“You Deserve to Be Safe”: Nicole Chung on Parenting in a Wave of Anti-AAPI Violence

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Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Hey, y’all, it’s Brittany. The country watched this week while judge Kentucky Brown Jackson served up nothing but brilliance during her Supreme court confirmation hearings. And she was grace personified, but baby, she was eating those Republicans up. We’ll get to her in a minute. But right now, I want to talk to you for a second about another Black woman equally as brilliant, equally as tenacious, equally as unafraid. My friend and champion of the people, Cora Faith Walker joined the ancestors just over a week ago.

We were college classmates who found deeper community in the years since we both played roles in the Ferguson uprising. Cora was just 37 years old, but she fit so much courage into her short time here on earth. Cora trained as a lawyer and a public health advocate, putting both her JD and her MPH to work to fight for reproductive justice, children’s rights, gender, and racial equity.

And she never, ever, ever turned away from the hard things. Even when that meant, literally, sitting beside the man who she accused of sexually assaulting her, when she entered the Missouri House of Representatives. Inspired by the people’s power in the Ferguson uprising, Cora stepped up to represent Ferguson’s residents.

And even when the Missouri House decided to still seat the member who had hurt her and allegedly other women, she pressed on for the sake of the people. Many of us will never let St. Louis forget the hand that patriarchy played in Cora’s story. But even more than this, we will never let anyone forget that all of us were better because Cora lived. Because her Southern-bred, thousand-watt smile could light up any room and her fierce power could light up any House floor. She was always there marching in the street, showing up on her neighbors’ stoops, a laugh and a helping hand in store. 

She fought for us and she protected us with grace and humor, and kindness even, and especially, when it wasn’t extended to her. Cora, we can never repay what we owe you, but we will always shine your light. Matthew 25 cites the words often repeated in Black churches during our Homegoing services. “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” And if there’s anyone I know God whispered those words to, is you Cora. We miss you. We love you. Well done, my friend. Rest in power. We are UNDISTRACTED.

On the show today, I’ll be talking to Nicole Chung about parenting during a wave of increased violence against Asian-Americans and what she’d like white co-conspirators to know. 

Nicole Chung: Other families, they used to joke they get stuck with their kids, but we chose you. And I was like, if you chose me then you can choose me now. You know, you can really listen to what I’m saying. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: That’s coming up. But first, it’s your UnTrending news.

So the big news this week, the confirmation hearings of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. It began on Monday. Judge Jackson is the first Black woman to be nominated to the Supreme Court. And as we’ve said before, she’s got qualifications on qualifications. Judge Jackson has served on one of the most important courts in the country.

She worked on making federal prison sentences more just, and she clerked for the exact same Supreme Court justice she’s been nominated to replace. She’d also be the first Supreme Court justice with significant experience, representing criminal defendants since Thurgood Marshall was appointed in 1967. 

And yet, we’ve still got senators in the GOP who probably wish it was still 1967. They have made a valiant effort to drag Judge Jackson through the mud in the first 48 hours of the hearing alone. We had Ted Cruz who brought props, literal, blown up pictures of anti-racist children’s books to talk nonsense about critical race theory being taught in schools, which of course doesn’t actually come up in Judge Jackson’s work because they’re there to talk about her work as a judge. 

Then there was Sen. Josh Hawley, I’m sorry, he’s from Missouri, to try to make it sound like she goes easy on child pornography offenders. You know, to stir up that good old QAnon crowd. And of course, Sen. Lindsey Graham tried to make it seem like she goes easy on terrorists.

Meanwhile, she was clear that

Ketanji Brown Jackson: Public defenders don’t choose their clients and yet, they have to provide vigorous advocacy. That’s the duty of a lawyer. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: And then of course there was Marsha Blackburn, who brought up everything from CRT to her anti-trans rhetoric. And I didn’t even know what the hell she was talking about after a while, but it is honestly wild to watch them use hearings to make news for Fox.

They’ve tried to catch her up on stuff that has nothing to do with being a judge. Sen. Kennedy even called her articulate. Yeah, as if being a double Harvard grad would be anything else. Even when she’s defending her record against these drummed up charges made by Republicans who are salty over a democratic president nominating a Black woman. 

Judge Jackson is both a breath of fresh air and a reminder of just how perfect Black women gotta be. Like she’s getting questioned by senators who absolutely helped inspire the January 6th insurrection, but having to hold her total composure, be gracious, and smile through it all. Meanwhile, Brett Kavanaugh got to come out red faced and entitled when he was credibly accused of sexual assault and he got the job.

So, just remember the next time you see someone compliment Judge Brown Jackson on her tenor during these hearings, remember there was no other option for her, but to be absolutely unequivocally perfect. 

The prison sentence of a woman charged with murder after a stillbirth has thankfully been overturned. She’d already spent four whole years behind bars. In 2017, in California, Adora Perez delivered a stillborn child. Doctors found methamphetamines in the baby’s system and told officials that they may have contributed to his death. She was charged with murder, but in order to avoid that more serious charge pleaded down to voluntary manslaughter.

The ruling this week says that the law she was charged under was used incorrectly to punish a pregnant person. It’s meant to be used against someone who has harmed a pregnant person. There’s still a lot of legal issues to work through before she’s released, but the attorney general of California has sided with Ms. Perez saying in a statement: “Here in California, we do not criminalize the loss of a pregnancy.” 

Y’all, she needed help, not punishment. And all of this sounds outrageous because it is, but this is a direct result in part of more and more states extending legal personhood to fetuses instead of seeing pregnancy, and thereby abortion as a matter of privacy and personal autonomy for the pregnant person. 

Moves like this can help do everything from criminalize abortion to, in this case, criminalize stillbirths. And losing a child is plenty traumatic without the threat of jail time coming along with it. In the end, this is a textbook intersectional issue. Criminalizing something that has always been a part of a family’s life will lead to more incarcerated people. Period. That’s why we have to do two things at the same time, pursue prison abolition and protect abortion. 

Okay, deep breath. I want to take a minute here to shout out some good trouble. And normally, I do not spend time on Kim, Kanye, or his antics, but I do want to give kudos to “The Daily Show” Trevor Noah for his monologue last week, which sounded the alarm on Kanye’s increasingly harassing behavior.

If you missed it, I don’t know how, but Kim Kardashian is seeking divorce from her equally famous husband, rapper Kanye West. It’s been popping off in the tabloids for months now, but Kanye’s responses and his refusal to honor her request to be left alone is what, in particular, Trevor Noah was flagging. Because for him, it looks an awful lot like the cycle of harassment that accompanied the abuse his mother experienced. And even though she asked for help, people never believed her.

Trevor Noah: I remember once we went to the police station and they said to my mom, “Oh, but did you talk back? Is that why you’re here?” And I’ll never forget one day I got a call from my brother saying “Hey, mom has just been shot in the head. She’s in the hospital now. She’s just been shot.” Maybe that’s why I look at the story differently to be honest with you. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Y’all, if Kim can’t escape a situation like this, what chance do normal women have? So, I’m going to give Trevor Noah his props because far too many people have been treating what is happening to Kim and their children like a publicity stunt.

But here’s what I’m also going to flag because even less attention has been paid to Megan Thee Stallion. Also famous, the superstar has credibly accused rapper Tory Lanez of shooting her in the foot. And even fewer people are believing her or talking about it. A dark skin, Black woman is very simply not getting the same mainstream coverage.

So, if that’s the case for two of the most recognizable women on the planet, what is the risk for the rest of us? For poor women, for trans women, BIPOC women, immigrant women? What chance do any of us have, especially when women are questioned for what happens to them instead of society questioning why it’s happening to them?

Coming up, my conversation with Nicole Chung, author of the memoir All You Can Ever Know. We’ll be talking about what it means to be a Korean American adoptee in these disturbing times, right after this short break.

And we are back. Our Asian American siblings have experienced more than a 300% jump in hate crimes over the last year. It’s gotten so severe that a recent piece in The New York Times floated ideas for reducing violence. Ideas included an Asian American curriculum in schools, better services for the unhoused, better services for the mentally ill. More cops, fewer cops, a new cop to replace the old one as the head of the New York City hate crime task force. But irrespective of the list, just a week later The Times was reporting on yet another brutal attack. This time, a 67 year-old Filipino woman was cursed at, punched, kicked, and spat at by her assailant.

The attack was so disturbing that YouTube took down the surveillance camera video that had been uploaded by law enforcement, citing its policy against graphic violence. But even if the video is gone we cannot unsee it. It’s so much to bear and the burden is increased when you are a parent. My guest today, author Nicole Chung, says it’s a struggle to make sense of these kinds of attacks and to explain them to her children. 

That struggle hits Nicole so uniquely as a Korean American adopted into a white family, she sits right on the border between blissful ignorance of the experience of racism and the solitary experience of being the only one. I wanted to talk to her about how her adoption story shapes her response to these painful times and how she’s parenting her children through them.

Hey, Nicole. Thank you so much for talking with me today. 

Nicole Chung: Thank you so much for the invitation. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: So, we’re sitting in a moment where we have just marked the one year anniversary of the murders of workers at the Atlanta spa. And that year of mourning was really bookended with a brutal attack on an Asian elder in New York earlier this month.  I’m wondering, in your own reflection, how you think you’ve changed over the past year. How has the way you’ve processed these kinds of incidents changed? 

Nicole Chung: I mean, I’ve been asked this like a couple of times this weekend and one time it was in a conversation with a good friend, a fellow Korean American writer, actually.

And we’re all sadder, we’re angrier. And I think there’s a lot more anxiety and fear for the people, you know, that we love. And so for better or for worse, I do think there are a lot more conversations happening. There’s more, maybe more awareness. I mean, that said, we also sometimes hear statistics about how many white people are completely unaware that there’s been a spike in violence and harassment against Asian and Pacific Islander communities.

So, a lot of us are more tired. And it’s not like it was new, you know, the racism was not new. It was not started by Trump when he started scapegoating Asian Americans for COVID. But at the same time, I think what we have seen are like a lot of people emboldened by that, like that’s their reason now they can use.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Yeah, he gave a lot of racists some cover. Right? To your point. But recently you tweeted that “I can’t feel despair all the time because I see how many are fighting for a safer and more just world. Who is out there standing in the gap that you want us to know about?”

Nicole Chung: You know, we do this work, we stand on the shoulders of so many people and we have seen solidarity from a lot of different communities of color.

You know, the movement for Black lives made a statement like immediately after Atlanta. There were Black and Asian communities in the Atlanta area, like on the ground talking and making statements and like mourning. That was really meaningful. And it’s been really helpful, I think, especially in the last couple of years of the widespread trauma and grief that we are all dealing with and in the face of ongoing racial trauma, which is not unique to Asian-Americans of course, and not new. Knowing who’s in your corner. Like knowing who’s there that has been enormously helpful for me. And I think it is what’s kept me from despair. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Community is everything in these moments and to keep it in a personal, for a second. I’m thinking specifically about this beautiful essay that you wrote in the Atlantic called “How do I Talk to My Daughter about Violence against Asian Women?” I mean, reading that is part of the reason why we as a team, we’re like we have to have Nicole on the show.

Can you tell us a little bit more about your daughter? How old is she? 

Nicole Chung: She is, she just turned 14, actually. So, like middle school student, definitely like a teen. She’s amazing. Like she’s, I try not to talk a lot about her like publicly, but she’s, I’m just constantly in awe of her and like how well she knows herself and how deeply she cares and honestly how much she cares about justice.

And so, you know, I think we were always going to have these conversations and not just because she’s old enough to get news alerts on her phone, but because we’ve always had these conversations. And at the same time, you know, that piece really came from just me sitting with my feelings about how hard it was, because I still feel that parental urge to want to protect her or to just like, keep her safe at home where like nothing could happen. 

And of course, like that’s not realistic. Of course, like that’s not a luxury that most people and certainly most parents of color have. Not talking to her about it would not keep her from facing racism. And in fact, she’s already faced racism in her life. She’s 14. It’s just so hard as a parent, I think to sit in that tension of like, I can’t stop this from someday hurting you or from hurting you now, but we still. We have to talk about it. We have to name it. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: It was deeply compelling. And I’m curious, just what kind of conversations you’ve been having with her. Right? As you’ve been processing your own feelings while also having to parent through this. Have those conversations evolved? Are they different from what they were before the pandemic? 

Nicole Chung: Yeah. You know, I have to kind of like ding myself a little bit here. I think that I had talked with her actually a great deal about structural racism and violence. State violence.

We talked a lot about violence against Black people. And I talked with her about anti-Asian racism, but perhaps until the last couple of years, I hadn’t talked with her about that as much as I should have. Like the very specific ways that Asian women and girls experienced like racial and gender based violence, because all women of color experience it.

But like there’s very specific ways that we experience it. Just like there’s very specific ways that Black women experience it. And I sort of started to wonder like, did I not sort of make enough distinctions with her and get specific enough?

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: You know, it’s so interesting, there’s this thread that goes through your essay,  this sense of having your own emotions and then not necessarily knowing how to tackle the conversation with this person that you are raising.

It ends with this paragraph that I want to share because of how powerful I find it. I think it’d be amazing if you read it because I’d love for people to hear it in your voice. 

Nicole Chung: Okay. 

I can tell you the truth and do my best to prepare you, but I can be neither your mediator, nor your lifelong shield. You will have to seek answers to your own questions, try to create and care for your own community and learn how to reckon with this country, this world, on your own terms.

If there are those who will not see or value you. If there are those who do not consider your life precious, I hope that you can always feel assured of your own immense worth and your absolute right to be safe. You deserve to be safe. We all deserve to be safe. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: I loved your words there because it cut through so clearly. We all deserve to be safe. And yet, that right of humanity is not at all guaranteed anywhere in the world, certainly in this country. What do you think about what you’ve learned about how to reckon with this country, as you say? 

Nicole Chung: I don’t know. I wish I had good answers. It’s, um.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: That’s real.

Nicole Chung: I’m angry all the time, you know. And the misogyny, specifically like the gender-based harassment and violence. You know, long before I had like the language to call what was happening to me, like say racism because I grew up in a white adoptive family and we did not talk about race or racism.

I understood when things were happening because I was like a girl, a young woman, I think as far back as my elementary school and you were wearing a skirt. The boys would try to flip up your skirts on the playground. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Child, what?

Nicole Chung: And my school’s answer to this, my grade school’s answer was ‘the girls should wear pants’. And this is something I started learning then when I was six, seven years old. You know, while I’m hearing racial slurs on the playground directed at me. So, it’s all related. I don’t get to ever step outside as not an Asian woman. At the same time, I think that you know what’s happening to you on some level, but you don’t learn how to necessarily talk or process or think about it until you’re much older.

Like my daughter now, we talk a lot about things like consent. You know, no one has the right to do anything to your body that you don’t consent to. And so like, one of her first questions for me of course, was like ‘what kind of things?’ And so I’m thinking about my long history of everything from being groped on the subway to like touch without my consent by a random stranger while I was on a date with another person. Like just these things, they pile up. And like at the same time I remember telling her, I know I’ve been lucky because worse things did not happen. It could have.

And her response floored me. It was like, this doesn’t sound lucky. You know, I don’t want to say like out of the mouths of babes, but I think we have to do so much work as women, as women of color to be in the world to not despair and to just walk around knowing the risks. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: I mean, we’ve been socialized to process these things in a way that allows us to neatly pack them up and move on because most likely there will be another incident.

And so that skill of packing it up, tying a bow on it, shoving it in the back of our mental closet, so that we no longer have to deal with it. A lot of times we have these experiences, like the ones you’re having with your daughter where you have to go and extrapolate those memories. And in the mirror that your daughter is now holding up for you, you realize, oh wait, the way I packed this up, actually wasn’t fair to myself.

Right?  I’m curious what you feel like your daughter has revealed to you through these conversations. Cause that’s a powerful discovery. 

Nicole Chung: Oh man. So, I don’t want to make it sound like I’m projecting, but in a sense, if you have children, you think about things, you revisit moments and you sort of analyze them differently.

The adult you, with the adult perspective, you know. Your lifetime of experience. You look back on these moments you experienced, many of them before you had the tools or the vocabulary or the support or the community or whatever it is you needed to kind of deal with it. You look back on those moments and it really messes you up a little bit.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Yeah.

And then there’s also like this, this sorrow, I think, for like the kid I was who couldn’t feel those things in the moment, because it was so much about like survival. You know, I grew up in pretty relative racial isolation, like not only in a white family, but the only Korean American I personally knew until college.

And so I dealt with a lot of like racial trauma and experiences kind of on my own. I realized like it’s kind of like hitting me anew and then that’s something I have to deal with while I try to support them in what they’re going through, which is really quite different and individual to them. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: I want to go back to this moment where so many people were also overtly reckoning with this country. The 2016 elections. Like you say, you were born to Korean parents in Seattle and then raised by a white adoptive family in Oregon. And you’ve written extensively about how you pleaded with your parents, with your white parents to understand how Asian Americans specifically were experiencing this once again, emboldened racism that Donald Trump had kind of surfaced. How did you navigate that moment? 

Nicole Chung: I honestly feel I didn’t navigate it well. You probably remember after the election, there was, there were many, many tweets about how like, if you have white family and you didn’t talk to them about this, like you’re responsible.

Okay. So, I didn’t exactly feel that because A, I am not white. And B, I did, I did try to talk to my white family about it. It just didn’t go that well. I grew up in a more libertarian, conservative pocket of like rural Oregon. To be really clear, my parents actually weren’t registered Republicans and they didn’t like Trump, but I knew they were never going to vote for Hillary.

Like I knew when push came to shove, they were always going to vote for the conservative candidate. But we’d, since we didn’t talk about it much as a family, when I was growing up, I would say when we started to talk about, when I was probably in my late teens, early twenties, and then on, through the election of 2016. For them, it was a real shift.

They did not really want to talk with me about it. It was kind of like this is not your business and how people vote is very private. And also there’s that old like adoptive family tug of like all that really matters is our love for each other. And I was kind of like, I need you to realize that like love isn’t quite enough all the time.

I think I wrote this before, but like one of their common refrains was like we chose you. That’s something a lot of adoptive parents tell their kids. Like other families, they, they used to joke they get stuck with their kids, but we chose you. And I was like if you chose me, then you can choose me now. You know, you can really listen to what I’m saying.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Wow. 

Nicole Chung: It was just never an easy conversation, right? Because at the time I was adopted, the adoption discourse was very much like just assimilate her. Just assimilate her and everything will be fine. And that was like how I was raised. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Um, you know, if you talk about all of the tweets that came after 2016 saying talk to your white family. Hell, I think I wrote an article that was like ‘White people this one is on you. What are you going to do about it?’ And I will admit, I don’t think I ever really gave a second thought to people of color who have white family members feeling the burden of having to have that conversation. I was thinking about white people talking to other white people.

And in Time magazine, you wrote that as a transracial adoptee, that you were, quote, “uniquely conditioned to excuse and instruct and even comfort white people”. So, that’s an impulse I didn’t even consider. How, how do you feel like that impulse has impacted you? 

Nicole Chung: Oh, like so many ways. It’s been like a lifetime of unlearning, honestly. Because, you know, I knew that all the white people in my family loved me. Um, at the same time they weren’t comfortable talking about or sometimes even acknowledging the fact that I was Korean. And this is one of the privileges of being white, right? You don’t actually have to see that. You don’t have to think about that unless you want to or someone forces you. It sometimes felt as though being curious about my birth family or my Korean identity, or even me sharing like examples of racism against me was somehow like a betrayal because it was forcing them to see something they did not want to see and had not expected to see. You know, especially in spaces like my school, our church and our neighborhood where they just assumed I’d be safe because they felt safe. And so having the courage to start those conversations, it really only happened when I was older.

And that’s partly because I also didn’t have the language, just did not have the vocabulary, to say like this happened to me and it was racism and it was wrong. I don’t want to speak for all adoptees, like transnational adoptees, but just like for myself, I think I learned how to move in white spaces and how to like, I can’t even call it code switching because I was raised in white spaces. It was extremely natural in a way. I knew what they expected. I knew they wanted me to be like, as a Korean adoptee, like happy, grateful, you know, like all these things. And I really spent a long time kind of trying to be like, you know, that good adoptee realizing though on the other hand that our love for each other actually was strong enough to stand up to like real conversations.

But like my honesty with them could be a sign of my esteem and my love and respect and like saying what I needed could be a sign of my love and respect instead of a betrayal. You know, learning that took a very long time, but I did eventually learn it. Um, and I do think that made our relationship better and stronger.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Yeah. I always say real love tells the truth, right? It’s interesting. You talk about this, this code switching because I, I definitely, I went to predominantly white schools and so I found myself code switching all the time. But, the clear difference is when I went home, I didn’t have to switch anymore, right?

And to your point, when you went home, it was still all one in the same, in part, because of what you referenced earlier. This whole, we don’t see color, quote, unquote colorblind, era of adoptive parenting that some might say is continuing in certain spaces. You’ve written a lot about that mindset in your memoir All you Can Ever Know. I’m really curious what elements of, how you were raised you’ve intentionally brought into your own parenting and what you’ve tried to leave behind. 

Nicole Chung: Oh, that’s like a good, tough question. I mean, my parents, my mother, especially, she did really always have my back. Like I really think her belief in me, not just love, but like absolute faith in me as a person, even when we didn’t agree, like she trusted me to kind of know my mind and to know my values and to live those values.

I think her confidence in her faith in me gave me so much more faith in myself than I would have had without that. That’s something I try to bring to my parenting. Something I’ve tried to like leave behind, it won’t surprise you to hear is, of course, like I have tried to talk with my kids about race and racism and my politics are also very different from my adoptive family.

So, the way we have those conversations is quite different. But even, even underlying that, like he difference there is like a sort of faith in them, in my kids and like an honesty that I think my parents shared and that still very much informs my parenting, you know, as different as it is. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: When you talk about some of the things that your parents didn’t talk about with you, you cited things like the model minority myth, perpetual foreigner syndrome. They didn’t talk about the exotification and fetishization of Asian and Asian American women. Um, I’m particularly interested in how you’ve handled any of those conversations with your children, right? Like, like the model minority myth.

Nicole Chung: Yeah. So, I don’t actually think that they could have talked with me about some of those things. My parents would have had no access to like that information. They certainly observed perpetual foreigner syndrome. They saw people ask me “Where did you come from?” They saw people tell me your English is great.

But like, I mean, there wasn’t like a term they could have applied to it. So, I’ve been pretty upfront, especially with my older daughter cause she’s at an age and developmental level where it’s possible to have these sort of in-depth discussions. You know, we have talked about like the model minority myth. I don’t think for her that term is like super helpful right now, but we’ve talked about like stereotypes of Asian Americans, how we’re often used as a wedge or a cudgel against other communities of color.

I’ve tried to talk with her about like the fetishization and we have not watched these movies, but like I’ve talked with her about a lot of like really problematic roles for Asian American women like in movies or like musicals, you know, there are like so many. I’ve been able to have those discussions with her because they’re things I experienced and you know, that is also like, I don’t want to say an advantage, but that is an experience that my adopted family did not share.

So, anything they had tried to tell me about it would have been completely secondhand. You know, it would have been a pretty tall order, which is not to say that they couldn’t have been better educated and better prepared going in because they could have, um, and I think there were key ways in which both they and my birth family were really failed by the system.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: In the midst of all of this, you have reconnected with your birth family. Could you tell us a little bit about them? What, what is that relationship really? 

Nicole Chung: Yeah. I’m very close to my, my biological sister, Cindy. It feels weird to like stick the “biological” in front of it, but, you know. I don’t call her “Hey, biological sis”, but no, she and I are very, very close.

She’s like one of my heroes, she’s one of my go-to’s, we’d still talk a lot. And we reunited like in 2008. I decided to search for my birth family because I was pregnant with my first child, actually. The aforementioned older daughter. And I got to this point where I realized I didn’t know anything about my history.

I didn’t know what I was going to be able to pass on to her. I didn’t know how to answer the questions she might have someday. And so the search really was for me, but it was also for her. Like it suddenly felt very urgent in that moment because I wasn’t just doing it for me. So, it was so strange how that happened.

My family was expanding in this other way. Right? Like literally the first time I heard from my birth father was the day I went into labor. And so, like just like right on top of each other, these things are happening. Um, you know, I’m recovering postpartum. I’m like an emotional oozing wreck. And like I’m hearing from my sister for the first time.

Oh, wow. Cindy and I corresponded for a long time. And then we met in person like a year later. I don’t know, she’s sort of been integrated too into my adoptive family a little bit. She had met my adoptive parents and was there with me at the funeral when my father, my adoptive father, passed away. I dunno, like it’s so hard for me to imagine my life without her now. At the same time, it was not easy or simple to kind of put our family back together. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Yeah. What conversations did you have with your parents, with your birth parents, about your adoption story? What did those conversations mean to you? 

Nicole Chung: Oh gosh. I mean, the first thing either of them said to me was like ‘I’m so sorry’. They were both carrying a lot of guilt, I think. And a lot of shame.  I think it was very hard for them to revisit that time and still really is. I don’t want to say something dramatic like they would prefer I had not found them because I do not think that’s true. You know, they both said they were very happy to hear from me and glad to know I was all right and all that.

But like, I know it was something that they hadn’t wanted to think about, even though they consented to the contact. Cause they could have said no. I know it was just so difficult and reminded them of this traumatic time. And my birth parents, like many birth families, were not very well seen or supported by like the child welfare system by the adoption process.

And so even though their family, their immigrant family was going through like trauma Everyone involved in the adoption was just like, how do we get this baby to this like white family that wants to adopt her? And I started to think about how things could have been different from my birth family and particularly my sister who was six years old and I was born and living at home and remained, you know, in my birth family.

I wonder how things could have been different for her. If there had been that kind of concern. But they were not who the system was designed to serve. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: I mean, you keep referencing the failures of the system and I think that’s so critical because from the outside looking in, a lot of us who have not experienced adoption don’t necessarily think of this as a systemic conversation.

We think about families. We think about children. But transracial adoption in particular has a really fraught history. I’m thinking, for example, of the so-called baby lifts that the US initiated during the Vietnam war and the way that people talked about, you know, quote, unquote, saving children. I’m curious what you think about the practice of adopting children across race, or even across borders, and generally how you’d like to see these systems shift.

Nicole Chung: I mean, I will say. For me personally, it’s not helpful for me to think about adoption in like black and white terms, in terms of like a yes or no right or wrong. I do think there are a lot of ways in which different attitudes around it, different practices can perpetuate a lot of harms. So, there does need to be like a lot more awareness.

There needs to be a lot more support and resources for our families and our communities. If family preservation is at all an option, if there’s an option for like a child, for example, to be aised or adopted or fostered by like kin instead of like immediately going out to someone else beyond that. I just think like if a family is going to adopt, I do think you have to go in with your eyes open.

If you’re a white family adopting a child of color, you know, before you do that. Not like after. Like take a good hard look at what does your neighborhood, your family, your community look like? What type of community is this child going to grow up in? Are they always going to be the only one in the neighborhood at their school, at your church? Whatever. 

What is their experience maybe going to be like, that’s just empathy. That’s just a basic like question to start with, not an end. It’s hard because I think there is a focus now, more of a focus on like celebrating a child’s birth culture, culture of origin. And that’s nice, but that is also the fun part.

It is not fun to talk about race, to look at racism in this country. It is not fun to like unpack things like white supremacy, white privilege. And so you have to be prepared to do those things too, because even if it’s not your experience like it is going to be so relevant to your child. No one looks at me and sees a white person just because I come from a white family. 

And then something else that honestly like a lot of white people, not just adoptive families should be doing, you have to be willing to get personal and ask yourself like what are the choices I’ve made? In what ways am I complicit or furthering systems or practices that harm people of color? That harm people like my child, if I adopt, you know? And that is also a very hard thing to think and talk about, but like, if you cannot do that, you know, then I guess I would say it’s possible transracial adoption is not for you.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: To your point about the intense nuance of all of this for people who may be heading into the process of reconnecting with their birth family. Are there things that you’d recommend they meditate on before and while they’re going on that journey?

Nicole Chung: It’s always complicated. I knew it was going to be emotional. I knew it was going to be complicated, but until I was in the thick of it I was not really fully prepared. So, what I always say, a couple of things, one, like have your support systems ready to go. I wish I had like been in therapy ongoing while I was reuniting. And then just like recognizing we have no control over the process.

Like one reason I really wanted to reach out to my birth parents was to like thank them for their sacrifice. I wanted to tell them, reassure them I was okay. If you were worried that I wouldn’t be okay, please know that that’s not something you have to worry about anymore. Like I thought I was going to give them peace, which is so naive.

Right? You can’t make someone else heal nor can you make them respond the way you might hope they will respond. And so I should have known going in and I encourage other adoptees to know going into a search or a reunion, if you’re lucky, privileged enough to reconnect. There’s so little you control and you can’t supply peace or healing to somebody else.

Try and like think about what will bring you peace and healing because that you have a little more control over. But again, I think the support is just so crucial 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Before we sign off. You know, we’ve been talking a lot about what you’ve been writing about race, parenting, complicating this whole narrative of adoption, adoption systems. And the angle you’ve taken on these topics often responds to a moment, right? For, for the sake of your own feeling, for your own parenting or because there’s a demand of course, to hear from Asian American voices, which is crucial. As a Black writer myself, I know when those phone calls start to come a little bit more frequently, if you could be on the other side and be the initiator and not the responder.

Um, if you were telling your stories kind of away from the constraints of our culture and its demands, what would you perhaps, what will you be writing about and talking about?

Nicole Chung: That is a good question. And I just really appreciate you acknowledging, and of course you understand, like it’s very disconcerting to say the least when something terrible happens to people in your community.

And that is when a flood of requests comes in. That is when people want to read and share your work. I try not to write in the super responsive way. I tried to just kind of write from the heart and I’m very privileged to have the platform I do. But at the same time, like I know like when something like this happens, I’m going to hear from editors.

I’m going to hear from people. But I’ve been writing more about grief and the experience of losing my adoptive parents. It’s also about like growing up in a working class family. In my case, a white working class family, but I am not white. And then my experience with parenting through grief, but through all the upheaval and the trauma of the last few years, you know, that is also a luxury.

And honestly, like my favorite writing is the kind that is unhurried, where you can think about yourself, your needs, and like maybe the needs of your readers. But will probably be out next year. And I just, I’m really grateful as hard as it’s been to have the chance to work. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Well, whenever it comes, I know I am looking forward to it. I know plenty of us will be looking forward to reading your unhurried reflections on things that we’re all thinking about. Nicole, thank you so, so much. It was great to talk to you.

Nicole Chung: You too, Brittany. I’m so grateful. Thank you.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Nicole Chung writes the I Have Notes newsletter for The Atlantic magazine. Her memoir is called All You Can Ever Know.

There is one thing in this world that all of us and I do mean all of us, will have experienced—childhood. Irrespective of who raised us, where or how. Whether we become parents ourselves or not. Each of us had to grow into the people we are today. And there are some things some people in institutions and some systems that have raised us for better. For worse. Or, you know, somewhere in between. And there some experiences that Nicole raised that mirror my own. The conversations my mother had to have with me about the hypersexualization of Black women may not have contained all the same details as the conversations Nicole had with her daughter. But the fact that we had to have them resonates. 

But still my conversation with Nicole raised questions for me I had never even considered before, like about how families formed differently than mine communicate across lines of difference and make sacrifices and deal with tension. I honestly never really considered how often the weight of talking to your white family members about race would fall to transracially adopted children.

I mean, does it change how a parent hears the pleas when it comes from their child and not just appear, I don’t know. But in the end I’m sitting with what Nicole said so clearly. We have to talk about it. And if you’re the one who bears the burden of the racism, it is perfectly okay to still be sorting through your own feelings when you do. 

That’s it for today, but never, ever for tomorrow. UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 


Our lead producer is Rachel Ward. 

Our associate producer is Alexis Moore. 

Thanks also to Treasure Brooks and Hannis Brown. 

Our executive producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive and myself, and our executive producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. 

You can follow me at @MsPackyetti on all social media and our team @TheMeteor. 

Subscribe to UNDISTRACTED and rate and review us on Stitcher, Apple Podcast, or most places where you get your favorite podcasts. 

Thanks for listening. Thanks for being and thanks for doing. I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free.