by Ni­cole Chung; Cat­a­pult (225 pages, $26)

As a child, Ni­cole Chung rum­maged through the wooden box that sat high on a shelf in her par­ents’ room with thoughts of bury­ing it in the back­yard for a trea­sure hunt—a mem­ory she re­counts in “All That You Can Ever Know,” a ten­der, un­sen­ti­men­tal mem­oir of her adop­tion and the search for her Korean birth­par­ents.

She re­turned to that box of fam­ily pho­tos and vi­tal pa­pers with fresh pur­pose as a teen. While the le­gal-size en­ve­lope she found there had held scant in­ter­est for a play­ful kid, it of­fered un­nerv­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties for the bright, in­wardly dis­con­tented ado­les­cent Chung was be­com­ing.

The en­ve­lope was “buried among the pho­tographs, stamped with a Seat­tle

ad­dress,” she writes. “In­side was a bill for five hun­dred dol­lars and a busi­ness card” with the name of the lawyer who had han­dled her adop­tion. When she di­aled the lawyer’s of­fice, her “heart was rac­ing,” she writes. “By now I felt less like a de­tec­tive, more like a crim­i­nal. Should I just hang up?”

“All You Can Ever Know” has the pa­tient pac­ing of a mys­tery and the philo­soph­i­cal heft of a skep­tic’s un­der­tak­ing. Along the way, Chung wres­tles with bi­ol­ogy and cul­ture, her­itage and be­long­ing, race and moth­er­hood—al­ways from an in­tensely per­sonal van­tage. That the apex of her search co­in­cides with Chung’s first preg­nancy pro­vides even more ma­te­rial for the mem­oir’s tango of aban­don­ment and em­brace.

In re­cent years, adop­tion agen­cies have of­fered new strate­gies to help adop­tive par­ents nur­ture chil­dren when they are of a dif­fer­ent race and cul­tural back­ground. But in 1983, Chung’s par­ents—two nice, white Catholic kids who left Cleve­land for the Pa­cific North­west—em­ployed a sort of “col­or­blind” ap­proach. In­tended to make sure their only child knew she be­longed, their strat­egy left Chung alone with ques­tions of race and her place in a fam­ily that looked noth­ing like her.

“My par­ents and I had cer­tainly never dis­cussed the pos­si­bil­ity that I might en­counter big­ots within my school, our neigh­bor­hood, our fam­ily, in places they be­lieved were safe for me,” she writes. And so, the first time a kid taunted her about be­ing “Chi­nese” and adopted, she was dou­bly wounded. “This felt like a dif­fer­ent kind of hu­mil­i­a­tion, one I could not ex­pect to un­der­stand,” Chung writes. “They had al­ways in­sisted the fact that I was Korean didn’t mat­ter; what mat­tered was ‘the kind of per­son’ I was. How could I tell them they were wrong?”

And hadn’t she been told that her birth­par­ents—hard­work­ing im­mi­grants with a small busi­ness in Seat­tle— wanted her but couldn’t keep her? Hadn’t they made the self­less de­ci­sion to put her up for adop­tion for med­i­cal rea­sons? In­fant Girl Chung had been born 10 weeks be­fore term. Her prog­no­sis was iffy and she spent weeks in the Neona­tal In­ten­sive Care Unit be­fore her grate­ful new par­ents “tore their baby out of the arms of a hos­pi­tal nurse.”

The mem­oir’s ti­tle is a nod to Chung hav­ing been told that the scant in­for­ma­tion she had about her bi­o­log­i­cal fam­ily would have to suf­fice. The adop­tion had been closed, and through­out the mem­oir her par­ents ap­pear lov­ing if un­help­ful, even ob­struc­tion­ist (es­pe­cially her mother).

Early on, Chung be­gins weav­ing a new char­ac­ter into the tale: her birth sis­ter. “Cindy would never be able to re­call any­one ac­tu­ally telling her the baby had died,” starts one chap­ter. It’s an un­ex­pected turn, one that sub­tly con­firms that Chung’s search will be suc­cess­ful even as it adds a layer of in­trigue to that saga. Telling her birth sis­ter’s story the way a novelist or, as she is here, a bi­og­ra­pher, might is Chung’s finest de­ci­sion. These in­ter­ludes pro­vide il­lu­mi­nat­ing pauses (and sig­nif­i­cant doses of fact—about her par­ents’ di­vorce, her mother’s vi­o­lence) to her own te­na­cious first-per­son grap­pling with loss and fam­ily.

“I searched be­cause I wasn’t con­tent with what I’d al­ways known,” writes the mother of two daugh­ters and now younger sis­ter of a woman she found search­ing for par­ents who were not quite what she imag­ined. “Re­union has taught me that there is no way to re­make your his­tory or your fam­ily in the im­age you want,” Chung ad­mits. “But there can be more, if you are will­ing to look for those sto­ries that were lost—you might find some­one new to for­give, to love, to grow with.”

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