Nicole Chung | All You Can Ever Know | October 2018 | 14 minutes (3,439 words)

My parents’ story together began in the spring of 1973 when they married and struck out west. She was twenty-one, he was twenty-two, and they’d been dating a matter of months when she told him she was leaving Cleveland, a city she had never much liked, for Seattle — where she had always planned to live, and where her own mother had spent the war years, living with her aunt and her uncle, the Swedish fisherman. My mother had not inherited much from her mother, save her red hair, quick temper, and stubborn attachment to the green beauty of provincial Washington State, so different from the smoke and cement of Cleveland and the small farm community outside it where her family lived. She had been to Seattle, carted along on cross-country road trips in the family station wagon, to visit her great-aunt and great-uncle, and she’d never forgotten the pine-scented air or the snow-tipped mountains wreathed in clouds, the hilly city lapped at its edges by a cold saltwater sound. Now she had gotten into nursing school out there — so, was he coming with her or not?

Though their families charged them with desertion, the move had its appeal: they were each one of five siblings, high in the birth order, and in different but defining ways their parents had been hard on them. More than three hundred people attended their wedding. Back then, it was still a little unusual for a Hungarian boy from one neighborhood to marry a Polish girl from another. There were fisticuffs at the reception, and it was generally agreed that the bride’s relatives both began and ended the fight, but everyone was laughing by the time they farewelled the couple.

They did move out west, but not to Seattle; not yet. A printing company had offered him a job in Ketchikan, Alaska, on Revillagigedo Island in the Alexander Archipelago. She found a job at the local hospital. They rented a basement apartment in a cottage on the edge of the Inside Passage, where they could step outside and watch eagles wheeling over the ruffled water. For a pair of born-and-bred Clevelanders, Ketchikan was almost too quaint to be believed with its fishermen and modest tourist trade, its streets and wooden pilings slick with rain one hundred and forty days out of the year. It was not quite the change she had envisioned, but a chance it still was, to escape Ohio and try on a different life. They liked it there, and felt like pioneers.

Still, when the transfer to Seattle came a few years later, they were ready to live in a city again, eager to meet new people. One Sunday, on a whim, they visited a little white-steepled church set into the hills above the neighborhood where they rented an attic apartment. It was nothing like the large, drafty old churches they’d attended as children in Cleveland; everyone wore jeans. The priest’s gentle Polish accent reminded her of her beloved grandfather, but it was someone else at the parish who commandeered their attention: a short, stout nun with blunt brown bangs peeking out from under her minimal wimple, a far cry from the strict, ruler-wielding sisters of their youth. They told Sister Mary Francis they had little interest in organized religion, let alone the church in which they’d both been raised, but the nun somehow convinced them to return. Soon my mother was leading a Bible-study group and my father was running errands for Sister Mary Francis’s elderly mother. They were back in the fold, with barely a token argument raised in their own defense.

This time, though, they were changed: they believed it all. They asked God to move in their lives. They saw his hand at work — in friends met, in jobs found, in day-to-day life — where they had never looked for him before.

* * *

It was through their new parish that they met Liz: a woman of towering faith, another smile in a sea of friendly faces, but no one they thought would change their lives. Years later, in the summer of 1981, after he had been transferred, one last time, to southern Oregon; after nearly a decade of marriage, half of it spent hoping for children that never came; after they had finally started looking into adoption as a last resort, Liz was the one who called to tell them about a premature baby at the Seattle Children’s Hospital, a girl who’d beaten the odds. A baby girl who needed a family.

They had always planned to have children, though they hadn’t been in a hurry. Kids had always come along in their big Catholic families, sometimes in pairs, often by surprise. But she got pregnant only once and had been carrying a matter of weeks when they found out the fetus had no heartbeat.

They were told that couples facing infertility should grieve the loss of biological children, the hopes raised and disappointed cycle after cycle, before they moved forward with adoption. For them, though, spending years or even months in mourning didn’t feel right. The miscarriage had been devastating, but they had already resigned themselves to the fact that biological children might not be in their future. If adoption was God’s plan for them, she said, she didn’t mind missing out on the experiences of pregnancy and birth. She joked, when she was ready to joke about it, that if someone else did all that work instead, it would be okay with her. They both just wanted a baby. If they were lucky enough to be able to adopt, they would never dwell on things they had been denied.

When Liz called to tell them about the baby in Seattle, it felt as if God was finally smiling down on them. And when their friend added, almost as an afterthought, that the baby was Korean, it could not temper their enthusiasm. They might have to warn their families, particularly their parents. But they had been hoping and praying for a child to adopt, and what was Liz’s call if not the Lord choosing to answer their prayers? What did the child’s color matter, in the end, when they had so much love to give? It would be unseemly, ungrateful to focus on a thing like race in the face of such a gift. It wouldn’t have mattered to us if you were black, white, or purple with polka dots, they would tell their daughter over and over, once she was old enough to understand the story of how she came to them.

Odd as that declaration would sound to me, every time, I would always believe them.

Liz’s mother worked in a doctor’s office, and one of the practitioners had been approached by a colleague, a pediatrician, who asked if he knew of anyone who might be interested in adopting a baby. Liz heard the news from her mother, then went home and prayed before calling her friends in Oregon. She knew they wanted to adopt and had just completed a home study through a Catholic Charities adoption program. The doctor told Liz’s mother that if a couple hired an attorney as opposed to going through an adoption agency, things might move faster.

With Liz’s help, they found a family law attorney in Seattle named Kathy. She agreed to represent them — if they were sure they wanted to proceed with “the Korean child.” Were they? If they were honest with themselves, the child’s rocky start in life was far more worrisome than her ethnicity. They had only just begun the adoption process and had not yet compiled a list of what might be, for them, disqualifying circumstances. They had never made much money. Could they take care of a child who might never live independently? What if she needed round-the-clock care?


So she put a fleece before the Lord. It was an act of faith, a test of what she could not see, but it was also informed by her years of working in hospitals, seeing premature infants in the NICU. The ones who tended to struggle most were the ones who had spent weeks on a ventilator. She told God that if the baby had never been kept alive with the aid of a machine, then she would take it as a sign that it was all right to proceed.

They were told that couples facing infertility should grieve the loss of biological children, the hopes raised and disappointed cycle after cycle, before they moved forward with adoption.

They prayed for guidance. They prayed for God’s will to be done. They knew they could wait, of course, for a child in better health, but it was so much harder to say no to a real possibility. A real baby.

A week later, Liz connected them with a pediatrician at the hospital, who shared the baby’s brief history. She had been born approximately ten weeks short of full term. She still had no hair, just the suggestion of future eyebrows. She was a favorite of the nurses and had been steadily gaining weight, ounce by hard-won ounce. There was no way to predict what her future might hold. But, Liz had been told, the girl had never relied on a ventilator. She came out breathing on her own.

It was the sign they had been waiting for; the sign they needed. They were meant to be this little girl’s parents.

Kathy hadn’t facilitated many adoptions — she would handle only ten or so over the course of her legal career. By coincidence, she had her own slight connection to the birth parents: she had been to the store they owned. Years later, during a chance meeting at that same store, the baby’s mother would recognize Kathy and ask what had happened to her child; if the hopeful adoptive parents had known this would happen, perhaps they would have chosen another lawyer.

Now that they had a real child in their sights, they wanted to move quickly. They didn’t ask many questions about their would-be daughter’s family, even though Kathy knew them. They didn’t want to meet the couple or learn their names. Even talking about them felt like a risk. Their family-to-be, the one they could finally see in their minds, was still little more than a wish — the all-too-fragile arrangement might fall apart if they pushed too hard in any one place.

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So there was never any prolonged discussion about the birth family’s social history, nor was there any discussion about a more open adoption, which would have been highly uncommon at the time. Surely what any child of any color or background needed, most of all, was stability. They had to establish their own relationship with the girl, free from outside interference or fear of legal challenge.

The birth parents didn’t have their own legal representation — perhaps they couldn’t afford it, or perhaps they thought it unnecessary. Kathy talked with them a couple of times, mostly to pass along the adoptive parents’ wishes and make sure all the paperwork was in order. She believed the child’s birth father had been the one to initiate the adoption; the birth mother, she thought, seemed less certain. But both parents agreed and both parents signed, and anyway, they weren’t Kathy’s clients.

All parties agreed to a closed adoption, with no information exchanged and no further contact planned. Boilerplate, the lawyer would later call it. With no outlandish requests on either side, paperwork moved along at an impressive clip. Officially it was deemed a “special-needs adoption,” and no one wanted to force a vulnerable child to spend weeks or months in temporary care. By law, the placement could not be finalized for a full six months, but the adoptive parents could get custody upon the child’s release from the hospital.

When they told their families of their plans, no one tried to talk them out of adopting a Korean baby. Their parents and siblings all knew how much they wanted to be parents. Probably no one dreamed that anyone in the family might harbor opinions or prejudices that would compromise their ability to love the girl. No matter what you might think about Asian people (weird food anchor babies inscrutable robots good at math), it’s different when it’s your Asian daughter or cousin, granddaughter or niece, isn’t it? Many years later, the parents and grandmother would laugh over how one of her cousins managed to reach the age of twelve without realizing the girl wasn’t born into their family. As far as most of the relatives were concerned, the adoption might as well have leached the melanin from the child’s skin and hair, rounded the corners of her eyes, erased her family tree entirely. Those papers made her one of them, no matter where — or whom — she’d come from.

* * *

Three weeks after learning about the child, they drove up to Seattle. Before they could go to the hospital and get their baby, they had to sit through an interview with a King County social worker. Like Kathy before her, the social worker had spoken to the child’s parents and was convinced they really did want to release her for adoption. “I don’t understand it,” she said, with a frankness that surprised the parents a little. “I tried and tried to talk them out of it.”

The social worker didn’t call the birth parents by their names, first or last, when referring to them — “The family name is unpronounceable!” she insisted — and made no effort to hide how confused she was. The birth parents were married; they had a stable, if not enormously profitable family business; they had children at home who had reportedly been looking forward to having a little sister. They’d been shocked by the baby’s premature arrival, true, and like many immigrants and small business owners, they did not carry health insurance. They seemed to believe the doctors’ direst predictions and thought they couldn’t provide a good home for the child. As best as she could with no Korean, no translator, and the birth parents’ self-conscious English — good on the father’s part, in particular, but lacking in legal vocabulary — the social worker had given the birth parents a lengthy explanation of their rights and every opportunity to change their minds. When she tried to tell them about available resources and assistance, they just shook their heads.

“If the birth parents ever try to challenge the adoption or regain custody, I’ll speak for you,” the social worker said. They twitched, nervous at the mere suggestion. “I told them they didn’t have to do this.”

The birth parents had asked if the new parents could cover some of the girl’s medical bills. The requested portion amounted to less than three thousand dollars. Compared to most infant adoptions, it was a real bargain. Eventually, the adoptive mother asked about the child’s race: Was there anything they ought to know, given that she was Korean? Was there anything special they should do for her?

The social worker seemed surprised by the question. She looked at them for a moment, then shook her head. “I’m sure you’ll all be fine.”

They tore their baby out of the arms of a hospital nurse on July 21, then packed her into the car and headed south on I-5. They stopped three times along the way to help her down a bottle of formula, arriving back at their snug ranch house in the cul-de-sac nine hours later.

They thought their daughter was just beautiful, with her dark, dark eyes and bump of a nose. She still had no eyelashes or eyebrows and very little hair on her head. But she already had the chubbiest cheeks. Buddha baby, they called her, laughing. She weighed less than six pounds — still barely newborn-size, at two and a half months old — and fit entirely in one of her father’s hands. She was alert and very serious, but learning how to smile.

She was also noisier than they had expected. She talked and talked and talked, her tone rising and falling in babbles and gurgles that sounded almost conversational. She lasted three days in their room, happily chattering at intervals through the night, before they had to move her crib to another room so they could get some sleep.

Sometimes they could still hear her from her room across the hall, conversing with unseen friends in her own made-up language. Her mother would groan a little, regret over lost sleep being one of the first rites of initiation for any new parent. Her father would joke, “She’s talking to her angels again.”

* * *

No matter how a child joins your family, their presence changes all the rules; they move into your heart and build new rooms, knock down walls you never knew existed. This is why new parents crave reassurance more than anything else: We tell ourselves, and want others to tell us, that we’re going to be wonderful parents. That our children will be happy. That their suffering will be light — or at least, never of a kind we cannot help them through. We have to believe these things, promise ourselves we’ll meet every challenge, or we’d never be brave enough to begin.

No one ever so much as hinted to my parents that adopting across racial and cultural lines might prove a unique challenge, one they needed to prepare for specifically. If they did take a “colorblind” view of our family from its very formation — if they believed my Koreanness was irrelevant within our family, and should be so to everyone else as well — in this they were largely following ideals they were raised with, advice they had been given. Often, when I meet fellow transracial adoptees, we find we can share like experiences: My parents and I almost never talked about race. We didn’t really acknowledge that it mattered. I never called anyone in my family out about their racism. Even now, when there is more awareness, more “celebration” of adopted children’s cultures, many parents are not provided with the guidance or resources they need to bring up children of color in white families, white communities, a white supremacist society. To fault only my white parents for not fully understanding the things they were shielded from — first by professionals and later by me — is to miss the larger point: we were and are representative of so many transracial and transcultural adoptions from that era.

They tore their baby out of the arms of a hospital nurse on July 21, then packed her into the car and headed south on I-5. They stopped three times along the way to help her down a bottle of formula, arriving back at their snug ranch house in the cul-de-sac nine hours later.

* * *

So many times I have tried to imagine that winter day in the King County courthouse — the day my adoption was finalized — a half year after my parents took me from the nursery of the Seattle Children’s Hospital. I picture some middle-aged, balding judge peering down from the bench at my father, still dark-haired with no traces of gray, looking serious for once in his life; my mother with her creamy freckled skin and nervous smile, cradling me in a pink blanket monogrammed with my new name in a flowing script. My parents had spent the past six months learning how to care for me, trying not to heed any lingering fears about my birth parents reversing their decision. Like many new parents, they hoped to do the best they could and expected that would always be sufficient.

I’m told the judge spoke very seriously with them about their decision, the commitment they had made to me and to the state. There was no changing their minds now: they were my real parents, my only parents, under the law. Thrilled to affix an official state seal to what they already knew in their hearts, my parents asked the judge if he had any advice.

I wonder if he was surprised by their question, as the social worker had been, or if it was one he expected, one he’d even heard countless times from white parents of brown and black children. Did he perhaps respond without thinking, already informed by years of experience? Did he offer all such families the same advice? Or did he look closely at my young, eager parents and consider them, specifically, before answering?

“Just assimilate her into your family,” he said, “and everything will be fine. She’s yours now.”

She’s yours. These were the words my parents had hoped to hear ever since they made the decision, years ago, to have a child. They thanked the judge, smiling as they accepted his congratulations. Then they bundled me up against the January chill, walked out of the courthouse, and brought me home.

* * *

Read “I Didn’t Have the Language to Call It Racism”: Victoria Namkung’s Interview with Nicole Chung here.

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From the book All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung. Copyright © 2018 by Nicole Chung. Reprinted by arrangement with Catapult. All rights reserved.