Against Assimilation: A Conversation with Nicole Chung / by Peter LaBerge

BY ADORA SVITAK

 Nicole Chung, author of  All You Can Ever Know  (Catapult, 2018).

Nicole Chung, author of All You Can Ever Know (Catapult, 2018).

Nicole Chung is the author of the memoir All You Can Ever Know, published in October 2018 and named a best book of the season by The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, Vanity Fair, TIME, Newsday, ELLE, the Today Show, and more. Her essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Slate, Longreads, BuzzFeed, and Hazlitt, among many others. She is the editor-in-chief of Catapult magazine and the former managing editor of The Toast. Find her on Twitter @nicole_soojung.

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Adora Svitak: Your own journey of becoming a mother dovetailed with your discovery of your birth family. What did looking for them mean for you as you were expecting?

Nicole Chung: I had thought about looking for my birth family for years, ever since I was a kid, and yet at the same time I never seriously thought about it. I didn’t know how you would go about doing it. Sometimes people would say to me, “Have you ever thought about going on a TV talk show? They can find your birth parents for you.” And I’ve seen that—the reunions on television or private investigators—but it all just seemed so unlikely to me. I thought about it in the way I thought about any fantasy.

Becoming pregnant was that final push because for the first time, I had to think about the kind of parent I would be in a very real sense. Until you see the positive sign on the pregnancy test, it’s still very hypothetical. I kept coming back to these questions: what was my birth family really like, and why did they give me up?

Practically, there were also medical issues I wanted to know about. In my first prenatal appointment, they asked me questions about my family medical history and I had no idea how to answer. It was scary, and I remember thinking I should maybe try to find out more—not just for this pregnancy and the birth, but for after. What sort of questions will my child have? How can I provide those answers when I don't have them?

AS: You’ve written that thinking about race and identity for you started in college—can you expand on why that was?

NC: One reason was having the intellectual maturity to recognize when people said casually racist things to me. Growing up, I was pretty ignorant of when a microaggression was even happening to me. Remembering the stories now, it seems so obvious—kids pulled their eyes back or called me actual slurs. Eventually, I was able to recognize that as racism. But it took time to recognize the more casual things: people complimenting your English, always asking where you’re from, or the very particular type of microaggression adoptees get, which is hearing, “You’re so lucky to be raised here.” People would say to me, “You might have been murdered or something or abandoned or left in the street if you’d been raised in Asia—who knows if you’d be valued as a girl!” Well-meaning. But also gross. By college I could recognize those remarks for what they were. College was the first place where I had lots of friends of color; that had never been my experience growing up where I did in Oregon.

I was also a history major, and I don’t think there’s a way to study history without becoming very aware of systems of oppression. I had great professors who didn’t just say, “This all happened in the past.” They said, “[These injustices] happened here and this is why we still live with them, why they’re not gone.”

AS: There’s a lot of debate about what multiculturalism should look like in our society. I’m thinking here of the clash between Trevor Noah and the French ambassador, and assimilation versus hyphenated identities. How do you think questions of identity should be negotiated in multicultural society?

NC: When I talk to my kids, I don’t want them to feel that they have to choose between different parts of their heritage. They’re Korean and Irish and Lebanese. I don’t want them to feel like they have to hide or partition parts off. They are whole people, not fractions of this or that. America puts a lot of pressure on people of color and immigrants to assimilate, to not talk as much about race, not make such a big deal out of racism. Yet at the same time, as an adoptive person who was completely assimilated, I can say that assimilation doesn’t save you from anything or anybody. I couldn’t have been raised any whiter. I still experienced racism my whole life. Of course it is never enough for people, even if you are fully assimilated. So I think we shouldn’t [assimilate]. People should obviously do what makes them happy. I’m not worried about trying to please or trying to fit in because no matter what you do, for a lot of assholes, you will not ever be enough. So there’s a freedom now that comes from realizing that, a freedom to be who I am—and to try and teach my children to be who they are.

AS: When you write about your adoptive family in All You Can Ever Know, you mention they had a sort of “color-blind” attitude. What is the kind of attitude you wish white parents of children of color would take?

NC: It’s hard. I didn’t write the book to be prescriptive in any way, and I’m not an expert; there are counselors and social workers who specialize in interracial adoption. But speaking as a lay person and as a parent: we have to have hard conversations about race. And I think it is important for kids to not grow up as the only one [person of color in their community] if there’s any way to avoid it. I know it’s a privilege to think about moving or changing schools, churches, or community organizations. But you as a parent have to empathize with your children,  look at things from their perspective. Parents do this automatically. Before I go into a situation, I think—for both my kids, but especially my younger daughter who’s autistic—how they might experience that space. Is there a way that I can help prepare her for it? Is it a space that maybe isn’t the best for her, that she doesn’t need to be in?

We know from studies that many white parents of white children avoid talking to their kids about race. They may think that just raising them to be generally kind and tolerant is enough. We know it’s not enough. I know a lot of adoptive parents who love talking with their kids about culture and heritage but really struggle when they’re trying to talk about racism and bigotry and oppression. But if you’re really interrogating your connections, communities, your social circle and your family, you have some hard conversations. And you should bring them up; don’t wait for your child to always bring it up. They need to know from the time they’re verbal that it’s a topic, and that they can share their feelings or their questions. Not just about race but about adoption. They shouldn’t have to feel the burden is always on them to ask these questions, or to comfort you or make you feel like everything is great. Because that doesn’t make these problems we have as a country go away. Be honest and forthright. It’s difficult work. But it’s necessary.

AS: Knowing what you know now, is there any advice that you would give your younger self?

NC: I wish I’d had a word for what was happening to me throughout school—that I’d known to call that racism. At that time I thought of racism as something that looked so different, something in the past. And growing up in a white, conservative, and religious family, it took me a long time to start questioning certain things I was raised with. As an adoptee, I was sort of outsider in my family. Sometimes I didn’t agree with certain views, but the pressure to be “one of them” and to fit in—even within my own family—was so great, and I’d be the only one pushing back on certain topics. It was really hard to do that over and over, to be the only one. Often I just didn’t want to do it. I wish I had known it was okay to feel differently about these things in my family—looking back, the reason I felt differently was really obvious.

AS: Did you read any other memoirs that really inspired you while you were developing your book’s form and structure?

NC: I went in not knowing. You have an outline when you propose, but my book looks pretty different than my original outline. Structure was the hardest part of this. I wish I was the kind of writer who could read other people’s brilliant work and think, “Oh yeah, I totally see how they did that.” But I experience books I’m reading in the moment, so while writing I honestly wasn’t looking to any particular other books for form and structure. I’m teaching a class right now on this and this is everyone’s number one question: how do you figure out the structure? This was hard—I muddled through. I finished writing it in a year, and then had a few months where I took it apart and restructured.

AS: As a memoir by an Asian-American adoptee, All You Can Ever Know is groundbreaking in a number of ways. Why aren’t there more books like it?

NC: There are few memoirs by Asian-Americans. There’s Woman Warrior, and Amy Tan’s memoir just came out last year, and some others, but there weren’t a whole lot of examples when I started writing. And this book is very different than a lot of other books about adoption, because the discourse around adoption has been dominated for so long by people who aren’t adopted. Other people have told our stories for us or said what they should mean. So I really hope that if this book is at all successful, that it opens the door for more stories. As we continue to have an evolving conversation about adoption and transracial adoption in particular, I hope that the voices of adopted people are centered.

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Adora Svitak received her B.A. from UC Berkeley, where she majored in Development Studies and minored in South Asian Studies and Creative Writing (taking workshops with Vikram Chandra, Kaya Oakes, and Joyce Carol Oates). She was editor-in-chief of the Berkeley Political Review, and has previously contributed to Bust, TED, Social Science Matrix, Women’s Media Center, the Bold Italic, Slackjaw, Edutopia, and the Huffington Post.