All You Can Ever Know – Book Review

It’s about 6:30am and I’ve finally made the decision to leave Columbus and drive the 47 miles back to Yellow Springs. I’d gotten up at 4:00am to drive my uncle to the airport for his annual snowboarding trip out west. I’d foolishly thought I could find some way to kill 3 hours until my friend would awake and we could grab breakfast around 9:00am. My ability to survive on minimal sleep has disappeared as my age has increased.

I’m listening to reggaeton to keep myself awake since leaving the airport but realize I still have 50 minutes of Nicole Chung’s incredibly popular memoir, All You Can Ever Know, to listen to. I’ve been blitzing through books now that I’ve learned how to use Libby and was ecstatic when I learned her memoir was available. I wished that she was the reader but the voice actor they chose is pretty believable, although I’m unclear how accurate her pronunciation of the minimal Korean in the book is. 

Ever since the memoir debuted I’ve wanted to read it. It’s gotten amazing press and exposure, likely the most since, or even more than, Saroo Brierely’s A Long Way Home. A Long Way Home was turned into the motion picture classic, Lion, where Saroo is played by the endearing and increasingly handsome Dev Patel. All You Can Ever Know and Lion are now the two most accessible transracial adoption stories visible to the American public. Before picking up Chung’s memoir I hadn’t realized she was domestically and transracially adopted. I had, mistakenly, assumed she was internationally adopted.

The book is a beautiful introduction to the life experience that so many transracial Asian American adoptees experience. The book shines a light on the well-known, in the adoptee world, tropes of racial and cultural imposter syndrome: the experience of living a life as an “inbetweener;” constantly questioning one’s own authenticity and validility; a perennial sense of unrootedness; and the constant role of defending oneself against prejudicial taunts, treatment and discrimination that ignores the reality of the transracial childhood experience. Chung gives us a window into that experience for her throughout her childhood and into adulthood and later her own experience of motherhood.

In my opinion, the strongest aspect of the book, of which there are many strengths to choose from, comes from the author bringing her sister’s upbringing into the story to provide a juxtaposition to her own life. Chung’s biological sister’s life story, growing up in the home Chung was relinquished from, provides a window into what Chung’s life may have been like had she not been relinquished and raised in a white west coast family. This window provides what many adoptees, including myself, have often yearned for, the opportunity to see what it would’ve been like had we never been relinquished. It is beautiful to see that relationship grow and become a source of acceptance, validation and genuine sisterhood.

In all the ways I loved this book and am eternally thankful to Nicole Chung for sharing her story, I also struggled mightily with two central parts of the book: the political message or lack thereof and the author’s approach to writing about her first mother. In regards to the first challenge, I don’t need the author’s politics to align with mine, but I feel an opportunity is always missed when political messaging is not made explicit, and is merely referenced secondarily. Given how central a role identity politics played in her upbringing, I was left wanting to know how the author feels about adoption as a system and cultural phenomenon. We are given glimpses, but nothing beyond that. I yearn to know how the author feels about her experience overall and how that manifests itself as a part of her current identity as a writer, editor, etc.

The second aspect of the book I struggled with was my desire to hear the author breakdown, from her own experience, the relationship with her first mother. For the first part of the book Chung built an identity for herself that included her desire, deep desire, to be in reunion with her first family, her first mother in particular. Upon entering into reunion the relationship with her mother receives the least amount of attention and is foregrounded by the relationship with her father and sister. This does not bother me, nor does Chung’s approach to reunion. We each deal with family in our own ways and I’m not criticizing her choices about reunion. I struggle with the author not processing how challenging this relationship dynamic is with her first mother. It seems to be traumatic for her, yet as readers, we do not get to see her process that struggle. 

Her relationship with her first mother seems unresolved and largely unexamined emotionally, at least for the reader. If it is intentional to leave this part of her life unexamined, publicly, that is completely understandable, adoption is full of loose ends that are never tied up, but her ultimate feelings appear to be unaddressed by omission not by intention.

Even with the two areas I struggled with I found the book to be a true gem. It is amazing to be growing up in a time when stories like Chung’s are made available for people like me to learn from. I am in constant awe, even when I have criticisms, of the, mostly women, who continue to courageously share their stories. After finishing the book, I’m excited to give it my almost top rating of 47 miles on a scale of driving from Columbus, Ohio to Yellow Springs, Ohio. I hope you will consider reading or listening to Nicole’s book.

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