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'All You Can Ever Know' review: Nicole Chung adoption memoir a tango of abandonment, embrace

Nicole Chung, author of "All You Can Ever

Nicole Chung, author of "All You Can Ever Know."  Credit: Erica B. Tappis

ALL YOU CAN EVER KNOW, by Nicole Chung. Catapult, 225 pp., $26.

As a child, Nicole Chung rummaged through the wooden box that sat high on a shelf in her parents’ room with thoughts of burying it in the backyard for a treasure hunt — a memory she recounts in “All That You Can Ever Know,” a tender, unsentimental memoir of her adoption and the search for her Korean birthparents.

She returned to that box of family photos and vital papers with fresh purpose as a teen. While the legal-size envelope she found there had held scant interest for a playful kid, it offered unnerving possibilities for the bright, inwardly discontented adolescent Chung was becoming.

The envelope was “[b]uried among the photographs, stamped with a Seattle address,” she writes. “Inside was a bill for five hundred dollars and a business card” with the name of the lawyer who had handled her adoption. When she dialed the lawyer’s office, her “heart was racing,” she writes. “By now I felt less like a detective, more like a criminal. Should I just hang up?”

“All You Can Ever Know” has the patient pacing of a mystery and the philosophical heft of a skeptic’s undertaking. Along the way, Chung wrestles with biology and culture, heritage and belonging, race and motherhood — always from an intensely personal vantage. That the apex of her search coincides with Chung’s first pregnancy provides even more material for the memoir’s tango of abandonment and embrace.

In recent years, adoption agencies have offered new strategies to help adoptive parents nurture children when they are of a different race and cultural background. But in 1983, Chung’s parents — two nice, white Catholic kids who left Cleveland for the Pacific Northwest — employed a sort of “colorblind” approach. Intended to make sure their only child knew she belonged, their strategy left Chung alone with questions of race and her place in a family that looked nothing like her.

“My parents and I had certainly never discussed the possibility that I might encounter bigots within my school, our neighborhood, our family, in places they believed were safe for me,” she writes. And so, the first time a kid taunted her about being “Chinese” and adopted, she was doubly wounded. “This felt like a different kind of humiliation, one I could not expect [my parents] to understand,” Chung writes. “They had always insisted the fact that I was Korean didn’t matter; what mattered was ‘the kind of person’ I was. How could I tell them they were wrong?”

And hadn’t she been told that her birthparents — hardworking immigrants with a small business in Seattle — wanted her but couldn’t keep her? Hadn't they made the selfless decision to put her up for adoption for medical reasons? Infant Girl Chung had been born 10 weeks before term. Her prognosis was iffy and she spent weeks in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit before her grateful new parents “tore their baby out of the arms of a hospital nurse.”

The memoir’s title is a nod to Chung having been told that the scant information she had about her biological family would have to suffice. The adoption had been closed, and throughout the memoir her parents appear loving if unhelpful, even obstructionist (especially her mother).  

Early on, Chung begins weaving a new character into the tale: her birth sister. “Cindy would never be able to recall anyone actually telling her the baby had died,” starts one chapter. It’s an unexpected turn, one that subtly confirms that Chung’s search will be successful even as it adds a layer of intrigue to that saga. Telling her birth sister’s story the way a novelist or, as she is here, a biographer, might is Chung’s finest decision. These interludes provide illuminating pauses (and significant doses of fact — about her parents’ divorce, her mother’s violence) to her own tenacious first-person grappling with loss and family.

”I searched because I wasn’t content with what I’d always known,” writes the mother of two daughters and now younger sister of a woman she found searching for parents who were not quite what she imagined. “Reunion has taught me that there is no way to remake your history or your family in the image you want,” Chung admits. “But there can be more, if you are willing to look for those stories that were lost — you might find someone new to forgive, to love, to grow with.”

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