October 23, 2018

The Fraught Language of Adoption

““When you think of someone as your gift from God, maybe you can never see them as anyone else,” writes Nicole Chung in the opening pages of All You Can Ever Know, her new memoir about growing up as a Korean American adopted by white parents in Oregon. Throughout Chung’s childhood, her deeply religious parents told her that God had meant for the three of them to be a family, and so when Chung was just an infant, she’d arrived in their home as their miracle daughter.

But as Chung, a writer, grew older and started a family of her own, she began to wonder more and more about the actual logistics of her parents’ “miracle.” As she prepared for the arrival of her own child, she couldn’t shake lingering questions about her background: Who were the Korean immigrants who’d been on the losing end of her adoptive parents’ gain, and why had they given her up?

The ensuing conflict between Chung’s loyalty to the beloved family narrative and desperate curiosity about her origins is the central tension at the heart of her memoir, a bittersweet story about Chung’s experiences finding her birth parents after a “closed” adoption, meaning that unlike in an “open” adoption, she had no contact with them growing up. It’s a story that resonates with me closely: I, too, am an adopted Asian American daughter of white parents. I spoke to Chung about the complicated language and word choices that follow adoptees throughout life, and the politics of having two families that are both your “real” family.””

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