Nicole Chung on the Complexities, and Joys, of Transracial Adoption
The author of ‘All You Can Ever Know’ on learning where she fits with her birth family, her adoptive family, and her own children
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
I’m always thrilled, slightly stunned and entirely heartened when I discover a magnificently talented writer who is also an adoptee. It’s a tricky narrative to weave without coming across as resentful or righteous or ungrateful, largely because there’s so little out there written about the adoption experience that goes beyond “adoption speak” — saying things the right way for fragile hearts and severed bonds, newly orchestrated connective tissue and hopes to just be a family.
I first came across Nicole Chung’s work through her personal essays on the now defunct The Toast, and later other publications like BuzzFeed and Catapult, where she is now Editor-in-Chief. I connected with variations of shared experiences, but was blown away by her prose.
Now, with her first book, All You Can Ever Know, Nicole has done something really remarkable. She has written a beautiful memoir that is also an adoption story, and an adoption story that is also a beautiful memoir.
Rebecca Carroll: We’ve known each other some through social media and the adoption experience, but reading this book was just, I mean, especially since I just sold my own book that will deal with my own adoption — it was a lot.
Nicole Chung: Yes. Congratulations. That’s just so great!
RC: Thank you. It was really so interesting to see how you got into your story — just how different the lens is depending on who is telling the story. Early on in the book, maybe even on the second page, you wrote: “To my family’s credit, my adoption was never kept secret from me.” It stopped me in my tracks, really, because I wondered why you thought they deserved credit for that.
NC: That’s a good question. I didn’t mean it was saintly behavior, or something. I have encountered so many adoptees, especially from older generations, who were never told or were told so late in life. So I suppose in that sense, that’s what I meant. I was glad it was never a secret, always very much — open is probably putting it too strongly — but just the fact that I was adopted was never hidden from me. I guess, nor could it have been, but [my parents] certainly spoke about it without embarrassment, without shame. That was how I learned to think about it too. But, yeah, I can see why that would be jarring to read.
RC: Yes, but also because the default is that there would be something to keep secret. I have also met tons of adoptees who are white and were adopted by white parents to blend in, specifically.
NC: That’s absolutely true.
RC: There were parents who felt a kind of shame that they couldn’t have biological children, and so their adopted kids weren’t told in order to assume the semblance of a nuclear, biological family.
I still feel like we’re not talking about adoption in a way that makes adoption a viable family option — it’s still a thing that really has to be talked about in a thorough way.
NC: I think it’s always relevant and important to talk about adoption — I always just felt really deeply for adoptees I’ve met who were able to blend in with their adoptive families and who weren’t told. Often, they would find out from someone else. They wouldn’t even find out from their parents every time. Sometimes they would find out by accident, from a neighbor, or another relative, or a friend. Somehow this other person had this piece of information they didn’t have about their own history, which just seems so terrible. I can’t imagine what that would be like.
RC: Such a sacred, personal piece of information.
NC: Yeah, I think it’s a tough line to walk between adoption being something that’s extremely common, so we should have ways to talk about it. At the same time, you don’t want to minimize its importance, right, in the life of a family because it is a big thing. It doesn’t just end with placement, as you know so well. I think, like you said, we are still learning how to talk about it and how to adjust those nuances and those complications, which not everybody is going to be familiar with. Not everybody will know how to talk about.
RC: Right. And you wrote about how you have this scripted sense of your adoption. Your parents told you the story, and you knew what role you played in it, and your parents said that your birth parents had made the best decision. And I wonder at what point, if at any point, did you think: “Well, wait a minute.” Because I hear a lot of adoptees say that their adopted parents told them that too, but who is ever making a best decision when a child is given away by her birth mother?
NC: Yeah. That word “best” is so fraught, and also the word “better” — I think what I heard over and over too, and this wasn’t necessarily even from my parents, this was from people who were looking at my family from the outside and saying: “You must have this objectively better life because you were adopted by this family, this white family.” I have people come up and just say to me, “If you’d been raised in a Korean family, you know they don’t value girls so your life would have been so much harder.” It’s amazing to me the things that people felt comfortable saying. I’m sure you’ve got a really long list, as well.
RC: I do. And it grows in real time. Do you remember when you first started really thinking about adoption as something that involved people making choices around you with a particular set of consequences?
NC: I think it did take me until, gosh, probably my late teens, early 20s, to really start questioning and interrogating — what does that mean, best choice or better life? Better than what? That better than what question just kind of started haunting me when I was in my mid 20s really.
RC: Who gets to decide?
NC: Right. I mean, I think that’s just the big question. I understand why my adoptive parents had to believe it was the best decision possible. They wanted a family so badly, they wanted a child so badly. My parents were very religious so they fall in this, not just happenstance, but divine planning. It was just extremely hard, I think, for them to see the adoption as anything but a blessing and the best possible thing that could have happened.
RC: Divine planning for your adoptive parents, but what about your birth parents? Also divine?
NC: I am, frankly, embarrassed that I didn’t really start really thinking about how my birth parents must have felt or what they must have gone through until my 20s. They had never really been presented to me as concrete people, individuals in their own right. I had just been brought up to not to really think about them and their perspective. It didn’t occur to me until much later that they might have been deeply sad, or that something might have happened that shouldn’t have happened, and that was why they placed me for adoption.
RC: When you started thinking about it though, did you feel any kind of resentment toward your parents that you hadn’t been raised to be more curious about them? Or, did you not struggle with that?
NC: I think I did struggle with that a little. It definitely wasn’t all at once. It wasn’t just one moment where a light switched on and suddenly I could see all of these nuances and shades of gray I couldn’t see before and was resentful that they hadn’t been brought to my attention. It wasn’t quite that stark. But, I write in the book — and I don’t wanna give tons away — but I write in the book about how my birth parents, my birth mother, actually tried to contact me when I was very young. That was hidden from me. It was obscured and I didn’t find out until many years later, too late to follow up on it, too late to do anything about it.
RC: And you thought what?
NC: I remember finding out about her attempt to contact me. I don’t know, it was the first time I had really tried to put myself in her shoes and think about the adoption, purely from her perspective. I don’t know. The fact that it was hidden from me was deeply painful. I don’t even know if resentment was the right term, but it was very painful to me to know that she had made this effort, this overture, and was turned away without even really an explanation.
RC: Because our adopted parents are sort of the keepers of everyone’s feelings, and the feelings they want to protect the most are ours.
NC: That was hard and I wondered, were there other attempts that I didn’t know about? There must have been something going on, something that made her think about me at that time and try to reach out. This is not to portray my birth mother as a saint, which she’s not, but it was definitely this notion of, not only had I not seen the full complicated narrative for what it clearly was, no one had ever really tried to help me see it that way. That is something that I wish we had talked more about as a family when I was growing up. Just making room for what my birth parents lives and experiences really must have been like. Of course, it would have been guess work. We didn’t know them. We couldn’t have really gotten firm answers, but it was always just portrayed to me as we’re your family, this is your family. Whatever happened before, it’s not that it doesn’t matter, but, really, we know everything we could know, let’s move forward. It was enough for them, but, ultimately, it wasn’t enough for me.
RC: Right. You also wrote that you’ve never met an adoptee who blamed their birth parents for their decision. You can go ahead and count me as your first.
NC: Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean …
RC: No, no, not at all. I spent the better part of 15 years after our reunion trying to please my birth mother and trying to be what would have made her keep me, to the point where I willfully stunted my own growth while she watched me writhe in the pain of doing that. This is only to say that I agree with you that birth parents are not saints, and yet I wonder why, do you think, adoptees so often see them as being above contempt?
NC: I think I can say, for myself, I was the kind of kid who was more inclined to look inward — the problem must be me, it must have been something about me, right? I think that’s just my personality and a lot of adoptees I’ve spoken to also felt like it was somehow wrong for us to try to assign blame to our birth parents. I think, especially as I started thinking more about their perspective and why they might have given me up, I really empathized a great deal more with them. It made me even less willing to blame them for the decision. Even knowing who they are now, and knowing they’re complicated, imperfect people, I definitely can see the hard spot they were in. I don’t think it’s a choice I would have made in their position. It still did not feel like something I can blame them for.
RC: I don’t mean to say that I sit around all the time blaming my birth mother for everything. It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I really started to understand who she was, and what her own really difficult history and backstory was, that I realized her decision to give me up was deeply convoluted. I guess blame is a very loaded word.
NC: It’s a fraught word, for sure.
RC: You said earlier that your parents wanted you so much that you were a gift from God, that you belonged to them. I just wonder, as a kid, when you first started thinking about adoption, and your birth parents, and being Korean, and what that meant, did the idea of belonging to your adoptive parents feel weird to you, or restrictive? I remember when I first found out that I was going to meet my birth mother, several members of my extended family, aunts, uncles, and so forth, said, “Remember who you belong to. Remember you’re ours.” I was 11 so it wasn’t like I had any kind of super intellectual idea of what that meant, but it did feel weird. Like, “I’m not yours. I don’t belong to you.”
NC: My adoptive mother said something similar to me when I started searching. She told me, “Remember who your real family is.” I didn’t really wanna argue with her about it on the phone. There was a lot going on. I was really pregnant. There was a lot at stake. It took me such a long time to work up my courage to take this step, I didn’t actually want to have a big argument, not just with her, but with anybody about it. I was like, “My mind’s made up. I’m moving forward. This is something I have to do so I’m not gonna sit here and justify it.” I just shrugged off that remark at the time, but I did keep thinking about it later. I definitely understand why my adopted parents thought, still think, of me as theirs. I think it’s very difficult, as a parent, to not think about your children, I guess, as yours. That said, I’m a parent. I don’t feel my children belong to me right now and forever, and ever. And then …
RC: Right. Because you have a biological child, I have a biological child —
NC: I have two.
RC: You have two. My son is of me, right, but he doesn’t belong to me in the sense that it felt these family members were saying to me. “We got you, picked you, you have been gotten by us.”
NC: It felt defensive.
NC: I don’t wanna speak for your relatives, but I think, first of all, part of it was coming from a place of love. I think they wanted me to always know that they did think of me as their child. I wasn’t their Korean child, or their adopted child, or a child with qualifications. I was their child, as if I’d been born to them.
RC: But you weren’t.
NC: Yeah, but I think they worried that I would feel less loved if they didn’t try to reassure me of that — that I was loved and I was wanted. Part of it, honestly, was—it’s not that they were on the defensive, in the way I sometimes had to be as an Asian American in a white family, in a pretty white town. I got questions. I got micro-aggressions. I had experiences they didn’t have. But I know they had seen enough, and heard enough, they’d gotten enough questions themselves, to maybe feel a little bit defensive about it. I don’t know. This is actually a guess on my part. They knew when people looked at us, they knew I was adopted. They knew I wasn’t born to them. They knew that, in some way, our family was different than a lot of other families. I would not surprised if there was a touch of defensiveness, or maybe even something less strong than that, maybe just wanting to ward off those questions, those external intrusiveness, and just assert to everybody, to the world, and to me, “We’re a family. This is who we are. It’s not a big deal.”
RC: But, do you feel like there was a point where they began to defer to you, and your choice, and how you wanted to go about this search, or not?
NC: First of all, by the time I started to search, I was in my late 20s and I had been living away from home and making decisions independently for many years. To some degree, they would have had to just live with it regardless. Right? But also I think they accepted my reasons. I think they knew it was especially important to me because I was expecting my first child, and there was just all of these practical reasons, too. I really wanted to know more about my medical history and, maybe if I could, understand why my birth mother had gone into labor so early. Just things like that, that suddenly seems much more relevant. I think they did understand. I mean, that said, it wasn’t an overnight process for them either. I think it was only through conversations we had later about things I learned about my birth family. Even years after the fact, I think our conversations about all of this are still evolving. I realize I still talk about my parents in the plural but, of course, my father passed away in January.
RC: I’m so sorry.
NC: Thank you. But, until he died, I would say it was the same with both my parents. I think our conversations about this have been evolving for the past several years. Some days, too, I think they understand better than other days. I think it’s a process. I don’t think they automatically understand it all and then they’ll always accept and understand it. But, I think one thing that’s helped, is they’ve gotten to meet my biological sister, who I’ve gotten close to, and they have gotten to see how much that relationship means to me.
RC: And how has that been?
NC: I don’t think that they have a wish anymore to deny the importance of this connection, this biological connection that [my sister and I] have and this friendship. I think they’re really happy that I have her in my life and have seen how important it is to me to have her. I guess it’s a series of incremental steps, not just a sudden thing. But there are certainly parts of my experience they’ll never fully understand. I’ve had to accept that because we experience the world quite differently, and they are not adopted, there really is, I think, a limit to how much they’ll ever be able to fully grasp, this reality.
RC: How much of your adoption narrative will you share with your own children? My son is very aware of my adoption story, and all the moving parts, and sometimes I’m actually afraid that he knows, or internalizes too much. He understood from a very young age, the pain and the trauma that it caused me and even suggested, when he was probably four or five, that we adopt as a way for me to help figure it out. Of course, it was coming from a place of love, but I said, “We can’t use a person, certainly not a child, to work through our issues.” But, I just wonder, it’s so present in our lives, how much do you share or integrate that with your parenting of your biological children?
NC: That’s a great question. I think, too, the answer changes as my kids get older. Like you, I had a similar experience with my older daughter when she was four-ish. I think it’s the first time she heard me say the word adoption and wanted to know what it meant. I was trying to explain it to her, and it was the simplest definition, but she really grasped it. At the same time, I could tell it really disturbed her, which I hadn’t been expecting, but I think it was clear, up until I said that, she had not really thought about the possibility of being separated from your parents. I remember, she asked me, I’ll never forget this, she said, “Am I gonna be adopted, too?” She said something else later which was that, “Did you like your first momma best because I like you the best?” And I said, “No.” She was already thinking about whether this would this happen to her. Or, if it happened to me, why couldn’t it happen to somebody else? I was so glad to be able to talk with her about it, and have more words, and be really open, and, at the same time, it was a little bit heartbreaking to have that conversation.
RC: And also, of course, there’s the element of race, too. Obviously, your story, my story, they’re not just adoption stories, they are interracial, transracial adoption stories. You can probably tell from the title of my book, Surviving the White Gaze, that it’s really very much about coming out of this whiteness, this space of all whiteness everywhere. My parents had two biological kids before they adopted me. My birth mother is white. I didn’t meet my black birth father until I was in my twenties. All this to say, I ended up coming to this place as a grown adult where I feel so angry about whiteness and the validity and intent of white parents adopting non-white children. How do you feel about it?
NC: I don’t feel qualified to say if given people should adopt, that’s definitely not my role. But, I think people just need to really go into it with their eyes open. And if you cannot do that, and if you’re not prepared to talk to your child about identity, and race, and racism, and things they will experience, that you as a white person have not had to experience, I think if you can’t do that, it’s possible transracial [adoption] really isn’t for you. That is also okay.
RC: Do you feel like your parents talked with you about racism?
NC: Oh no. We were not really equipped to do that. It was also a different era.
RC: A different era, what does that mean?
NC: Honestly, some of it feels like lip service and some of it feels genuine, but there are opportunities for some transracial, transcultural adoptees growing up today, that I didn’t necessarily have growing up. No one even told my parents they should think about acknowledging the fact that I was different from them. I don’t know. The fact that in adoption today, you do hear more talk about the importance of acknowledging, and celebrating even, a child’s culture of origin and helping them to either create or keep those connections. It doesn’t mean that everything’s perfect, but I know that a lot of adoptees today can go to culture camps and there’s just more opportunities to explore their heritage. It might seem small, but it would have been pretty huge for me growing up. Those opportunities just weren’t there. I didn’t really get to know or meet with a lot of other adoptees, and I think that could have been huge, and in of itself, just having those relationships, those networks, and people who understood.
RC: But they did exist.
NC: I think we were really disconnected. I grew up in a small community in southern Oregon. I could see it existing, maybe in Portland, but my parents didn’t know. I think they tried. I think they tried to find groups and networks, and really weren’t able to find anything where we lived.
RC: What do you tell your children about their racial identity?
NC: It’s hard because I don’t want to dictate to them. I want them to be clear about who they are. I also want them to have a chance to think about their identities and work these questions out without me telling them. I really don’t feel like I can define who they are for them. A lot of it, honestly, is support and asking questions, making certain things available to them that I didn’t have — their history and their culture, and to the extent that I can provide it, an idea of what it means to be Korean American. And also what it means to be the children of an adoptee. That has had a profound effect on their lives and it will continue to. They’ll have a different relationship to that fact than I will, but it’s just as relevant in their lives and it is in mine. How could it not be?
RC: You write in the book about your first daughter being born and people saying that she looked like your husband and how that stung a little bit. When my son was really small, we had a picture of me when I was really little too, and in it I’m holding a frog. It had been on the wall since he was born, but when he got to about the age I was in the picture, he sort of noticed the picture for the first time, and said: “Mom, why I’m holding a frog?” And, just that moment was, I mean only an adoptee who has a biological child understands the weight of that moment.
NC: No. It’s true. I actually think both my kids look a great deal like me. I think when my oldest was first born, people would sometimes say she looked a lot like my husband. She looks like both of us, they both do, but it’s still amazing to me to look at them and see all the similarities. That will never get old to me. Even just a casual Instagram comment about how much they look like me — I love those moments and I hold them close. I will never take that for granted. Just like I can’t take for granted the fact that I look at my sister and see someone who is, again, not my twin, but looks so much more like me than anybody else in the world. It’s not looking into a mirror, but it’s the closest thing I’ve got. That will always be so meaningful and powerful for me. I love that [people] can tell that our kids are cousins. You can see that carried on to the next generation, that similarity. It’s just like what you said, I completely agree, as an adoptee you just can not take those moments for granted. They just have so much weight and so much meaning.
RC: And so much joy.
NC: Yeah, absolutely, that. I still can’t believe that I have this much family and these connections. I feel really lucky, honestly. I know lucky is a really fraught term where adoptees are concerned, so I don’t use it lightly, but I do, I feel really fortunate just to have had the chance to reconnect with my sister and to be raising kids of my own. Just the simple fact of knowing that we won’t be separated. To me, it feels like a miracle sometimes.
RC: I loved it when you wrote that in the book — that it is a miracle and that you didn’t have any kind of problem with it sounded like a cliché, because becoming a mother, having the blessing and bliss and beauty of our kids, really felt like a miracle to you. I couldn’t agree more.
NC: It did. It was this unprecedented thing in my life, nothing like that had ever happened to me before. I still think about that all the time.