The Fraught Language of Adoption

A conversation with the writer Nicole Chung on a complicated question for adopted people: Who are my ‘real parents’?


“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.

The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

Ashley Fetters: In the book, you refer to both your adoptive family and your biological family as simply your “family.” Often you’ll write just “parents,” “mother,” or “dad” instead of “birth parents,” “adoptive mother,” or “biological dad.” What made you decide to do that?

Nicole Chung: Some of it was honestly accidental. But I do think about them all as my family, very interchangeably. My relationships with them are all different, but when I use the terms adoptive or birth as qualifiers, they’re almost always for the benefit of other people; I’ll see a quizzical look on someone’s face and realize I said “father” without qualifying it.

It doesn’t mean, of course, that we have the same relationship, or that I feel equally close to all of them. For various reasons, I’m not in touch with my birth mother. But I still feel that innate respect for those family bonds.

Fetters: As an adopted person myself, I always feel a little funny about using the words mother or father, unqualified, to describe anyone other than the two people who raised me. It feels weirdly off-limits to me. Did you initially feel a resistance to calling your biological dad simply your dad, or was that natural to you from the start?

Chung: It was not natural, no. I think maybe there’s a difference in writing versus conversation, but eventually my thinking about family bonds expanded as a result of searching for and finding my birth family. I realized these are real bonds and links that we have—and even if they were broken, they’re still there, in this fundamental way. It was strange to me to deny that.

The few times I’ve talked to my birth mother and the times I’ve met my birth father, I don’t call them to their faces “Mom” and “Dad.” I have different reasons with both of them. With my birth father, who I actually have something of a relationship with, even though I do sometimes refer to him as my father, it’s still not at that point where I feel secure in doing that.

Fetters: In the first part of the book, you describe the first time you spoke to your birth mother. She calls you on the phone and says, “This is your mother”—I’ll be honest, that rattled me to my core, just imagining it.

Chung: I mean, part of that is that English is her second language, and she’s not as familiar with the terminology around adoption. I don’t think she would ever think of herself as my “birth mother.” Maybe that was a term that someone mentioned to her a long time ago, but it’s probably not how she thinks about it now. But yes, that was extremely jarring. That’s not how I was used to thinking about her at that point.

Fetters: You also write that from a young age, people have asked you about your “real parents.”

Chung: My 10-year-old will still sometimes do that. She’ll catch herself, but sometimes she’ll ask me a question about my birth parents and say “your real parents.” It’s funny, nobody taught her to do that. It’s an instinctive slip that people make. The kid who asked me about my real parents in first grade—it wasn’t like anybody told him to. It’s just what people think. They think the biological aspect is what makes it real, consciously or subconsciously.

Fetters: What do you tell your daughter when she says that? Do you correct her?

Chung: I haven’t told her not to say it. I’ve explained to her that I have two sets of parents, and they’re both my real parents in different ways. So I say, “If you want me to be sure who you’re talking about, you can refer to them by name,” because she knows their names. Or, “You can say ‘your birth parents’ or ‘your adoptive parents,’ just so I’m clear who you mean.” I haven’t reprimanded her or anything, but I have said, you know, “I don’t think of one or the other as more ‘real,’” even though I am closer to my adoptive family. I don’t have much use for that term real when it comes to family.

Fetters: When I was fairly little, somebody at school or Sunday school asked me who my real parents were, and when I came home, I in turn asked my (adoptive) parents who my real parents were. I remember my mom emphasizing to me that she was my “real mom.”

Chung: I probably had similar conversations with my parents from a really young age. One of the most striking things about reconnecting with my birth family has been talking with my adoptive parents about it and having them realize these are also real family members. Our relationships and our history are so different, but they’re still legitimate family in some way. It’s an ongoing process of understanding that. It was easier for them than I thought it would be, honestly, when I did start reconnecting, to sort of acknowledge the realness of those original family bonds. Maybe because I was an adult, and they were secure in our relationship at that point.

Fetters: What were your conversations like with your adoptive mom about the book?

Chung:  She’s really positive about it. My father read a part of it, too, before he died earlier this year. The thing I was most anxious about was, I didn’t know how I would respond if they contested my memories. Of course, you can never be 100 percent sure that you remembered everything with 100 percent accuracy. I felt like I’d recorded this to the best of my ability, not embellishing, but what if they told me, “That’s just completely not how it happened”?

They didn’t. My dad said at one point, “This is your perspective. It doesn’t have to be the book we would have written about this. This is your life, and these are your feelings. This is how you felt about your adoption and your childhood, and it’s really not our place to challenge anything in it.”

Fetters: You’ve confronted your identity as an adopted person in a much more head-on way than a lot of other adopted people do. What advice would you give to adoptees who are thinking about searching for more information about their birth families?

Chung: Well, I’m not a counselor, and I’m not [professionally] qualified to give advice in this area. But with all the disclaimers, I guess I would say, if they’re considering a search or reunion—if that’s even an option that they can explore, because of course for many adoptees it’s not—making sure they have a really good support system and people to talk very frankly with about everything that they’re feeling.

I didn’t always take this advice. I definitely had people in my corner, but especially at the beginning of my search, I had it in my head that this was such a personal decision that I had to make it on my own. I talked to my husband and my parents, but part of me didn’t know what to say while I was waiting. I’d always felt a little bit isolated by adoption—it wasn’t something even many of the people closest to me fully understood, because it was not their experience. I just remember thinking, I have to do this on my own.

In retrospect, I don’t know that that’s true. And once things really started to happen, I talked more and more with other people. But the initial decision to search was difficult and emotional, and sometimes I wish I’d brought people in a little earlier than I did.

The other thing is, I think people have to not expect neat or tidy resolutions. That so rarely happens in life, or in families. It’s going to bring up a lot of emotions. And there are just going to be things you never can know; there are questions I just won’t get answers to, period, and accepting that’s difficult. Hearing things that maybe you don’t like or can’t understand—that’s difficult too. As much as you can, be gentle and patient with yourself, and with as many people involved as you can.

Fetters: Over the past few decades in the United States, we’ve seen a shift toward open adoptions over closed. My adoption was closed, like yours. Have your experiences shaped how you think about open versus closed adoptions? If someone were to ask you now which way to adopt, what would you say to them?

Chung: I think, in general, it’s good that we’ve seen a trend toward more openness in adoption. Of course, a huge number of the adoptions in the U.S. are from overseas, so even if information is known about the birth family, it’s difficult to have an open adoption internationally, or maintain those ties across that kind of distance. And open adoption isn’t some kind of cure for the larger issues: The initial loss is still there for the birth parent and the adoptee.

When people ask me if they should adopt, that is one thing I don’t feel qualified to answer. So these days, instead of just an unqualified “yes” or something, I think I would probably just ask them some questions, especially if they’re considering transracial adoption. Are they really thinking about these issues of race and identity and prejudice and how they will discuss it with their child? Because it can’t all be the fun cultural-exploration part. It also means you have to have really tough conversations. Even if your child’s race doesn’t matter to you, you have to be prepared for the fact it will matter to them. It will matter to other people. I think it’s worth looking really closely at your communities, your neighborhoods, your school, maybe your religious organization. What would it be like to be a child of color in your social circle, in your community? It’s kind of the very basic beginning point for people who want to adopt transracially … trying to put themselves in that child’s shoes and then looking really honestly at where they live. People need to go into it realistically and with their eyes open.