Review: All You Can Ever Know, by Nicole Chung

What will you find when you go searching for your identity?



All You Can Ever Know_Nicole Chung


In her stunning memoir, All You Can Ever Know, Nicole Chung gives a searing, clear-eyed account of the journey to find the truth about her roots and identity. Born to Korean immigrants and given up for adoption at birth, the author was raised in southern Oregon by white parents. Chung gives an examined telling of her experience of growing up as the lone Asian face in her childhood home and hometown, and the resulting rejection and pain which often went unnoticed, brushed over, or misunderstood by those closest to her.


She struggles to accept the loving, neatly tied explanations her adoptive parents give her as a child, and in spite of the best of their love and support, is unable to quench her desire to find the kin she never knew. Shortly after her twenty-fourth birthday, she writes to the county court to request information about her birth family, and this sets events into motion that lead to her eventually meeting her family. Her discoveries about them and the circumstances of her adoption reshape her views of her past, present, and future.


All You Can Ever Know was the first book I read in 2020, one I discovered while going down a google rabbit hole on adoption and blended families. I have been curious about stories on this family dynamic for as long as I can remember because in them are elements of my own.  


When I was seven, I wrote a poorly illustrated tragic story about a wicked step-mother and her step-daughter. My grandmother found it lying around the house and interrogated me for what felt like hours, as my father was months away from remarrying after the death of my birth mother who I barely remembered. The curiosity has not left me decades later, and it was this visceral kinship and empathy about belonging to multiple worlds, being raised by a loving adoptive parent, and still being curious about your birth parent that drew me in to Chung’s quest immediately.


Chung’s memoir is an unflinching, yet compassionate tale of the journey of a transracial adoptee, from the painful experience of being bullied on the playground as a child, to the surreal experience of giving birth to a child of her own. Chung’s is the unwavering voice of one who is determined to speak her truth after many years of self-reflecting silence and being spoken for.


"In most published stories," Chung writes, "adoptees still aren’t the adults, the ones with power or agency or desires that matter – we’re the babies in the orphanage; we’re the kids who don’t quite fit in; we are struggling souls our adoptive families fought for, objects of hope, symbols of tantalizing potential and parental magnanimity and wishes to be fulfilled. We are wanted, found, or saved, but never grown, never entirely our own."


When the moment the author has seemingly waited for her whole life finally comes, she deconstructs the experience piece by piece, showing how the truth is “more complicated, more human, more real" than any childish image she could have carved in her mind over the years. All You Can Ever Know is a memoir meticulously crafted with the finest prose. Chung lyrically recounts the fire of pain, confusion, and guilt, stoked by the irrepressible desire to be fully seen and fully known.


"I know my place in my adoptive family is secure," she writes. "That is not the same thing as always feeling that I belong." If you have ever felt like an outsider in the very circles where everyone else expects you to belong without question, the author's articulation of how it feels to be displaced at your core will be a loud echo to your soul.


What happens when you finally find what you’ve spent your whole life searching for, but it does not look like what you imagined? Who is family? How do we make and mar familial bonds, and how do they shapeshift in unexpected ways?


This memoir causes the reader to ask difficult questions such as these, and it does not offer flippant answers, as Chung writes with a rage and honesty that comes from self-examination. I could not have asked for a better kick-off to the reading year, and my copy of the book is full of blue highlights. Rightfully so.



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Books, Literature, International Adoption, Family, Race