. But I never really got to know them either. Eventually I avoided mentioning it all together. I would just not offer up the information, I would say—in the vaguest way possible: “I’m Chinese,” and try and leave it at that. That’s still what I do to this day. And as I’ve done this and talked less about my adoption, to my surprise, I’ve felt more at peace with my life. Which is ironic because my husband will tell you I want to talk everything out. When I stopped thinking about it so much it was easier for me to come into the person I am right now.
That seems to be the overall theme of All You Can Ever Know. Nicole Chung has developed a relationship with her birth family; something I’ll never do. But she also has created her own definition of family. She has a present birth father and stepmother, a mother and father, a sister, an absent birth mother, a husband, a couple of kids. And if it’s anything to guess from the book she’s not fighting to have anyone in or out of it. She seems to be telling us, the reader, that no one can tell you what a family looks like; there’s no one way to define family—and that’s the way it should be.