Named a Best Book of the Year by The Washington Post, NPR, Time, The Boston Globe, Real Simple, Buzzfeed, Jezebel, Bustle, Library Journal, Chicago Public Library and more…
In her 2018 memoir “All You Can Ever Know”, Asian transracial adoptee Nicole Chung digs into issues of race, identity, and motherhood through the lens of adoption. Nicole was adopted through a closed, domestic adoption and was always told “Your birth parents were very sad they couldn’t keep you, but they thought adoption was the best thing for you”. Her adoptive family shared this positive narrative about her birth parents, but had no interest in an open adoption relationship with them. They had some insecurities about the birth parents’ roles in Nicole’s adoption story, making it uncomfortable for Nicole to ask in-depth questions.
Perhaps as a sign of the times, Nicole’s white parents took a colorblind approach to their life as a transracial family and rarely spoke about their difference. Of her race, her parents would say “It wouldn’t have mattered to us if you were black, white, or purple with polka dots”. Because of her parents’ silence about race, Nicole did not feel comfortable enough to share with them the racial slurs she heard on the playground, or the feelings of difference she felt in her school, community, and family. Nicole often felt out of place in her adoptive family but also disconnected from her Asian peers.
Almost all adoptees have some curiosity about their biological roots; transracial adoptees without mirrors in their communities may feel this even more strongly. Having a secure attachment in their adoptive families does not reduce this curiosity. Seeing their adoptive parents’ insecurity about their birth parents can cause some adoptees to choose not to search, or to search in secrecy.
Nicole describes her curiosity about her biological family throughout her childhood and adolescence. Her racial difference and lack of mirrors in her community makes her especially interested in learning about her Korean heritage through a connection with her biological family and their culture. Nicole understands that she must tread lightly with her parents on the topic, and when she does address it, realizes they don’t know much, and don’t want to discuss it.
While still in high school, Nicole attempts to get more information from the attorney who handled her adoption. When this attempt is relatively unsuccessful, she puts it to the back of her mind until after college when she begins her pursuit again by requesting non-identifying information about her biological family through the court. With each baby step, it seems Nicole hopes she will feel satisfied, but instead finds she has only whetted her appetite for more information.
It isn’t until Nicole is pregnant with her first child that she realizes how important her desire is to have more information about her biological family. She knows nothing of her birth mother’s pregnancy or her early delivery – things that feel monumental now that she is pregnant herself. It begins to hit her that she has little information about her biological family’s history to share with her future child. She also begins to feel a different connection with her biological mother during pregnancy as she realizes the strong bonds built during that time, stating:
“I was going to be a mother. Someone would depend on me. Our relationship would last for the rest of my life; though it had yet to begin, I could not imagine it ending. Yet that was exactly what had happened to the bond between me and my first mother: it had been broken. We had both survived it, learned to live apart, and while I knew this – had known it for as long as I could remember – it had never struck me as unnatural until I heard my own child’s heartbeat.”
All of these realizations during her pregnancy push Nicole to actively search for her birth family. Due to the laws in the state of Washington, she must do so through an intermediary who will help mediate the communication between the parties. The discoveries Nicole makes through this process are at once beautiful and challenging, enlightening and difficult. Nicole navigates the unknown territory of building new relationships with biological relatives and shares thoughtful insights along the way.
Nicole is generous in sharing her journey and its impact on her relationship with her adoptive family, her own motherhood, and her identity. She shares this passage near the end of the book:
“Reunion has done more than restore relationships that had once been beyond my ability to fully imagine; it has enabled a shift in existing ones. It has forced my adoptive parents to think about my birth parents not as poor, pitiable immigrants or people who might steal me away, but real people with their own feelings, fears, and failings. It’s forced them to think about how I must have felt when I lost not only my first family, but all knowledge of my roots.”
This book is a must-read for prospective adoptive parents, especially those considering transracial adoption and openness. We can learn a lot from the way that other have done things well and the ways they could have improved, and we can always benefit from listening to the voices of adult adoptees.