On Loving and Losing Your Adoptive Parents


Nicole Chung on her new memoir A Living Remedy



Nicole Chung has established herself as a queen of the literary memoir. Born to Korean immigrants and later adopted by a white couple in rural Oregon, Chung’s first memoir, All You Can Ever Know, chronicled her experience as a transracial adoptee, and the search for her remaining birth family in the United States. Now, her latest, A Living Remedy, published last month, is already garnering rave reviews. It tells the gut-wrenching story of losing her two adoptive parents back to back, in 2018 and 2020. As a transracial adoptee, I am moved and astonished by how Chung continues to expand on the adoption narrative (or the perception of it) in such succinct and generous ways. I sat down with her for The Meteor to talk about all of it.

Rebecca Carroll: In your new book, A Living Remedy, you contemplate whether or not you would have become a writer had you not been adopted. What is it about your experience as an adoptee that made you become a writer? 

Nicole Chung: Maybe you’ll relate to this as an adoptee and a storyteller, but you’re always telling that formative story over and over whether you feel like talking about it or not. There were certainly many years when I didn’t want to share it or tried to find ways to share less of it. But even with the original story my adoptive parents told me about my adoption, which I later learned wasn’t quite the truth, I was always struck by the power that can be found in retelling or reclaiming a story, if you’re willing and brave enough to reconsider it.

RC: It makes me think that as adoptees, we are constantly trying to write our identities into existence. When did you know that you were going to become not just a writer, but a writer of such personal stories? 

NC: I grew up not seeing anything like my experience in literature. Even stories written about adoption where it’s a plot point, I often find bears little to no resemblance to my experience. And it’s hard because I was very worried about, and honestly still am, being pigeonholed as this Korean adoptee writer. At the same time, it felt as though I had to write the first book [All You Can Ever Know] before I could write anything else. I just needed to see something like myself in literature to write more of it.

RC: There are moments throughout A Living Remedy where you say, “as an adoptee…”—and every single time I read that, it was thrilling because it felt like you were writing directly to me, while also expanding the adoptee narrative. Were you writing to fellow adoptees specifically?  

NC: With my first book every time I started to lose my nerve or just think, “This is beyond me. I can’t tell this story,” or “Who will care?” I thought about fellow adoptees, and that is what kept me going. A Living Remedy is completely different. It’s not that I didn’t think about the wider audience with All You Can Ever Know—unlike some people in publishing, I was always convinced there was an audience for adoptee stories. A Living Remedy scared me, though, because it is just a much broader book. I’m writing about many things people call universal when white writers do it—grief, loss, illness. But because of my identity, I did wonder, will I be allowed to do this?

RC: Your main subjects, though, your parents, are white—how did that factor in?

NC: The story of my family until me is very much a white working-class story. But to be in the family and not have that same experience was one of the things that I wanted to write about, while not making either my race or my parents’ race the focus. An interviewer asked me recently if my parents being white made me feel distant from them or their financial hardship, and I just didn’t know how to respond. In every way, I thought of them as my parents, except for the basic biological facts. So, of course, I always felt I was part of their experience.


RC: There’s a passage in the book when you’re in college, about to get married, and your mother accuses you of being embarrassed by them—she says you just see her and your dad as “poor white trash,” which took you off guard. How did you see them?

NC: I thought of them as my parents. I thought of them as the people who loved and raised me. I was just beginning to understand the educational and class differences that might happen. I think this is part of almost everybody’s coming-of-age story, where you learn to see your parents as whole people, not just your parents. The changing nature of that parent-child relationship is a big part of the book, partly because of the caregiving role I had to step into when both my parents were ill.

RC: In one instance, you describe college as stepping into a foothold that your parents couldn’t follow you into—what did you mean by that?

NC: I had never been away from my parents, where I grew up in this small town in Oregon for longer than a month at summer camp. I wasn’t thinking about the fact that they couldn’t go with me, or that if I gained education and class privilege, that I wouldn’t be able to bring them with me. I was still thinking, “If I make it, they make it.” Of course, I had my own ambition, things that I wanted and hoped for, but I very much thought of myself as doing this for my family.

RC: Where did that ambition come from? Because you could have just stayed in the town.

NC: Oh, no, I could not have. After my first book came out, someone who had gone to my same church said, “I read your book. It was interesting. That’s just not really what I think our community was like for me.” And I said, “Well, of course it wasn’t like that for you. You are a white guy. There’s a reason that you and I had very different experiences in that community.” Honestly, not to sound dramatic, I thought it might kill me if I stayed.

RC: How do you feel now about the place where you grew up?

NC: There are beautiful things about it…but it’s not home. I never really belonged there, and I know that. I would rather not give racism this power in my narrative, but it’s true that as soon as I started hearing slurs on the playground, I started thinking about leaving. I think also it was my parents, and especially my mother, who prepared me to go.

RC: I was so struck by your relationship with your mother, and the resolute way in which you write about her love—what  have you brought of her mothering to your own?

NC: She was a very devout woman. Her deepest faith was in God. But after that, she had so much faith in me as her child. It’s not like our relationship was perfect. It was very complicated. Adoption was one of many things that complicated it. But I never doubted her love or her faith in me. And I think that made me braver than I would’ve been otherwise. If I can bring anything of her parenting to mine, that’s what I think about the most. I want my kids to grow up with that sense of reassurance.

RC: In the book, you use the term “unadopted” to describe what it felt like, in part, to lose both your adoptive parents—can you say more about that?

NC: I’m not sure it’s the term that I’d use now to describe my current state. But my mother was dying—my last link, the last person who knew me as a child or remembered what it was like for me growing up. It was just sinking in that I was going to be carrying these memories of my parents and my grandparents, all alone in a sense. What does it even mean to have lost two families—to have lost one family through adoption, and then the one that adopted me? What does it mean to be an adoptee when your adopted family is gone?

RC: If not unadopted, then what?

NC: I am still an adoptee. That will always be part of who I am. My parent’s love for me will always shape who I am. I was then and still am really sad that my time belonging to that family is over, and there’s no getting it back. There’s no finding it with other people. It’s just over.

RC: How do you bear it?

NC: I think there was a time when I wasn’t bearing it. I remember just this deep depression I fell into after my father died, and there were echoes of that when my mother was dying. Just the helplessness and the rage, and it felt unbearable. [But] I knew that by living, I could remember [my parents]. It finally became more important to me to be able to live and remember them than to live, punishing myself for what I couldn’t do for them. And I think that’s still how I bear it, because when I was able to do that and grieve in that way, they felt close again.

Rebecca Carroll is a writer, cultural critic, and podcast creator/host. Her writing has been published widely, and she is the author of several books, including her recent memoir, Surviving the White Gaze. Rebecca is Editor at Large for The Meteor.