All You Can Ever Know

All You Can Ever Know

by Nicole Chung

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Long-listed for PEN Open Book Award

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

"This book moved me to my very core. . . . [All You Can Ever Know] should be required reading for anyone who has ever had, wanted, or found a family―which is to say, everyone.” ―Celeste Ng, author of Little Fires Everywhere

What does it mean to lose your roots—within your culture, within your family—and what happens when you find them?

Nicole Chung was born severely premature, placed for adoption by her Korean parents, and raised by a white family in a sheltered Oregon town. From childhood, she heard the story of her adoption as a comforting, prepackaged myth. She believed that her biological parents had made the ultimate sacrifice in the hope of giving her a better life, that forever feeling slightly out of place was her fate as a transracial adoptee. But as Nicole grew up—facing prejudice her adoptive family couldn’t see, finding her identity as an Asian American and as a writer, becoming ever more curious about where she came from—she wondered if the story she’d been told was the whole truth.

With warmth, candor, and startling insight, Nicole Chung tells of her search for the people who gave her up, which coincided with the birth of her own child. All You Can Ever Know is a profound, moving chronicle of surprising connections and the repercussions of unearthing painful family secrets—vital reading for anyone who has ever struggled to figure out where they belong.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781936787982
Publisher: Catapult
Publication date: 10/02/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 32,414
File size: 717 KB

About the Author

Nicole Chung's memoir, All You Can Ever Know, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, long-listed for the PEN Open Book Award, and named a Best Book of the Year by nearly two dozen outlets, including The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, NPR, Time, Newsday, and Library Journal. Chung has written for The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, GQ, The Atlantic, New York magazine, Longreads, and Hazlitt, among many other publications. She is the editor in chief of Catapult magazine and the former managing editor of The Toast.

Read an Excerpt

The story my mother told me about them was always the same.

Your birth parents had just moved here from Korea. They thought they wouldn’t be able to give you the life you deserved.

It’s the first story I can recall, one that would shape a hundred others once I was old enough, brave enough, to go looking.

When I was very young—three or four, I’ve been told—I would crawl into my mother’s lap before asking to hear it once more. Her arms would have encircled me, solid and strong where I was slight, pale, and freckled against my light-brown skin. Sometimes, in these half-imagined memories, I picture her in the dress she wore in our only family portrait from this era, lilac with flutter sleeves—an oddly delicate choice for my solid and sensible mother. At that age, a shiny black bowl cut and bangs would have framed my face, a stark contrast to the reddish-brown perm my mother had when I was young; I was no doubt growing out of toddler cuteness by then. But my mom thought I was beautiful. When you think of someone as your gift from God, maybe you can never see them as anything else.

How could they give me up?
I must have asked her this question a hundred times, and my mother never wavered in her response. Years later, I would wonder if someone told her how to comfort me—if she read the advice in a book, or heard it from the adoption agency—or if, as my parent, she simply knew what she ought to say. What I wanted to hear.

The doctors told them you would struggle all your life. Your birth parents were very sad they couldn’t keep you, but they thought adoption was the best thing for you.
Even as a child, I knew my line, too.
They were right, Mom.
By the time I was five or six years old, I had heard the tale of my loving, selfless birth parents so many times I could recite it myself. I collected every fact I could, hoarding the sparse and faded glimpses into my past like bright, favorite toys. This may be all you can ever know, I was told. It wasn’t a joyful story through and through, but it was their story, and mine, too. The only thing we had ever shared. And as my adoptive parents saw it, the story could have ended no other way.

So when people asked about my family, my features, the fate I’d been dealt, maybe it isn’t surprising how I answered—first in a childish, cheerful chirrup, later in the lecturing tone of one obliged to educate. I strove to be calm and direct, never giving anything away in my voice, never changing the details. Offering the story I’d learned so early was, I thought, one way to gain acceptance. It was both the excuse for how I looked and a way of asking pardon for it.

Looking back, of course I can make out the gaps—the places where my mother and father must have made their own guesses, the pauses where harder questions could have followed: Why didn’t they ask for help? What if they had changed their minds? Would you have adopted me if you’d been able to have a child of your own?

Family lore given to us as children has such hold over us, such staying power. It can form the bedrock of another kind of faith, one to rival any religion, informing our beliefs about ourselves, and our families, and our place in the world. When tiny, traitorous doubts arose, when I felt lost or alone or confused about all the things I couldn’t know, I told myself that something as noble as my birth parents’ sacrifice demanded my trust. My loyalty.

They thought adoption was the best thing for you.
Above all, it was a legend formed and told and told again because my parents wanted me to believe that my birth family had loved me from the start, that my parents, in turn, were meant to adopt me, and that the story unfolded as it should have. This was the foundation on which they built our family, and as I grew, I too staked my identity on it. That story, a lifeline cast when I was too young for deeper questions, continued to bring me comfort. Years later, grown up and expecting a child of my own, I would search for my birth family still wanting to believe in it.

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All You Can Ever Know 2.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
ConfuzzledShannon 14 days ago
For author Nicole Chung, her adoption was more of a curiosity. Growing up Asian in a white family, Nicole always knew she was adopted. But she did not know much about her biological family and never had the urge to know until she had children of her own. Why was she left by parents she knew so little about? She knew she had been a sick baby and that she had older siblings; did those reasons have something to do with it? Chung eventually tries to start a relationship with her biological family, finding kinship but also some negative developments that keep her at a distance from this new/old family. I love a book with short chapters. It helps make it more enjoyable and makes a quicker read. I read this for a book club and it is not something I would have picked on my own. It was an easy read and for people who enjoy biographies may like this. On the downside I feel this was a story that could have been told as a short story or an article in a paper. There was a lot of stretching her story out. All You Can Ever Know is a look inside the mind of an intelligent woman raised by a family full of love, but not all the information for a child of a different race. Adoptees and those who consider adopting will find solace and strength in a woman who learns that blood is not always thicker than water, but love can be a bridge to new horizons. As for me it was not a favorite but maybe others will gain something from reading this book.
Anonymous 30 days ago
So interesting.
Anonymous 9 months ago
DeediReads 10 months ago
“Family lore given to us as children has such hold over us, such staying power. It can form the bedrock of another kind of faith, one to rival any religion, informing our beliefs about ourselves, and our families, and our place in the world.” All You Can Ever Know is Girls’ Night In Club‘s February book pick, and I really enjoyed it. I listened to the audiobook, which was well narrated. Nicole Chung is a really great writer, and her storytelling sheds light on experiences that many people do not often see or understand. Chung was adopted shortly after she was born. Her Korean parents said that the medical bills resulting from her premature birth would be too much for them to bear, so they wanted to give her a better life. The parents who raised Chung were kind, loving, and wonderful. However, they were not Korean, and they had no idea how big a difference that would make for a child growing up in almost-all-white Oregon. Chung’s childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood as not just an adopted child, but also a non-white adopted child, were full of both love and strife. She had often wondered about her birth family but never sought them out. By the time she was ready to become a mother herself, though, she decided it was time — if only to have access to her (and her child’s) full medical history. The result was more complicated and more emotional than she had imagined. Memoirs like this are why I love reading memoirs so much; I have no experience with any of this, but I could try to imagine what it must like to be an adopted daughter, and I could try to imagine what it must be like to look different from everyone around you growing up, but I would never have even thought to try to imagine what it might be like to have both of those experiences at once, intertwined. Which is wild to me, because of course many adopted children in the US come from other countries. Chung does a beautiful job of weaving her story into an arc that not only puts you in her shoes, but also makes you look out through her eyes.
ArthurGraham More than 1 year ago
I’m an adoptee and heard Ms. Chung on NPR talking about her book. I bought copies for a friend ‘s daughter, my cousin and me. I liked the first chapters very much. Ms. Chung captured much of what it’s like: the narrative, feelings of loyalty to the adoptive parents, expectations of gratitude, feeling “different.” While her experiences were different than mine, I thought she brought a thoughtful perspective. Then, the book deteriorated. There was far too much detail about her pregnancy, most of it irrelevant. And, I must admit, I reacted strongly to her choices that followed, personal reactions that may have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. I won’t discuss those reactions because I don’t want to put spoilers in a review. After reading way too much detail about every conversation she had with her sister and her daughter and then another pregnancy. I ended the book feeling alienated. The examination of adoption through a personal lens became a personal account without analysis or an attempt to address common issues within her story. I was disappointed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Interesting and thought provoking memoir. Good insights into biracial adoption.