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Reading the Northwest: How Nicole Chung found a family she never knew

March 24, 2019 Updated Sun., March 24, 2019 at 8:20 p.m.

By Martin Wolk For The Spokesman-Review

Author Nicole Chung was born in Seattle, but her first memory of the city dates from when she was 10 years old and her parents took her for a visit from their home in southern Oregon.

“I remember just realizing that it was the first time I felt I could just blend in anywhere,” says Chung, a Korean-American who was adopted and raised by white parents. “We went to the Chinatown-International District, and I remember walking down the street being pretty much surrounded by Asians. And that was amazing to me – the thought that a place like this could exist in my country.”

Chung tells the story of her search for roots in her memoir “All You Can Ever Know,” published last fall and listed among the year’s best books by the Washington Post, National Public Radio, Buzzfeed and others. The moving story has touched a special chord among transracial and Asian-American adoptees like herself, which Chung finds gratifying. “It’s not as if everyone can relate exactly or entirely, because of course our stories are very different,” she says in a recent interview. “But the reality is there aren’t a lot of books out there on this topic from this perspective.”

Chung, who is also an essayist and literary editor, will bring her story to Spokane on May 14 when she appears at The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages Book Club.

Chung was always curious about her origin story and not at all satisfied with her mother’s explanation of why her Korean immigrant birth parents decided to give her up shortly after Chung’s premature birth: “They thought they wouldn’t be able to give you the life you deserved.” It was a vague explanation, short on details, which gradually acquired the status of family myth in a devoutly Catholic family where the baby’s arrival was treated as a gift from God for a couple unable to have children of their own.

As for their racial differences, Chung’s family was more likely to joke about it or dismiss it entirely, saying they would have loved her whether “you were black, white or purple with polka dots.” That colorblind approach to adoption may have been admirable, and it followed the accepted advice from social workers and other experts of the time. But it’s not surprising that Chung hid the casual racism she encountered in the schoolyards of her small town in Oregon, and the loneliness she felt because she was so different from nearly everyone she met, including family members.

Chung often thought about searching for her biological parents and finally decided to pursue it in her mid-20s, when she was pregnant with the first of two daughters. As she tells the story, the final push came from a clipboard-toting midwife, asking questions that would have been routine for most expectant mothers: How many brothers and sisters do you have? How old was your mother when you were born?

“I was thinking a lot, as parents do, about legacy,” Chung says. “Things that you can pass on to your children. The questions they’ll have and how you will answer them. And that was really for me the final impetus.”

So Chung began her search, and with some digging and the benefit of Washington state’s relatively open adoption laws was able to learn the unlikely story of her birth family and find sisters who never knew she existed. The memoir became a love story as Chung developed a correspondence, and eventually a close relationship, with her sister Cindy.

“It was completely unexpected, and it’s been totally wonderful,” Chung says. “We’re family, with no qualifiers – we’re just family.” She described the relationship as “something really wonderful and uncomplicated in the midst of a very complicated situation.”

Chung said adoption practices have changed a lot since the 1980s, and adoptive parents today are far more likely to acknowledge, honor and even celebrate the racial heritage of adopted children. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

“Where I still think it’s probably challenging for a lot of families, where it was certainly challenging for my family, is having these harder conversations about race and racism and white privilege. There were certainly things I experienced growing up as a person of color in this country, and in a very white part of it, that my parents, who are white, had never experienced.”

Chung said her adoptive mother has been very supportive, even though at first she didn’t understand the idea of a memoir written by someone in her 30s and not even a celebrity. But there was her mom, sitting in the front row at a Barnes & Noble reading in Oregon, taking home the event poster.

Chung’s adoptive father died last year before the book was published. “He did get to read the first half before he died and he really loved it,” Chung says. “He was particularly happy one of his jokes stayed in.”

Even though she had discussed her book with her parents in some difficult conversations, Chung says she was still “a little anxious” about sharing the manuscript with them a year before publication. “But honestly they were really great about it, and really proud.”

Martin Wolk is a writer and editor who enjoys reading contemporary fiction and memoirs. He has been a correspondent for Reuters and, among other publications. He writes The Spokesman-Review’s monthly “Reading the Northwest” column.

Nicole Chung at a glance

Born in: Seattle, May 1981

Raised in: Southern Oregon

Lives in: Washington, D.C., area

Background: Born prematurely to Korean immigrant parents, she spent her early days in Seattle Children’s Hospital. Her parents gave her up for adoption at 2 months, and she was raised by a white, Catholic couple.

Career: Editor in chief of Catapult, an online literary magazine. Former managing editor of the website The Toast. Essays have been published in The New York Times, GQ, Longreads, BuzzFeed, Hazlitt and other publications.

Family: Married with two girls, 11 and 8


Twitter: @nicole_soojung

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