All You Can Ever Know | Reflections & Notes

Nicole Chung. All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir. Catapult, 2018. (225 pages)


REFLECTIONS


What is it to know a story that you don’t know?

I really loved this book because it tells the complicated story of adoption and intersectionality that is very different from the brochures. It speaks of a searching, a longing, and the necessity of story for one’s identity. Most of all, what still sits present in my soul is the pain and anguish that exists in most (all?) adoption stories. The unfolding drama of trying to piece together the lost history of one’s life comes with a complicated paradox; wanting to know, and wishing we had never known; joy at reunification, and sadness at why the separation happened in the first place; the freedom to simply be, and the obligation to be bound. These are not simple answers, and a memoir such as All I Can Know (which is a great title), enlightens us to those difficult realities. Nicole Chung used the phrase “half-empty family tree.” I’ve been using the word “tree stump” for years to describe adoption. Which is better? To have regenerated a portion of your lineage, or to have cut it off, and simply start over? I have no idea.

So, how shall we now live, in light of the complicated and painful paradox of interracial adoption? Speak the truth. Embody the truth. To be fully human is to know and be fully known. That, is not just all we can ever know, it is all we ever want to know.

It was these two paragraphs that really summed up, for me, the essence of the my takeaways, sentiments that resonate with my personal experience as well:

When my mother asked if I thought my transracial adoption was “a good thing,” I was reminded, again, of the fact that I no longer think of it in terms of good or bad, but realistic versus oversimplified. Yes, I often felt alone, unseen in my white family. At times, I still do. But to be adopted is to know only the rewritten story, one of an infinite number possible. I will never be able to honestly say I would have fared better with my birth parents, or any other unknown family. (p.209)

The adoption story I’d heard so often growing up was supposed to remake me, give me everything I needed, make me feel whole. In the end, though, real growth and healing came from another kind of radical change–from finding the courage to question what I’d always been told; to seek and discover and tell another kind of story. And I know my children will benefit from all the things I will pass on to them now, all the truths I’m able to share. (222)

Thank you @nicole_soojung for this gift.


NOTES


Part I

The truth was that being Korean and being adopted were things I had loved and hated in equal measure. (7)

All members of a family have their own ways of defining the others. All parents have ways of saying things about their children as if they are indisputable facts, even when the children don’t believe them to be true at all. It’s why so many of us sometimes feel alone or unseen, despite the real love we have for our families and they for us. (7)

Why hadn’t my adoption transformed me into the person I felt I was? (17)

And wouldn’t it be wonderful to go to sleep one night and wake up an entirely different person, one who would be loved and welcomed everywhere? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to look at your face in the mirror and know you would always belong? (17)

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. (29)

…the idea began to grow in my mind that I had lost things, too, all those years ago when I was born too soon and my life changed course. These losses were not limited to personal history or the chance to know the people I’d come from. I had missed out on growing up in a place where my presence was not just accepted or tolerated, but a matter of course; where I might have heard others speaking my native language; where people like me were commonplace, not a wonder. (40)

In most published stories, 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 fulfilled. WE are wanted, found, or saved, but never grown, never entirely our own. (41)

This wasn’t the first time one of my parents had presented my adoption as a thing divinely ordered, almost biblical, though we all knew I hadn’t been found in a watertight basket, plucked from the reeds. Now, when I considered all the factors, both known and unknown, that led to my adoption, I could no longer believe that anyone had planned it. I had always been told that my birth parents wished they had been able to keep me. If that were true, why didn’t God care what they wanted? (46)

As a child, I recalled, sometimes I’d had nightmares about my birthparents showing up to take me with them. But whether it was in my best interest or not, now or then, I was upset that I’d never been allowed to decide for myself. (52)

Back then, the mystery I wondered about more than anything else was why my first parents had given me up. I knew some of the practical reasons: money, my health–but I did wonder if there were other reasons, too; if something about me had simply failed to move them, command their love or loyalty. (54)

| This is a question that, on one hand, makes little sense–many birth parents make the decision to place their children for adoption before they even give birth, and at any rate, what can a newborn or a small child do, or not do, to offend her parents? Yet when I talk with other adoptees, particularly those who don’t know their birth families, I know I’m not the only one who’s ever wondered: Was it something we did, as babies, as little children? Something we lacked that made us easier, possible, to part with? (54)

| I’ve never met an adoptee who has blamed their birth parents for their decision–we’re more likely to turn inward, looking for fault. (54)

Closed adoptions like ours are little better than child trafficking – adoptee

I never wanted or set out to begin in secrecy, or withhold part of myself from the people who cared about me. But long after the papers are signed and the original familial bonds are severed, adoption has a way of isolating the adoptee. For me, it had always been this way: a wide sea seemed to separate the lone island of my experience from the well-mapped continents on which other people, other families, resided. Despite how well my husband knew me, despite all of our conversations about our respective childhoods, I didn’t think even he could possibly understand how much my adoption had given me; how much it had taken away. (63)

As a young woman, I wasn’t afraid of getting married, nor was I afraid of remaining single; what I feared was the threat of passivity–being powerless, like I had been as a baby, to determine my own future. (68)

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 happened to the bond between me and my first mother: it had been broken. (71)

As we left the birth center, I couldn’t shake the overwhelming feeling that our baby was destined to inherit a half-empty family tree. I wasn’t even a mother yet, and already the best I could offer was far from good enough. (72)

Part II

Who knew what I’d find in pursuit of the truth? Would my child, my husband, thank me for bringing these relatives into our lives? I had been so sure about my decision to look for them–so sure that I was doing the right thing, for my baby and for myself. What was worse, to know nothing? Or to learn thins that broke my heart? (98)

She told me not to forget who my real family was. As if I could forget–they were the only family I’d ever known. We all kenw what I owed them; it went without saying: I would not call another parent Mom or Dad. I would not replace my adoptive family with my biological one. (103)

| Yet my biological family was the one I’d been made for. Whoever they were, my birth parents were the people who had brought me into the world, and I wanted them to know I recognized that; I could honor them for it, even if I never learned anything else about them. I felt I owed them that much. (103)

They were out there. They might want to know more about me. Whatever had happened with our parents, whatever might have gone wrong in our family, maybe this was a new beginning. (114)

Part III

People were not so simple; people could be and think and want many different things at once. (145)

When you are growing up adopted, people like to tell you how lucky you are. Having learned the truth about my birth family, I couldn’t disagree. But it wasn’t so simple: there are many different kinds of luck; many different ways to be blessed or cursed. (153)

Part IV

If there’s something that everyone should know about adoption, it’s that there is no end to this. There’s no closure. (201)

I know my place in my adoptive family is secure. That is not the same thing as always feeling that I belong. (207)

Though I’ve sometimes grieved for absent solidarity, now that I am raising children of color in a starkly divided America I feel, even more strongly, that maintaining my silence with my relatives–pretending my race does not matter–is no longer a choice I can make. It feels like my duty as my white family’s de facto Asian ambassador to remind them that I am not white, that we do experience this country in different ways because of it, that many people still know oppression far more insidious and harmful than anything I’ve ever faced. Every time I do this, I am breaching the sacred pact of our family, our once-shared belief that my race is irrelevant in the presence of their love. But withholding hard truths and my honest opinions would also sell short the love I have for them, and they for me. The fierce wish I still harbor for them to understand me for who I am, stand with me in love and full acceptance, persists because they chose me and they raised me: we are one another’s responsibility. (208)

| When my mother asked if I thought my transracial adoption was “a good thing,” I was reminded, again, of the fact that I no longer think of it in terms of good or bad, but realistic versus oversimpli-(208)fied. Yes, I often felt alone, unseen in my white family. At times, I still do. But to be adopted is to know only the rewritten story, one of an infinite number possible. I will never be able to honestly say I would have fared better with my birth parents, or any other unknown family. (209)

The adoption story I’d heard so often growing up was supposed to remake me, give me everything I needed, make me feel whole. In the end, though, real growth and healing came from another kind of radical change–from finding the courage to question what I’d always been told; to seek and discover and tell another kind of story. And I know my children will benefit from all the things I will pass on to them now, all the truths I’m able to share. (222)

About VIA

www.kevinneuner.com

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