Book review: All You Can Ever Know, by N. Chung

For a number of reasons, I looked forward to Nicole Chung’s new memoir, All You Can Ever Know, about growing up as a transracial adoptee in an all-white US town. The book did not disappoint, a beautifully written and highly moving account. (Chung does not name the town, just stating it is in southern Oregon, and she has taken on her birth surname, all apparently to keep privacy for her and her family.)

Chung was born to Korean immigrants in Seattle, then adopted by a white couple at two and a half months. Born severely premature, she still weighed less than six pounds at the time. She writes of being raised by loving parents who did not fully realize the taunts, cruel jokes and above all, isolation, that an Asian kid might suffer in an all-white setting. She had no real school friends until high school. Meanwhile, though likewise being devoted to her parents, she developed an intense desire to connect with her birth family, a yearning that she kept largely to herself. Much later, when she is pregnant with her first child, she starts that process of connection, ultimately with mixed results.

Chung’s account, though apparently fully open, brings to mind questions not raised in the book. I have the impression that Chung’s angst was due much more to her semi-pariah status in school than to her being adopted. Suppose her parents had lived in a more cosmopolitan locale, such as Seattle with its large Asian population, so that Chung would have little or no problem “fitting in” at school. I surmise that her interest in connecting with her birth family might then have been only mild. She writes about being shocked whenever other adoptees have expressed to her such moderate views regarding their birth parents.

I can empathize. Growing up as a Jewish kid in East LA and the San Gabriel Valley, there were various anti-Semitic remarks. Kids can be mean. I must say that my wife and I, visiting Eugene, Oregon this past August, were startled by the stark “whiteness” of the city. Presumably Chung’s hometown was smaller than Eugene, and even whiter and less tolerant, back in the 1980s when she was growing up. Maybe her town is less white today, at least due to a Latino presence.

As we all must, Chung eventually learns the validity of the old adage, “The grass is [misleadingly] greener on the other side of the fence.” Though she develops a precious, close relationship with a birth sister, her search for roots also leads to profound disappointment.

In addition to her unhappiness at school, the fact that Chung spent the first months of life in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, devoid of parental touch and nurture, must also have taken a heavy toll. Yet in spite of all the angst, she comes across as a very “together” person, very self-confident and upbeat, in fact more so than her birth sister.

Oddly, as a non-adoptee, I have very little interest in my own roots. I met only one of my four grandparents, and know very little about them. Further back than them, I know absolutely nothing. When I mentioned this recently to a friend, he asked in an emphatic tone, “Why?!” I’d never been asked that before, and had no real answer.

Bottom line: Chung’s book is a powerful read, a courageous laying bare of her psyche. Adoptees and adoptive parents should find it especially moving, but it is a compelling work for any reader interested in race, parenting and so on.



14 thoughts on “Book review: All You Can Ever Know, by N. Chung

  1. I’m a white guy who grew up in the 1980s within an almost all-white town with just two immigrant families, one Chinese and the other Japanese, each with multiple siblings. Both families made friends at an early age and I never heard of any problems they had. Each grade was more than 200 students, who lived in close proximity in a suburb. Thus, there were many opportunities to meet people.

    In fact, I was good friends with one them through high school, spending all our summers together, often staying over at each other’s houses. Also, I had a friendly rapport with a member of the other family too, as we shared interests in sports and music. They never mentioned any racial slurs nor did I hear of any.

    Of course, when kids want to verbally offend, they will try to spot what’s different and focus on it. As a result, many people have some bad childhood experiences, even if their race is in the majority.

    Her struggle may have been mostly due to the transracial adoption, being of a sensitive disposition, and the community being too small. However, certainly, a more diverse area would have helped.


      • You’re welcome! Thanks for the book review.

        One more thing I wanted to add, was that you get a lot more exposure to your Asian heritage if you are raised by your biological parents:
        1) Asian siblings
        2) Asian relatives that come into town from time to time, sometimes from great distances
        3) Asian friends of your parents from nearby communities that visit

        My Asian, immigrant friends had all those advantages, in addition to having their biological parents.


        • For a while, maybe still now, there was an African-American movement against white couples adopting black babies, on the grounds that the latter’s culture is stolen from them. Chung also makes comments along those lines in her book, though in much milder form. Personally, I’ve just never seen it that way; a child’s culture comes from her parents, friends and so on.


  2. Yes, I agree that culture comes from those who are closest, and then extending to the community at large. I’m not sure what it means to have culture stolen. Perhaps, some people believe that being immersed in the culture most connected with one’s ethnic heritage would result in better outcomes, assuming there would be more agreement with natural, inborn tendencies. Yet, we see everywhere people thriving in the U.S., even though they have a long heritage from another continent. My immigrant friend was raised totally in the U.S. and is thoroughly American and well-adjusted.

    So, perhaps, the exposure to Asian culture is not the main benefit of being raised by biological parents, but rather just having the exposure to people with a shared physiognomy as well as shared experiences with any kind or resulting prejudice. Sometimes, feelng extra normal is more desirable than feeling extraordinary, especially for kids who are trying to fit in.


  3. I grew up in a foreign country (brown guy here) and attended an International School which has kids from all diverse backgrounds. Not surprisingly, every kid regardless of skin color was discriminatory (not racist) against someone else based on their background. After immigrating here to the United States, I have a general understanding of my culture, can speak my mother tongue, and enjoy my culture’s food, but I have abandoned my religion of Islam and become an atheist, believe in liberal policies, and believe in more of the American culture than what I was raised in. I have no real desire to find people who come from my background or culture. I just believe in being an American, and being able to assimilate. I have though experienced an interesting phenomena. In areas of the United States which are heavily left leaning liberal (I live in the SF Bay Area), I have found trouble dating so-called American “liberal” women. They scream for diversity, but yet, I have found they wouldn’t even date a non-white individual, and stick to mostly their “white people crowd”. What’s funny is that even the Asian women that have been born and raised in America, have shown a preference of dating and marrying White men. I think Okcupid, the online dating website, did a mathematical study and also found this to be the case.

    You’re right about Eugene, OR. It’s apparently a liberal town, but boy, it sure is so White.


    • I’m sure your experience with the white liberal women not wanting to date nonwhites is very common. There are some exceptions, of course, so don’t give up. 🙂


  4. Sorry to hear about Nicole’s experiences. Too bad that a mom in her area didn’t pick up on this. In my childhood, the neighborhood moms knew about all the other families and their situations. Wish that one of the moms had said, “Hey Susie, let invite over your classmate Nicole. She seems like such a nice young girl.”

    As far as Oregon, I’ve been in the Salem area for over 2 1/2 years. Doubt that would happen now in Eugene. Being a university town and with all the SJW influence, I think the people are much more open to minority neighbors but I’m not an Eugene expert.

    Want to give a shout out to a true Oregonian diversity hero, my friends’ mom, Mrs. Jan Hunt, RIP. Knew her growing up in South Sacramento but she had Oregon roots. When she was attending one of the Oregon colleges or universities in the 1950s she saw a Thai woman crying in the main quad. She sat down and talked to her and found out through her broken English that she was the only Thai enrolled, had no friends and felt all alone. Mrs. Hunt not only befriended her but started a college group to help immigrant students feel welcome and assist them with their various issues and challenges. She continued assisting immigrants in our South Sac neighborhood. During the 1970s, through her church she befriended and assisted many Vietnamese refugees.

    At my work there are many ex-Californians. Their voting patterns are causing consternation for the moderate and conservative native Oregonians. Both here, and in other western states, the natives complain that these newcomers want to make their states into a progressive nightmare like the one they left in California. Also, the subset of conservatives ex-Californians I talk with, note the hypocrisy of these people. They claim to be for diversity but leave for overwhelming white areas like Oregon.

    On that note, here’s a LA Times story on progressive parents:

    But to be honest, among us conservatives, one common reason for leaving California for largely white Oregon was the ever-increasing violence largely due to minority gangs. But its not a question of race but more of culture. Until a southern border wall is built I think the middle class exodus will continue on both sides of the aisle.


    • Thanks for your insights. A librarian once told me that all memoir writers embellish the truth. I have the impression that Chung’s childhood was not quite so bleak as what is described in her book. She says she had no school friends until high school; why the qualifier, “school”? Given that her family was very active in their church, I guess she had friends from that source. However,embellished or not, I certainly believe that Chung was substantially isolated as a child.


  5. “Growing up as a Jewish …..”

    I have been accused of being Jewish many times. I am Catholic. The last time it happened was in June at a grocery store. In 2014 I was helping someone with computer issues at the local computer club. The person asked if I was Jewish. I said “no” and the person said I looked Jewish. The scariest time occurred in 2013 at a busy bus stop in downtown Houston. An apparently homeless African-American called me a Jew and starting ranting negative stuff about Jews.


  6. I didn’t read Chung’s book but can relate to being adopted. Adoptees are the most discriminated against group in the country, regardless of race. If you are adopted you are legally denied access to your ethnicity, biological relatives, and the most basic information on your origins. It needs to change.

    As a white Latina, I have been discriminated against for being a woman, a Latina, too white too be a Latina, too short, too fat, and my absolute favorite “geographically undesirable” for living in the suburbs. There’s always a reason for someone not to like you, if they need one.


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