Victoria Namkung | Longreads | October 2018 | 11 minutes (3,020 words)
Since the early 1950s, parents in the United States have adopted more than a half-million children from other countries, with the vast majority of them coming from orphanages in Asia, South America, and, more recently, Africa. South Koreans are the largest group of transracial adoptees in the U.S., and by some estimates, make up 10 percent of the nation’s Korean American population.
Nicole Chung, however, was born prematurely and placed for adoption by her Korean immigrant parents in Seattle, and raised in a sheltered Oregon town five hours outside of Portland. Adopted by religious and loving white parents, she grew up as an only child who always felt a bit out of place. The narrative she was always told — that her biological parents made the ultimate sacrifice to give her a better life — comforted Chung as a child, but as she came of age, experiencing racism and finding her own identity as an Asian American and a writer, she began to question the “prepackaged myth” of her adoption. After getting married and becoming pregnant with her first child, a daughter, she went in search of her lost roots.
All You Can Ever Know, her memoir of this search, confronts the ways in which traditional adoption narratives rarely tell the whole story and shows how idealistic and well-intentioned white adoptive parents are often wildly unprepared for raising children of color in a society that is nowhere near the post-racial future of many Americans’ imaginations. She writes: “It feels like my duty as my white family’s de facto Asian ambassador to remind them that I am not white, that we do experience this country in different ways because of it, that many people still know oppression far more insidious and harmful than anything I’ve ever faced. Every time I do this, I am breaking the sacred pact of our family, our once-shared belief that my race is irrelevant in the presence of their love.”
All You Can Ever Know is thoughtful, moving, and empathetic, asking timely questions about identity and belonging in America. An expansive story, told in graceful prose, it shines a light on the complexities of transracial adoption and what happens once a child, who looks completely different from their parents, is forced to reckon with the world outside of their own home.
Chung, the editor-in-chief of Catapult magazine, and the former managing editor of The Toast, has written for The New York Times, Shondaland, GQ, and Hazlitt, among other publications. Gary Shteyngart recently told Vulture she “rules Twitter,” which is where I first encountered her work and passion for uplifting other marginalized voices, and her humorous quips on books, pop culture, and life as a busy editor, writer, and mother.
We recently spoke by phone, from opposite sides of the country, to discuss the process of writing a memoir, how “colorblind” attitudes toward race can cause unintentional damage, motherhood, finding community away from home, and how the conversations around transracial adoption have changed over the years.
[Read an excerpt of Nicole Chung’s memoir, All You Can Ever Know, here.]
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Victoria Namkung: You have written personal essays about your adoption in the past. How did a full-blown memoir come about?
Nicole Chung: This is a story I’ve been telling in one form or another since childhood. In terms of the memoir taking shape, it wasn’t really until a few years ago when the idea of writing a book occurred to me. Once I started publishing some personal essays and saw the curiosity people had, I realized how underrepresented the adoptee perspective is in adoption stories. Ultimately, I think I just felt like I couldn’t address everything I wanted to in a handful of 2,000-word essays. It’s a very complicated topic affecting multiple generations and families with lots of issues of race and identity and belonging coming together. I started thinking, Okay maybe this is a book with an arc and some kind of resolution even though this story is ongoing.
I’d been led to believe racism was something in the past. Even teachers at school presented racism as a thing we had conquered. It was very well intentioned and wrong.
Some parts of the book read like a novel, full of suspense and tension, and other parts felt like journalism. How did you approach the writing and structure and recollection of so many memories?
I was enormously helped by the fact that I’ve kept a daily journal for most of my life. At the time I was searching for my birth parents, and expecting my first child, I was journaling faithfully every day. I wrote specific details about the search because I wanted to share them with my daughter; I was writing for her. I wasn’t thinking about publication or sharing beyond my family.
When I sat down to write the book, I had full conversations, letters, emails, and things I had copied right into my journal. Every memoir has guesswork because you don’t have everything. A lot of it was drafting and then checking the facts with family afterwards.
What is it like to investigate your own life as an author?
A memoir is such an intimate manner of storytelling and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t daunting, before and during. All along I’ve had to give myself little pep talks. I don’t mean to sound naïve; I’ve published personal essays and knew what I was doing when I pitched this book. It is of course hyper-focused on this one area of my life — it’s not my full life story. I always knew I wanted it to be focus on growing up adopted, transracial adoption, and the meaning of family and what it means to try and uncover these buried secrets — and also what it was like doing this while I was becoming a parent myself.
I wanted to add to the canon of adoption stories that we currently have. I think we do need many more books by adopted writers and adoptees of color and books by Asian American women. I didn’t write this book to check off boxes or fill quotas, hopefully it will be helpful to people, but I do think about how underrepresented people like me are.
My best friend growing up was a transracial adoptee from Korea and every Korean adoptee I’ve met in my lifetime was also originally from Korea, but your birth parents lived locally in the Pacific Northwest when you were born. Does that impact the way you relate to Korean American adoptees?
We certainly have some real overlap in terms of growing up in white families or communities. I certainly feel a lot of common ground. I try to be careful to really point out the differences in my story because I don’t want to speak for Korean-born adoptees. We have different types of adoptions and stories. If we search for our birth parents it’s a different process.
I do feel a kinship with other Korean adoptees regardless of our birthplace. There’s a lot in our experiences we can relate to. One of my events, at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, is co-sponsored by the New York adoption agencies, Also-Known-As and the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network, so I’m looking forward to meeting other adoptees on the road.
Your adoptive parents, and the system at the time, ignored your race and heritage, opting for a “colorblind” approach to your adoption, yet at school, that difference was mercilessly pointed out to you on a near-daily basis. How did that dichotomy affect you?
One of the reasons I wrote this book, certainly not the only one, was to grapple with that. My adoptive parents were well intentioned and wanted to do right by me. They relied on what they were told by quote-unquote experts. The prevailing wisdom at the time was, and still is in some ways, “the race of the child doesn’t matter,” and it didn’t matter, because their love is colorblind, but no one truly is colorblind universally. Out in the world my race was going to matter to me and to others, so it was honestly difficult because I was young when these differences were pointed out to me in cruel ways.
I didn’t have the background and the language to call it racism. I’d been led to believe racism was something in the past. Even teachers at school presented racism as a thing we had conquered. It was very well intentioned and wrong. I don’t think I gained perspective on that until I moved away from home and lived in pretty diverse areas on the East Coast.
It’s so weird when I go back home because it is so very white. It doesn’t feel comfortable anymore. I spent 18 years in that town without becoming close with another Korean American person. It took until I experienced some distance, emotional and physical.
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After being the lone Korean face in an all-white community growing up, what did it feel like to then go away to a college that was one-quarter Asian, and be among other Asian Americans for the first time?
It was novel and wonderful and then I quickly didn’t think about it all the time. I got used to being in a room and not being the only one and I got used to not being stared at. I got used to not feeling like I had to defend my presence. People stopped complimenting me on my English. I had white friends too, but now I had large numbers of Asian people and other people of color as friends. I felt much more at home in college than in my hometown.
The book has so much to say about motherhood and the experience of being a daughter and having your own. How do you think your adoption story would differ if you hadn’t become a mother yourself?
I think I still would have grappled with the things I didn’t know. I think I would have eventually searched for my birth family because I’d already been thinking about it and done the research, but my pregnancy was the push and made it feel urgent. Because I have children, and my sister has a child and we’re raising the next generation in this family, we’re really seeing how our families, where they were separated and where they intersected again, is affecting our kids. They’re old enough to ask questions and hear the details.
My oldest daughter, who is ten-and-a-half, has many more questions than she used to, about her own identity and who she is and how she thinks of herself. More and more, I’m realizing adoption does have these far-reaching effects, not just in the life of an adoptee or birth or adoptive parents. It carries forward to the next generation. My children are Korean American, but it’s just different because I grew up culturally disconnected. There is that extra layer of removal for them as well.
They’ve always known family is this complicated thing and not always about the family you’re born into. They knew I didn’t look like my parents and about different family configurations younger than a lot of other kids. There are effects of adoption I wouldn’t have seen first hand if I didn’t have children. Who knows if I would have started writing about it? The fact I have those journals to go to was because of my eldest daughter.
Even though it wasn’t the whole truth, I was so comforted and so attached to this origin story I was given. I remember how difficult it was to start challenging that.
At its heart, All You Can Ever Know felt like a love story between you and your biological sister, Cindy, who the book is dedicated to. We learn deeply personal things about her that most non-memoirists wouldn’t want strangers to know about. How did you approach telling her story alongside your own?
I let everybody, not just Cindy, know when I was writing and working on the book. The first person I sent it to was Cindy. We had already talked and I asked, “Is it really okay if I write about this?” I definitely wanted her honest feedback on the draft to see if there was anything she wanted to change to take out.
Some people in the book changed their name, but Cindy didn’t. She pretty much had veto power. I was sort of annoying and asked her many times. I felt like I couldn’t write the story without her. She’s so important to me, and what I discovered. She’s the reason I have a lot of the information I have. And I wanted to honor her as a person and honor her story.
I feel very very lucky that she did let me and was excited about the fact I was writing it. She’s the hero of the book. It was just so important to me that she was okay with it.
How has adoption, and specifically conversations around transracial adoption, changed or expanded since your own?
For the first several years of my life I wasn’t sure what they were like, but I do know what my adoptive parents were told, which was “race doesn’t matter and you don’t need to do anything special.” I think that’s less common now. I hear more these days about acknowledging and a celebrating a child’s birth culture or culture of origin. There are more culture camps and adoptive parents who enjoy incorporating aspects of birth culture into family life.
I think it’s still very challenging for white parents to talk to children of color about race. It’s less fun to do than celebrating a child’s culture. I know as a parent how hard it is to have these challenging conversations about race, but you really have to. I don’t think white adoptive parents are alone in this. We know from studies a lot of white parents don’t talk to their kids about race and a lot of parents of children of color do because it’s a matter of preparation and survival.
Acknowledging their reality, or what will be their reality, is really important. I know so many adoptive parents who are having these hard conversations. It feels weird to applaud them; it’s what they should be doing. There’s still a long way to go.
I related to the story you tell early in the memoir about the couple who wanted to adopt a child from another country and wanted your advice or blessing, because I’ve had interracial couples ask me how to raise their mixed kids and it feels like a lot of pressure to speak for such a diverse group of people. What advice would you share with that couple today?
The way I had been raised to think about what was expected of me as an adoptive person was that I had to seem happy and grateful and well adjusted. At that point, I was young and hadn’t laid down that burden. These days, I’ve changed. I don’t think of adoption in these stark terms anymore. I don’t think about adoption it as good or bad, at least unequivocally. It can be a positive thing for a lot of kids and it’s also complicated.
When I talk to adoptive parents today, I say the important thing is to go in with as realistic view as you can, and be willing and eager to do the hard work of looking at your family’s social circle, neighborhood, schools, and religious organizations and think of a child of color in that environment. Would they feel comfortable? Would they be the only one? We live in a white supremacist society, we just do. Since that hasn’t changed, how can you be their strongest, best allies? Is that work you’re willing, and eager, to do? If the answer’s no, you probably need to think some more.
I don’t feel qualified to give advice. There’s a reason I don’t write a parenting advice column. I think these are general big things people should think about. [Transracial adoption] is not for everybody and that’s okay.
I read Catapult’s excellent Adoption series. Why do you think so many adoptees are such gifted storytellers?
I think in my case it’s because I’ve been telling this origin story in one form or another my whole life. Even though it wasn’t the whole truth, I was so comforted and so attached to this origin story I was given. I remember how difficult it was to start challenging that in my own head and reconsidering my own adoption story. It was empowering and also scary. I can’t speak for all adoptees or all adoptees who write, but for me, I think it was a natural inclination and really understanding that narrative is fluid and it changes in ways you don’t expect, so you have to be able to follow that story wherever it leads. It was really that that led me to search.
The story I had was never enough and I’ve just been telling it ever since, mostly within my family and to my kids, and now it’s changing with this book about to be out there. Even if I hadn’t written this book, I found a lot of value and power in reclaiming this narrative.
You’re a prolific tweeter with a large platform. What do you love about Twitter because I’m pretty sure I can guess what you hate about it?
I have such mixed feelings about Twitter. It’s been very good to me, and I’ve gotten to know great writers and editors. Before Catapult, I was at The Toast. I don’t think I would have gotten the job at The Toast without Twitter, because Daniel Ortberg and I followed each other and that was where I got to know Nicole Cliffe and interact with Toasties, so I’m very grateful. It’s gotten me assignments and allows me to have a career.
A writer like me, who’s not in New York — and I don’t have a MFA — I am a writer who exists outside the establishment structure. Without Twitter, I don’t know if I would have had a career. I stay there, ultimately, because I’m an editor publishing writers. If I’m going to bring attention to new voices, I’d feel really guilty if I didn’t share their work. It can be a terrible toxic place for users and I do step back and take little breaks. Overall, it’s been an enormous career boost and a source of community so for now I’m not going anywhere, but I’d be lying if I said I never thought about leaving.
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Victoria Namkung is the author of These Violent Delights and The Things We Tell Ourselves. Her journalism and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, VICE, and Washington Post, among other publications.
Editor: Dana Snitzky