Born to Korean-immigrant parents and adopted by a white couple, Nicole Chung grew up in a predominantly white town in Oregon, subject to what she didn’t know to call racist bullying until much later. Following the advice they’d been given, her parents didn’t talk to her about race or how she was different from the other kids at school — or the rest of her family. All they told her was that her birth parents loved her and wanted her to have the best life possible. She accepted that story as the simple truth, the way we all accept the foundational stories we’re told about who we are, the stories that become our mythologies and identities.
Then she got pregnant. Now that Chung was about to have a child of her own, that simple story was no longer enough. Emboldened by the responsibility of impending parenthood, Chung set out to find out the rest of the story. What she found was a birth family far more complex and flawed than the altruists she’d imagined, and an origin story far less clear cut. Chung’s debut memoir, (out from Catapult on October 2), is the story of how her search blew open a family secret surrounding her adoption that her birth parents had kept quiet for decades, brought her a fierce and loving bond with her biological sister, and changed both of her families forever.
Chung spoke with the Cut about adoption, which stories are ours to tell, and whether there’s such a thing as “color-blind” when it comes to race.
At the core of the book is this story that you were told about your adoption growing up, so it’s kind of a story about a story. What was it like for you to take control of that narrative and write a different, truer story?
I really wanted to open the book with an acknowledgement that we all have these stories from childhood that mean a lot to us, that we were told over and over. It’s one of those things that you almost make true by believing it. In a way looking back I’m like, it’s such a simple story, why didn’t I see the holes? Why didn’t I have more questions? But it’s just a very difficult thing to question a story you’re spoon-fed almost from birth, which you really want to believe in. It took me a long, long time to get to the point where I could even begin to interrogate that. Looking back of course I see how valuable it ended up being, but at that time it was just pretty scary.
I think when we write about something it always changes our relationship to it a little bit. So while these are obviously subjects I’ve thought about for my entire life, writing about it for readers was a whole new thing. I think it’s helped me see my story as not just something that has affected me and my families, but a story with something broader to say about race and culture and identity and belonging and family. And I really just wanted to be part of a conversation, and to let people see a side of adoption from a perspective that isn’t widely represented.
I saw you mention on that most of the stories you’ve seen about adoption are from the perspective of the adoptive parents. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. I don’t think it’s just adoption where this is really common. You know, my younger daughter is autistic, and I don’t want to wade into controversial territory, but I find a lot of parent narratives about their disabled or autistic children extremely problematic and just really tough reads. I often don’t read them. I’m not trying to compare the two experiences, but I guess I’m aware of that as a parent in general. I think it’s very difficult, as much as we love our children, to have that much perspective on their lives and their experiences. But also, it’s human to want to write about the things that are important to you. I’ve written about my kids, too. The problem in publishing is that so often we have kind of stopped with that story, and we haven’t gone looking for other narratives.
Early on in the book you describe this young couple considering adopting, and they’re asking for your advice and asking if you “minded” your experience growing up with white parents. And at this point in the story we’ve seen all the stuff you struggled with, but you don’t tell them any of the negatives. I’m curious now, after this whole process, if you would have answered them differently.
Sure. I certainly would not be like, “Don’t adopt.” I would never really say that to anybody unless I have deep concerns about their ability to parent. I just wasn’t expecting that moment to stick with me for so long. I thought they’d be wonderful parents and so saying that to them was not difficult for me. It was not their fault that these questions raised other questions in me that I didn’t have the ability to deal with at that time. Looking back, I realize I took the easy way out. I wasn’t ready to think about my adoption as something I minded or didn’t mind. It would be several more years before I was ready to reconsider my adoption and what it meant in my life.
So if I were to talk with them or anybody today about it, I would probably just be a lot more upfront about real things that I did go through. I would be really honest about the bullying in elementary school and the harm that I think was caused by this “colorblind” attitude that I was surrounded with. It took me so long to learn to even acknowledge or talk about race or bigotry or things I experienced. I didn’t really even have the language to say, “This is racism that’s happening.” So yeah, I think I’d be more honest about all of that. And I hope that if people read my writing that’s what they see.
Can you talk more about the harm of the colorblind attitude?
I don’t really believe anybody’s actually race blind — at least not universally. I don’t think my race mattered to my adoptive parents at all. I’m not sure about extended family, but certainly my parents — it never mattered to them. But of course, it would eventually matter to me, and it would obviously matter to other people. It’s the first thing, let’s be honest, that anybody notices about me, right?
And so especially going to a small Catholic school that was extremely white, I was always going to stick out there. It took me a long time, despite the slurs and just the difficulty of my grade-school years in particular, before I could really acknowledge the direct harm caused by growing up in an environment where I was often the only one in my class or the only one in the room. And yet nobody acknowledged, in my family or our social circles, the fact that I was different, and how that made my experience of living where we did different from theirs.
I think there’s a temptation with kids sometimes to think they are not as ruthless or brutal as they can be. I hear white progressive parents I know say, “Things are so different now. I’m so glad that our kids take it for granted that their school is majority minority.” And I’m like, well yes. I appreciate that as well. But I’m not assuming that the mere presence of some diversity, or the fact that my kids go to school with lots of immigrants or children of immigrants, is automatically going to mean they will grow up without prejudice, or without absorbing the racism and privilege that none of us can really escape. It is in the air we breathe. It takes active, daily constant resistance and I don’t think that’s something that enough people do. Particularly people who are well-intentioned and want to believe things are different.
I think it’s hard for many white parents to talk to their kids about race, and we have studies showing that many don’t. So, that’s not me picking on white parents. That’s just a fact.
I know you started writing this book before the Trump era, and this conversation was always going to be important, but it feels especially urgent now that it’s so obvious we are not living in a post-racial world.
It’s interesting to think of it as timely when a lot of the events in the book happened a decade ago. It’s been interesting, too, to work on this and talk with my families and then publish it, yes, after the election. I would say too about my conversations about race and racism and Trump’s America with my own adoptive family have been kind of fraught lately, and probably will be for some time. We are on opposite ends of the political spectrum. It’s been complicated this year too by the fact that my father passed away. So, honestly we haven’t been talking about politics since that happened. Working on this book, thinking about my whole childhood, thinking about where I grew up and how we talked, we didn’t talk about race, and then doing all of that in the months immediately following the election was interesting.
That’s a lot!
I had to stop working on the book for two months after the election. I don’t want to be dramatic, but I felt traumatized and I felt like everybody I knew was traumatized. I would open up the manuscript and think, “This doesn’t matter” and then close it. I finally started working on it again after the inauguration and the Women’s March, and I think maybe some of that is what lit a fire under me.
I’m encouraged that these conversations about race are happening — I’ve noticed more of them lately. Certainly, it’s always easier to stay comfortable and to think the quicker we all just sort of move on, the better it will be. But the big lie is that there is any moving on without work.
Which applies to memoir in general I think. Like you have to process your story to learn from it.
This interview has been edited and condensed