“When we rode home together that afternoon, side by side in the backseat of his mother’s blue sedan, I was silent and so was he, pretending nothing had happened between us that day. But inside of me, something still and deep, something precious, had broken.”
Within the first chapter of Nicole Chung’s book, All You Can Ever Know, she’s heard her first racist slur. A schoolmate pulls “his eyes into slits”, sing-song chanting at her before they hop in the carpool together, like nothing happened. It’s only the 2nd grade, but the parents who adopted her at birth had insisted on being colorblind, which means this is her first introduction to race.
It’s taken me months to figure out why this book was so impacting — why I carried her story around in my heart as one of my own. Its influence on me didn’t entirely make sense, aside from the writer’s axiom that the more specific and personal the work, the more universal it is. But there is something more here, something I may not entirely want to talk about.
Chung beautifully puts her experience into a kaleidoscope of compassion for herself, a Korean-American, and the white religious family who adopted her. She grows up in a rural Oregon town where she can count on one hand the number of Asians she has ever seen. When she first visits Seattle — also her birthplace — as a ten-year she is exhilarated: “I tried to play my Count the Asian game and lost track every time.” For the first time, she was inconspicuous, no one looking twice at her (though possibly at the white parents holding her hand).
Nicole Chung writes as an adult, married, and pregnant. When prenatal doctors ask about her family medical history, she at long last acts on her wish to find her birth parents. She describes her life now on parallel tracks, as she waits to meet the both the generation above, and below her. As life often goes, what she finds is more than one simple thing, and in the end some questions remain. Maybe that’s All You Can Ever Know, she discovers. I’ll leave the other details to the reader as I reflect on this book further.
Why did this book stick with me? To be sure, it’s beautifully written, with acute observations tucked in like flowers along a pathway. The book tells the truth even when hard things need to be said – but always with a tone of compassion. Still I wondered where I was finding myself in this book.
I’m not in the adoption, the Catholic upbringing, or the rural life.
I’m not a woman, much less a pregnant one.
I don’t find my ethnicity outside the dominant white culture of America.
And yet – I find myself throughout this book.
This book is not about me.
And that’s just it.
Most of the books of my life have been about me. (And even those that weren’t, I read myself into. How else could the Western world end up with a white, english speaking Jesus when he was clearly neither?).
And there I am in Nicole Chung’s story – the white kid in her school who doesn’t have to deal with race except to categorize and stereotype. There I am as a college-aged guy trying to do the right thing by being color blind. There I am as an adult, ignoring the challenges that people of color faced each day while I walked around thinking about what kind of sandwich to order. There I was projecting my faith onto people of color, thinking if they had God the rest of their identity wouldn’t matter.
I’m not used to reading books that aren’t about me. Or where I’m a peripheral character, not meant to look good. But I show up around the edges of her story, the same way she describes watching TV shows where “people who looked like me were either invisible or presented for laughs.” Her reading of literary heroes gave her the impression that to “Be beautiful and adored, you had to be white.”
I wonder if Joy Ku, my grade school classmate that I competed for grades with, but wasn’t really friends with, felt like that. I wonder how David Li felt, who we teased in upper school for changing his name from Dat Li, when his white classmates could not see past his birth name to discover his unique personality and sense of humor. I was in their stories too, in small and perhaps insignificant ways, but I could have played such a bigger and better role in their memoirs. If I could go back and listen, Chung hints at what I might have heard:
“The strange thing was that, inside, I always felt like I was the same as everyone around me. I am just like you, I thought when kids squinted at me in mockery of my own eyes; why can’t you see that?“
How can I discover myself to be so deep in the comfort of majority, that I can never understand what it feels like to be a minority? Would a tiny moment of role reversal offer a glimpse, like walking into a downtown McDonalds and realizing I am the only white person inside? No, it’s not enough – there’s always a white world to escape to, even if on tv. Without being able to relate, the majority begins to doubt it’s even a thing. We are tempted to write race out of the story, just like our school text books did: Martin Luther King, Jr. already fixed everything so let’s move on, “nothing to see here”. (For more on that see The Already and the Not Yet of MLK). In a later interview, Chung says, “I didn’t have the background and the language to call it racism. I’d been led to believe racism was something in the past. Even teachers at school presented racism as a thing we had conquered.”
Chung’s parents seemed to take this approach, following the advice they were given at the hospital to assimilate her into the family. Their family love is enough, it is supposed, to counteract (or ignore) the possibility of racism that she will meet growing up. If they see her as a person without racial difference, then surely the world will too. There is an earnestness in following the wisdom of that era, to take a colorblind approach. In their attempts for equality of race, they set race aside and declare they can’t even see it. However, the rest of her world was not committed to the same attitude, and she is left to figure it out on her own.
The colorblind way would have made sense to me for a time as well. But Chung gives grace as she lovingly but directly points out the foolishness of this approach. Her compassion to her parents is compassion to me. I can now see the head-in-the-sand optimism of that way; it is useless in the world as it exists. The beauty found in other cultures is mesmerizing; that those cultures all exist inside the same schools and workplaces is an orchestral symphony apparently too complex for the pop music of our little brains.
That we must appreciate and understand each other’s racial identities seems widely appreciated now, so I’ll spare the sermonizing. Except this: Chung’s observation of adoption as trumping race, mirrors a common white church’s approach to Christianity over race. There is an identity as children of God we might say, that overrides our ethnic or national background. And while there is something to this — there is also something missing from this. This teaching often cues congregations, especially whites, that it’s ok to ignore race altogether. But like the already-mentioned writer’s maxim about sharing personally, the more each person lives into their specific ethnicity and history, the more universal the message when we join together (provided we listen to each other).
In her last chapter she writes, “The adoption story I’d heard so often growing up was supposed to remake me, give me everything I needed, make me feel whole. In the end though, real growth and healing came from another kind of radical change – from finding the courage to question what I’d always been told; to seek and discover and tell another kind of story.”
And there, I finally do find myself in her story, learning that it’s ok to question and revise history. (The mistake was thinking that history as I received it wasn’t already revised.) Chung bravely steps into it, despite her parents’ hesitancy about her search for the birth parents (“Don’t forget who [your] real family [is]”, they tell her).
She doesn’t know what she’ll find, but she wants the truth, even if life must crackle as it resettles over a changing foundation. In the pursuit she also learns to accept that history may not fully reveal itself, but we take the pieces we have and move forward. Some things are buried with time, and your intention to stand on them anyway may be All You Can Ever Know.
♦ weekendswell ♦
This is the second in a series of Impact Reviews: Books that affected me deeply. The first was BBT’s Leaving Church.