book review – “all you can ever know”, by nicole chung

i listened to “all you can ever know” recently while recovering from top surgery. this is beneath me, but also is true: i resented nicole for this entire book.

the reason is entirely unfair, but also BOY this book uncovered some deep-seated anxieties and losses for me, chiefly: i am half korean. my mother is from korea. korean is technically my first language, although i lost all of it due to racism on the part of my parents — my dad didn’t want me to lag behind native english speakers, and my mother wanted me to be an american (note: i don’t really blame either of them, it was a different time and different understanding, but — it still is a loss, you know?).

the thing is, i don’t LOOK korean. nobody in the world takes a look at me and thinks i’m a korean person; i get nebulously “not white” but that’s about it. and to some extent that doesn’t matter, but also — it kind of does matter?

when i was in high school, i think, there was a blow-up on social media about cultural appropriation and white women playing dress-up in indian clothing. turns out the woman in question was, in fact, indian and was wearing her own traditional clothing. despite literally being mixed, and having more connection to my birth culture than a fair few asian americans i’ve known who are 3rd/4th/5th gen, i worry a lot tbh that interacting with my own birth culture is in and of itself cultural appropriation.

it doesn’t help that i also got the usual elementary school tormenting about stinky foods — i once begged my mother for weeks to let me take nice white person lunchables to school instead of homemade korean food — and yet, now that korean food and korean pop culture are trendy, i’m still wary of possibly overstepping with my own culture in ways white people are not.

on top of that — i’m estranged from my korean parent. she is a cruel, homophobic, transphobic, racist abuser and i can’t be around her. losing that connection with her also means losing that connection with my entire korean family, outside of my sister. what does it mean to be half-korean if you choose not to interact with your korean kin?

i don’t know. i just think sometimes if i LOOKED korean, even, if i weren’t so obviously 미국 사람, this would be less fraught. i know that’s not actually true — nicole talks about feeling disconnected from her birth culture too! this stuff is hard and fraught for anybody who isn’t white growing up in a white supremacist culture! — and yet. and yet!!!

“all you can ever know” had a lot of sensitive and nuanced discussion of race and family and how to navigate secrets and family. nicole chung is a talented writer (i — realized i called her “nicole” through this whole thing; a holdover from seeing her writing on the hyphen toast dot com tbh and not a sign of disrespect) and this book punched me in the heart a bunch.

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