Seeded in all of us is the desire to know, to chase after facts, and to grow in knowledge of the world around us while discovering who we are. Adoptees are no different; in fact, their quest to find answers is even more profound at times, and in the memoir All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung, she dives deep into her wish to know the story about her adoption.
In the very first few chapters, Nicole tells us about her background. Adopted as an infant, she never knew anything but what her parents chose to tell her, which to her frustration, wasn’t very much. With these shreds of information, she attempts to find her place as the only Korean in her little town. However, when she goes to college, she meets like-minded people and fellow Koreans, feeling for the first time in her life, that answers were within her reach.
But not until she’s pregnant with her own child, does something truly stir inside of her. The seedling of fascination from her youth was plaguing her, and when her child was old enough to ask questions, she wanted to be able to answer them. After a few weeks of consideration, she takes the leap of faith and hires an adoption intermediary to gain access to files that hold the names of her birth family.
It turned out that the picture-perfect ideal she imagined as a girl was faded into a harsher reality. But as Chung reflects, she shares about how learning about her past made her realize that adoption isn’t black and white, right or wrong. It’s an intricate web of emotions, and there’s no exact way to go about it. One of my favorite quotes that truly encaptures her journey is this: “Today, when I’m asked, I often say that I no longer consider adoption—individual adoptions, or adoption as a practice—in terms of right or wrong. I urge people to go into it with their eyes open, recognizing how complex it truly is; I encourage adopted people to tell their stories, our stories, and let no one else define these experiences for us.”
To say this book is eye-opening would be an understatement. As an Asian adoptee myself, I connected with her stories of not fitting in and how she imagined a different reality where she was with her birth family. Chung shared her deepest, most secret thoughts and they made me look at my own story differently. For example, I’ve never been against the prospect of finding my birth family, but I’ve never thought about what would happen if I actually did. After reading this, I sat down and journaled my thoughts, and realized that I do want to try to get those answers, but not immediately. Something unique about this story is that she spends her whole life wondering, but doesn’t act upon it as soon as she can. She waits, and even spends time considering if she wants to, which emphasizes that it’s okay for adoptees to be hesitant and to take their time because it’s not always about having answers, but rather it’s about being emotionally ready for those answers.
As much as I loved the candidness of this book, it felt rather cynical at times. I realize that I am not always the most optimistic person, but in this book, especially in the beginning, I felt like Chung’s views on adoption were one-sided, which might may have developed because she had no exposure to people like her. Despite this reasoning, it made the first few chapters difficult to read because I didn’t agree with her frame of mind. Adoption isn’t inherently good or bad, it’s a beautiful mix of both, and with all the negativity surrounding this subject, I think it is important to weigh both sides of the coin.
Altogether, there is a reason this book was nominated for awards such as being a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, was named a Best Book of the Year by the Washington Post, and is one of the most popular memoirs to date. It was groundbreaking in the adoption world, unapologetically outspoken, yet held together by a subdued voice, longing to be heard. Even though there were parts of this book I didn’t agree with, this is a book I would highly recommend to any adoptee who has a desire to learn about their roots.