All You Can Ever Know
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All You Can Ever Know is a 2018 memoir by Nicole Chung, a Korean American writer whose articles have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Guardian, and other media outlets. Divided into four parts and following two timelines—one focusing on Nicole’s childhood and the other on her adult life—All You Can Ever Know recounts Nicole’s experiences being adopted by a white Catholic couple and her journey to reuniting with her Korean birth family. Named a Best Book of the Year by The Washington Post, Time, and NPR, among others, All You Can Ever Know was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, a semifinalist for the PEN Open Book Award, and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection.
This guide uses the 2018 edition published by Catapult.
Content Warning: The source material includes racial slurs, which are described in this guide only in direct quotes of the source material.
All You Can Ever Know is divided into four parts, each representing distinct stages in the author’s life. Part 1 focuses on Nicole’s childhood and formative years through college. Shifting between her post-college life working at an adoption organization and her childhood memories, Nicole describes her parents’ relationship, their struggles with infertility, the circumstances of her adoption, and her upbringing in a predominantly white Oregonian town in the 1980s and 1990s.
According to her adoptive parents, Nicole’s birth parents wanted to keep her, but they were not able to take care of her after she was born prematurely. Thus, they made the difficult decision to put her up for adoption so that she would be better off. Nicole believed and perpetuated The Myth of Adoption for much of her life. However, her memoir erodes the myth, emphasizing The Difficulties of Being a Transracial Adoptee. Nicole’s adoptive parents raised her as they would have a white child, without regard for her race. From an early age, she experienced dissonance between her parents’ colorblind ideals and how she was viewed outside the home. She recalls being the target of racism at school and experiencing microaggressions in her community. As her isolation grew, she found solace in books and writing.
After Nicole went to college, she started taking pride in her Korean heritage. Soon after graduation, Nicole took the first step to reuniting with her birth family by requesting nonidentifying information about her birth parents from a Seattle court. However, she did not pursue the matter further until four years later, after she was married, pregnant, and living in the Washington, DC, area.
Part 2 addresses The Intersection of Pregnancy, Motherhood, and Reunion by focusing on Nicole’s search for her birth family and her early correspondence with her sisters. Nicole was pregnant with her first child when she began searching for her birth family. Two things prompted her search: her need for an updated medical history and her desire to know her roots. She reached out to her birth mother via a “search angel,” an intermediary tasked with helping adoptees find their birth families. She received a response not from her mother, whose grasp of English was shaky, but from her half sister, Jessica, and her full sister, Cindy, both of whom believed she had died at birth. Nicole learned that her birth parents—now divorced—had a dysfunctional relationship and that her birth mother physically abused Cindy. Nicole went into labor about a week after learning about the abuse. As she timed her contractions, she received an email from her birth father asking for forgiveness.
Part 3 describes Nicole’s early experiences as a parent and her burgeoning relationship with Cindy. A week after her daughter’s birth, she received a call from her birth mother, who apologized for abandoning her. Nicole’s birth mother claimed she did not want to put Nicole up for adoption, but that her husband forced her to sign the papers. Nicole began exchanging emails with her birth father, who claimed that adoption was the only way to save Nicole from being abused by her mother. While Nicole’s relationship with her birth parents stagnated, her connection to Cindy grew. The sisters wrote to each other almost every day and shared an easy friendship. Months later, Cindy flew from Portland to visit Nicole. The sisters instantly noticed their physical similarities and bonded over photo albums. Cindy encouraged Nicole to visit their father.
Part 4 focuses on Nicole’s experiences as a mother and her evolving relationship with her birth father. Nicole met her father for the first time while she was pregnant with her second child, during a visit to Cindy in Portland. Although he spoke excellent English, the conversation went on in English and Korean, with Cindy translating. Nicole’s father gave her gifts, including a book of essays he wrote in Korean. He told Nicole about his family in Korea, revealing that his eldest brother had a 10-volume family history that went back five centuries. After years of feeling unmoored, Nicole finally understood key aspects about herself—notably, her love of writing. Reconnecting with her birth family also made Nicole realize that most of her childhood assumptions about them were wrong and that the myth of her adoption was just that—a myth. Nicole chose to be honest when Abigail started asking questions about her adoption, emphasizing that it was complicated, rather than describing it in simplistic terms. She continues to reconnect with her roots, not just through her relationship with Cindy, but also by taking Korean language classes. By reconnecting with her culture, Nicole hopes to help her children become confident, self-aware Korean Americans.