Transcript - Episode 76: Nicole Chung

[Note: This transcript has been edited for readability.]

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Intro

Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 76. Today’s guest is Nicole Chung.

Hey there, folks. Today’s guest is writer and editor Nicole Chung. Nicole’s essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, the Times Magazine, GQ, Longreads, Shondaland, BuzzFeed, and Hazlitt, among others. She’s the editor-in-chief of Catapult magazine and the former managing editor of The Toast. And her debut memoir, All You Can Ever Know, was published just last week, on October 2nd.

Now, this book is fantastic, it’s easily one of my favorite books this year. But, of course, you don’t have to take my word for that, it was picked for October’s Indie Next list, and has been on “what to read” lists all over the place, including the Huffington Post, Vanity Fair, Time, and The Washington Post, to name a few.

Writing for Nylon.com, Kristen Iverson said about the book, “With clarity, grace, and no small amount of courage, Chung has written a powerful memoir about her experience as an adoptee, an Asian-American, a daughter, a sister, and a mother. All You Can Ever Know is a candid and beautiful exploration of themes of identity, family, racism, and love. And while the answers Chung finds in her search for the birth family she never knew are fascinating, the power of this book lies in Chung's willingness to "question the things [she'd] always been told," even while knowing that she might find unsettling truths and an origin story unlike what she'd always thought had existed. Though this book is specific to Chung's experience and an important example of the complexities inherent to transracial adoption, its words will resonate deep within the core of anyone who has ever questioned their place in their family, their community, and the world.”

And writer Celeste Ng—who past listeners will know is one of my favorite writers and just one of my favorite people—wrote “This book moved me to my very core. As in all her writing, Nicole Chung speaks eloquently and honestly about her own personal story, then widens her aperture to illuminate all of us. All You Can Ever Know is full of insights on race, motherhood, and family of all kinds, but what sets it apart is the compassion Chung brings to every facet of her search for identity and every person portrayed in these pages. This book should be required reading for anyone who has ever had, wanted, or found a family—which is to say, everyone.”

So, as I’m sure you can understand, I was very pleased to get the chance to sit down and talk with Nicole. Before we get started, I wanted to mention that Nicole was gracious enough to read an excerpt from the book for me, and that recording will be available to all of our Patreon subscribers as part of the show’s growing bonus archive. If you’d like to donate to the Patreon campaign, you can find that at patreon.com/sakeriver, that’s sake like the drink and river like river, and subscribers at any level get early access to each episode, access to bonus readings from writers like Ada Limón and Natalie Eilbert, and extra entries into all of the giveaways we do here on the show.

And speaking of giveaways! I’m going to be giving away a signed copy of All You Can Ever Know to one lucky listener, so stay tuned after the conversation for details on how you can enter to win.

Now, Nicole is currently on tour for her book and will be appearing all over the country over the next couple of months. Coming up, she will be in Washington, DC, on October 16th at Politics & Prose with Julie Buntin, then on October 19th she’ll be in Charlottesville, Virginia, as part of the Charlottesville Reading Series with poets Lindsay Bernal and Caitlin Neely. Then on October 22nd she will be in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at Porter Square Books with Celeste Ng. You can find all of the information for those appearances plus many more through the end of the year on Nicole’s events page, which I’ve linked in the show notes. You can also find links in the show notes to where you can purchase your own copy of All You Can Ever Know, which, if it wasn’t already obvious, I highly recommend.

Oh! And one more thing: if you’re listening to this episode on the day it releases, check out the Daily Show on Comedy Central tomorrow, Nicole will be the guest! That’s tomorrow, October 11th, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.

OK, so, let’s get started. As always, if you’d like to join in the conversation, you can use the hashtag #ChannelOpenPod to live-tweet the episode. And now, here’s my conversation with Nicole Chung.

[Music]


First Segment

Mike Sakasegawa: So how are you today?

Nicole Chung: I'm okay. You know, I'm really overwhelmed by this whole publication process. I didn't really know what to expect heading in since it's my first book. So it's just been a constant learning process and sometimes I feel a lot and sometimes I don't know what I feel, but mostly I'm good. Thank you. How are you?

MS: I'm pretty good. I'm excited to talk with you. You know, I mentioned this, well, a lot of times, but I really just love the hell out of this book.

NC: Thank you so much.

MS: And I remember one of the things that I mentioned on Twitter—I know you saw it because you responded to it [laughs]

NC: [laughs]

MS: —was that the first time it made me cry was on the 16th page. So that's saying something.

NC: Wow. Wow. Do you remember what it was on page 16? I'm trying to think about—

MS: Yeah. I do, actually. And I've got it right here in front of me. There's this passage where you're talking about the sort of taunts that you got on the playground and—

NC: Oh.

MS: —there's like a few different things in it. One, that you didn't really have the sort of language to understand that as racism because racism was something that you had understood to be like bigger than that and also in the past.

NC: Right.

MS: But the part that really got me was—it's right down at the end of the page. You wrote, "The strange thing was that, inside, I always felt I was the same as everyone around me. I am just like you, I thought when kids squinted at me in mockery of my own eyes; why can't you see that?" And I think what really got me about that was that my mom likes to tell this story of me when I was in kindergarten. A very similar story of me saying things like that.

NC: Yeah.

MS: And there's something I think really powerful about, uh, about seeing an experience that you can relate to that you've never really seen written down before. That really got to me, you know?

NC: Thank you, that means a lot. That was kind of a tough scene to write. Yeah. I mean, I've sort of alluded in general terms in a few different essays to racism I experienced growing up, going to a very, very white school—

MS: Mm-hm.

NC: —but that was the first time I'd really sat down and taken my time in that scene and really revisited those feelings and just how... I mean the overwhelming feeling I recall, still, it's just how confusing it was. It was hurtful, yes. And it was hard and I would sometimes get angry, but just the prevailing emotion was confusion. Like why is this happening? Like I don't understand. And up until that point, I'd really been led to believe that race didn't matter and the way I looked didn't matter, you know, to anybody. So just to be suddenly confronted with a daily reality that it very much did matter and that people weren't going to always be kind about it was just... It was so jarring. I still remember that feeling of just shock.

MS: Mm.

NC: So that was, I guess the main thing I wanted to convey in that scene.

MS: Yeah. The story that my own mom tells is that right after we got our class pictures back, I had been upset about some similar kinds of taunts, you know, people making the, the "slanty eye" gesture at me.

NC: Yeah. How do kids know that young to do that?

MS: Yeah.

NC: Like that's amazing to me that like by.... Yeah, I was very young when it happened, too.

MS: Yeah. And she—the story she tells is of me, you know, going through the class picture and saying, "No, I look like that and I look like that and I look like that." Pointing to these other boys had had like blonde hair and blue eyes and—

NC: Yeah.

MS: —not knowing the difference.

NC: Right, right. I mean, it's just such a strange thing when you start to really notice. And usually it's because you're sort of forced to notice. Um, yeah.

MS: Yeah. One of the things I was thinking a lot about as I was reading this book is that, you know, over and over again, I would see things in this book that felt, you know, really familiar to me, that really seemed to, in a few cases like this one, like almost be exactly describing experiences that I had.

NC: Mm-hm.

MS: But one of the things that was on my mind a lot as I was reading it was that—you know, like I feel like that that experience of finding something in common with another human is really powerful and important, but also that this book is not my story, you know? Like this book is really specifically your story that you're telling—

NC: Mm-hm.

MS: —about yourself and your family, and that there was this... Like I felt kind of... Almost like I was worried about erasing those differences, if you know what I mean. Does that make a little sense? I don't know.

NC: Uh, a little bit, yeah. I think I understand. It means a lot to me to hear that the book meant something to you, that it resonated and that you saw, you know, parts of your own experience in it. I don't think hearing that will ever get old. I think that will always mean, like, the most to me. That's why we write in the first place—

MS: Mm-hm.

NC: —those moments of connection. So, I don't view that as at all, like, erasing the differences or minimizing them. It just means a lot to me that as you read, you know, you could recognize certain parts. Really, it's the best thing to know that, I think.

MS: Yeah. Yeah. It's something that's been on my mind a lot, like both of those feelings have been on my mind a lot as like this year and last year I've read more books by Asian American authors than I ever have in the past.

NC: Same.

MS: Yeah. And it's been fantastic.

NC: Mm-hm.

MS: But also, like one of the things that I've been thinking a lot about is that like a lot of the authors that I've read have been Korean American and I'm, you know, Asian, but I'm not Korean, for example.

NC: Mm-hm.

MS: And it's interesting to consider things like that. How... I don't know, how like America makes makes us all kind of be the same thing in one way. Even though in a lot of ways these cultures are distinct, and at times have even been antagonistic towards each other, you know?

NC: Yes. It's so interesting. I think, just jumping off of that, like I think one of the hardest parts about growing up adopted in a white family was that my experience of my identity, I didn't really have a positive encounter with it till I was older.

MS: Mm.

NC: You know, I didn't really know what it meant in the positive. I knew what it meant in the negative, which was that, you know, I got bullied at school or I heard slurs or people asked me where I was from or complimented my English. And I didn't... You know, I had these experiences, I guess you'd call them—I mean, some would call them minor. They were micro aggressions, right?

MS: Mm-hm.

NC: But, I mean those were really my dominant experiences of being who I was, like of being Korean American, of being Asian American. I didn't have a sense of like the great, wonderful things about it. You know, the powerful things about being Korean. I didn't have that connection to my culture at all. So for me, like my Asian American identity really grew up out of this... Like, these kind of negative experiences and I still, to this day, really... I wish it hadn't been that way. You know, I wish that I'd had some sort of like more positive, affirming sense of my identity beyond just the fact that I was different from everybody that I knew. It's something I've been able to kind of seek out and find little inroads to, you know, as an adult. But it's still honestly difficult. And like living in America today, like during this administration, but also before this. Like, I feel as though one of the reasons our identities get flattened and our differences get erased, you know, to the detriment of many people, is because we're just not past so many of these problems. Honestly, like, I know kids are still doing the gesture with their eyes because I have heard about it from my own kids, you know, unfortunately.

MS: Mm.

NC: And there's just a lot that we haven't moved past and so how many people are still growing up with, like, I don't know, their concept of identity affected by racism? Maybe not dominated by it the way mine was. I don't know if I'm stating this clearly enough.

MS: No, I get it.

NC: Maybe I should just stick to my own experience. [laughs] But like, I do think that, you know, any nuances, any like really powerful things I could have learned about being Korean or Asian American and how it was similar or different to other groups, other Asian American affinity groups, you know, it was just... The opportunities just weren't there when I was growing up.

MS: Yeah.

NC: And that's hard.

MS: Yeah, it is hard. You know, for me it was similar in growing up in a very heavily white town. It was perhaps less acute than you describe in your book, just because like I wasn't the only Asian person, but I was one of a few.

NC: Mm-hm.

MS: And I did have an extended family but we didn't live in the same town. So, I don't know, it's something that I was thinking about. But you know, one of the things I was thinking about as you were saying this is—and sort of getting back to the thing that I said at the beginning—was just like the power of representation and how... Like this is something that you've written a lot about in the past. And you touch on it in the book, but also like you had written a piece about seeing The Winter's Tale

NC: Mm-hm.

MS: —a while back with an Asian American lead.

NC: It was all—sorry, but the cast, most of the cast was Asian American.

MS: Right.

NC: It was really cool.

MS: Yeah.

NC: I took my daughter. Yeah.

MS: And then you had the piece about—the "What I Learned From Kristi Yamaguchi" piece.

NC: Mm-hm.

MS: So this is a topic that... Like, certainly everything that I've read from you on this has been deeply meaningful to me, you know.

NC: Thank you very much.

MS: [laughs] You know, and then talking about... You know, it's one of those things where I kind of wonder like... Uh, you know, early in the book also you talk about not seeing yourself in the books that you read, in books like Ramona or whatever.

NC: Mm-hm.

MS: Even though you loved these books, but it was difficult to see yourself in them. And I—you know, both of us, for example, we both said that in the past couple years we've read a lot more Asian American work.

NC: Mm-hm.

MS: And it's something that I think about a lot, like with my own kids, I'm sure you think about it with your kids, like whether that's different now. Or like how it's different and, you know, how that is for them. I don't know, it comes up for me a lot.

NC: Yeah, a little bit. I think so. You know, I've joked that like I have bought every book for my kids by an Asian American author that's out there. I'm sure I've missed some.

MS: [laughs]

NC: Like, there's no way I could've gotten them all. But like I really do—every few months I'll sort of like do a lot of searching and see if I've missed something good. Right. So the challenge is always finding it at different levels because my kids read at different levels and yeah, it's interesting. I do think it's definitely better than it was when we were growing up. I don't remember getting to read about like Asian American kids or like Asian American teens so much when I was younger. But the fact that I can search every few months and feel like I'm catching most things that are out there, you know, I think that says there's not enough yet.

MS: Mm.

NC: You know, of course, like you could never keep up with all the books with like white kids centered and white teens. Right. So the fact that I feel like I can keep a tally—

MS: [laughs]

NC: —you know, is perhaps not the best sign, but certainly it's much better than it was.

MS: Yeah. So one of the things I was thinking about with this book, I went back and I reread it yesterday to sort of prepare for talking with you, and something that occurred to me as I was reading it, just from the very beginning—like the first sentence, right—is you're talking about the story that your parents told you about your adoption.

NC: Right.

MS: And so like this is a—you're opening this narrative by sort of commenting on a narrative. And it seems like in a lot of ways this book is about narrative and it's about how these stories really sort of shape the way we see ourselves, but also how they're incomplete. And I thought that was a really interesting thing. It hadn't really occurred to me quite as strongly the first time I read it, how the book is structured to really sort of be looking at the concept of personal narrative in so many different ways, if that makes sense. I don't know.

NC: Yeah, I think it does. You know, personal narrative is my business. So—

MS: [laughs]

NC: —for your listeners who don't know, I'm an editor and primarily edit nonfiction. So a lot of memoir and personal essays, of course. I mean I edit and publish fiction, too. Love fiction. But, you know, both at Catapult, where I am now, and The Toast, where I was before, and even at Hyphen Magazine before that, you know, very much focused on personal narrative and storytelling. So, you know, I don't think it's because I'm an editor of personal narrative—other people's, I mean—that the book took shape the way it did. I think—jeez, I mean we can talk about that later. Who knows why the book took shape the way it did. It was kind of a mystery even while I was in the middle of it. But I always knew this story was about, like, a story that I was told and then the point at which it was no longer enough for me and I had to sort of look for—not like a counterstory but like a deeper, richer version of what I had always been told.

MS: Mm-hm.

NC: And sort of like the—you know, that was a very overwhelming process. It took years, for all the reasons I talk about in the book, to kind of get myself to that point. Because questioning this foundational narrative of my life, reconsidering it and everything I'd ever been told, I mean, it was kind of scary. And it just wasn't something I was ready to do really, for many, many years. And it was really, you know, facing pregnancy and childbirth and knowing I was about to have a family of my own that gave me the final push. You know, I've said before, I don't—I think I would have eventually searched for answers regardless, but I think the fact that I looked when I did, I mean that really was because I was about to have a child and like this new person was going to enter my story and I didn't know what I would say, you know, to this child when they had questions for me.

MS: Mm.

NC: So yeah. And then I think also, you know, where the narratives intersect in the book is kind of interesting because certainly like you have people... There are people like my parents—my adoptive parents—who have kind of their story that we share, but they also have their own story independent of me. You know, before they adopted me, they were a family too. And how did they get to be that way and what were their hopes and dreams and how did they become parents, you know, that was a story before I came along. And then you have the story of my birth family and in the book I particularly focus on my sister Cindy, who was told like a completely different version of like what happened, you know, at the time of my adoption. And when we reconnected we were able to fit those different pieces together for the first time and see like a little bit more of the truth. And that was just really powerful. And I wanted to show that in the story and the way the book was structured as well. Just like the power of people putting together their own stories, like the disparate things they've been told, and finding their way to like a new, maybe not complete truth, but like a deeper, richer, like more nuanced version of it I guess.

MS: Mm. I mean I think it's an interesting thing because on some level it seems like all people or at least most people have to go through some process of revising these stories that they have about themselves and about the people in their lives, and—

NC: Absolutely.

MS: Yeah, I mean I feel like the way that this is—like with your story and the stories of your family members this is like maybe a little bit more... A little sharper, I guess? But it's another point of connection. One of the things that I was thinking about a lot—like, it's not just the big, overarching adoption story that you are sort of unpacking here, but there's smaller parts of it, too, that really stood out to me. Like one of the things that really stood out to me was the way that you depict conversations that you have had with your adoptive parents and the sort of tension and defensiveness that comes across in some of these conversations.

NC: Mm-hm.

MS: And there's this way that like... But then also that's not the complete thing. Like there are also a lot of moments of connection and tenderness and so... Like you don't ever settle on seeing these quote-unquote "characters" in just one way. And to me that really mirrored the experience that I think a lot of us have of, as we get older, having to sort of revise our understanding of our parents as people, you know?

NC: Yeah. Absolutely. I was nervous—really nervous—writing my parents. Well, I was nervous writing the whole book. [laughs] But like writing my adoptive parents as characters. And I—I mean I say "character" and I don't mean that to sound like at all dehumanizing. What I wanted to do was show them in like their full humanity. And it's such a hard, overwhelming thing to do with people you are close to and people you love. And people to whom like—I mean to be honest, I know that we don't think of it in this way necessarily, but like I do owe them a lot, just like for the way they raised me and for the sort of unconditional love and support that I think I've generally gotten from them, and I didn't want them to feel betrayed. Or even if the portrayal were like uniformly positive—and I think it's generally a positive portrayal—but even if it weren't, I just wanted them to feel whole and represented and I wanted... I did want that love and connection to come through, first because it's the truth, you know, second, because I had no desire to write some kind of like hit piece on anybody, and, third, because this is the truth, this is the story. And I think if you don't understand like their love for me and our connection, you don't understand why it was so hard for me to get to the point where I could look for a different kind of narrative. Like, and look for my birth family. It was just a very hard thing to kind of talk myself into, you know, it took years. And so, you know, that's really because of the strength of our connection and because I was worried about hurting them, you know, through this process. And I just felt like I had to be really honest about that. Just seemed really important. But yeah, back to what you were saying about sort of reexamining what we're told about ourselves and reexamining our relationships and the people in our lives. I think it's natural and it's universal. As everybody gets older and grows up, no matter what your family is like, you know, you do end up—those relationships change. They're supposed to change and shift. And my relationship, like with my parents and like with my kids, even as they get older, you know, everything's always shifting because you are not the same person you were when you were five or 10 or 15. I think, too, you know, I'm very aware of this as a parent, like what we tell ourselves stories about our children. And sometimes I wonder just like how accurate they really are. Like if my kids think that maybe my interpretation of them is like wrong, I mean I hope it's a loving, like charitable interpretation. I love my kids. But like I do sometimes wonder what am I getting wrong about them? You know, like I think maybe I'm thinking something about one of them that like, even if I think it's true and like positive, like a great thing, maybe that's not how they see themselves, you know?

MS: Yeah.

NC: So a big part of the book, too, is just like learning to question what I was told about myself and my story and my adoption and our family. Like learning to question what was really the most important pieces I guess of me. Because you, do you grow up hearing from so many people, "This is what's important." And so for me as an adoptee, I grew up hearing "What's important is that we love you, and you're ours, and that's all that matters" You know, and it just... It takes... I mean I think I would've had to be an adult before I really to question that very simple interpretation because as a child it was all I was given and it was also very comforting and so I wanted to believe in it.

MS: I mean, it's something—there's something in that about the ways... Like I guess a lot of the tension that sort of drives your story in this book has to do with the ways that your parents sort of failed to see you or failed to understand certain aspects of you.

NC: Mm-hm.

MS: Which, again, I mean I think that's something that a lot of us, a lot of people deal with that. But in this case it seems like sharper because of the adoption. But [sigh] what you were just saying about understanding your own kids, I mean it just reminds me so much of how like when I was a teenager, for example—like anybody when they're a teenager—just are constantly like "God, Mom. Like why don't you understand this?"

NC: Mm-hm.

MS: And the ways that it can be really so hard to see the people that are closest to you because of that familiarity.

NC: Yes.

MS: Yeah. And it's one of the things that I've found just so beautiful about this book. I just felt like you treat everyone... I mean obviously I don't know the people in your family personally, but it just—the way that it comes across is that you treat everyone with a lot of empathy. And I think that that's another thing that can be hard with the people that are closest to you. You know?

NC: Yeah. I think it is. I think it's just really hard. I mean it's just hard to see sometimes the people and the things and the issues that you're closest to, for sure. I don't know, not to get all philosophical, but I often find myself wondering like just how well you can really know anybody and like is your interpretation of somebody—even if it's accurate—like are you leaving room for their potential to change? I really do believe people change. Like, I don't know, maybe that's like an unpopular view, but I really—I've just seen... You know, I feel like I've changed a great deal and... I mean, I've seen it in my kids already. Like I've seen it in my family. And I don't know, I wanted the book to feel open enough—you know, there is an ending because there has to be an ending in a book.

MS: Mm.

NC: But I wanted it to—I wanted a sort of open-feeling ending, like that made room for the fact that we are all still figuring this out and we're still muddling through and we will continue to change. These relationships will continue to change. I think the narrative about my family will continue to change. Even since I finished the book, like talking to my oldest daughter about it, because she's at an age where she's learning about some of the harder parts of our history for the first time. You know, I foregrounded it for years with a lot of like information. It's not like I'm giving her the whole thing for the first time. But like, this was the first year where we really talked about like some of the real trauma, you know, like especially in my sister's life and I just felt like she should be older before she really heard some of that.

MS: Mm.

NC: But that's changing how she encounters this and how she thinks about, you know, this story and how I reconnected with my birth family and what it means. It definitely—I think it's gonna continue to change, too, as we look at the effects on the next generation. And, you know, we're already seeing that. It definitely—the things in our family's past and the adoption, you know, these aren't things that stayed like limited to when they occurred, and they're not things that have stayed, like just within the boundaries of our own lives. These are things that we're already seeing have repercussions for our kids. And so, you know, that was one reason why I searched too, is I wanted to be able to have those conversations and I wanted to be able to provide more answers. But it's challenging figuring out how to talk with them about all of this. For sure.

MS: Yeah, yeah. I was actually—I wanted to talk about the way that this book ended because, as you say, it does end in a very open-ended kind of way. And I was thinking about that in comparing it to some of the essays that you've written. You know, I've been reading your essays for a couple of years now, and a lot of these essays that you wrote seem to have a similar thing where there's sort of an open-ended feel to them in the end.

NC: Mm-hm.

MS: And it was something in this book that I felt really... Like I feel like with... When we read a book—and it doesn't really matter whether it's fiction or nonfiction or memoir or whatever—like there's this tendency to want to have everything sort of tied up in a bow, to have this really defined arc that ends... That ends. Right?

NC: Yeah.

MS: But that's not how life works. [laughs]

NC: No, of course not. Yeah. [laughs]

MS: So I mean, I thought that was... I thought that was a really interesting way to end this particular book. You know, like you say, it has to end, but...

NC: But it doesn't, really.

MS: Yeah.

NC: Thank you, I... You know, when I started writing it I could see most of the shape of the book, but I didn't know for sure how it would end. I had a couple different ideas and then this is the one that sort of emerged and it's probably like of the options I was considering, like the most open-ended, like forward-looking ending possible. But I really came around to it and I like it a lot now. I think too, going back to what I was talking about before and my work as an editor, I think I'm very used to open endings and to figuring out how to wrap up a story that's still evolving. Because again, like I edit and publish so many personal narratives and life is so frequently not presented to us with major events like wrapped up in a tidy bow. So maybe it was easier for me than for—than it is for some people to just accept that a story like this wasn't going to have like a conventional ending. That said, I really do feel like the ending is... I feel like it... [laughs] Just, I don't know, this sounds—I don't mean to sound prideful. I feel like it wraps it up pretty nicely, just because it ends with looking forward and looking to the next generation. And I really—I just really like that.

MS: Yeah. No, I thought it was a beautiful ending, too. I thought it was very tender and—

NC: Thank you.

MS: —open with possibility and yeah. No, I loved it. [laughs]

NC: Thank you. I mean I'll stop bragging about my ending now. [laughs]

NC: [laughs]

MS: It's funny, my editor was saying—one of the things she said when she was editing this whole book was, "Oh, you're really good at endings." And she meant—she didn't mean the ending of the book, she meant like chapter endings and section endings. I'm not sure if she's right or not, but that was something I had not really paid much attention to in my own writing. So if it's true, that was sort of accidental, but [laughs] but it's nice. I guess my editor appreciates a good ending.

MS: Yeah, well, don't we all?

NC: Yeah. [laughs]

MS: [laughs] Alright, well why don't we take a quick little break and then come back and do the second segment.

NC: Great. Thank you.

[Music]


Second Segment

Mike Sakasegawa: So for the second segment, I always invite the guest to bring a topic of their own, which can be whatever you'd like to talk about, whatever's on your mind. So, what would you like to talk about today?

Nicole Chung: Well, it seems sort of relevant to this book and to the conversation we've already been having, but I wondered if you wanted to discuss—since we're both parents raising kids [laughs]—if maybe we could talk about how we have these conversations with our children. I guess specifically around race and identity and, you know, the current political climate. I think that's something that we've also—you and I individually have sort of talked about how to raise that with our kids.

MS: Yeah.

NC: So yeah, if that's of interest, I'd love to discuss it a little bit.

MS: Yeah, definitely. So, what would you—how would you like to start off?

NC: Oh.

MS: [laughs]

NC: Can I ask you a question?

MS: Sure! [laughs]

NC: Okay. Well, yeah, if you could remind me how old your kids are because I'm curious about where our kids ages line up, and then I guess like how these issues of like race and identity have been like raised in your family so far?

MS: Yeah. So my kids are ten—my son is ten and then I have two daughters who are six, about to turn seven in a couple of weeks, and then I have a four-year-old daughter as well.

NC: Okay. Yeah, I have a ten and a seven-year-old, so...

MS: Yeah, so pretty close.

NC: Mm-hm.

MS: Yeah. Yeah, my kids just started back at school, dropped them off this morning. So I've got a fifth grader and a second grader and then the youngest is still in preschool. But yeah, it is something that... Well, I mean, you know, you actually—and of course you mentioned that you're an editor. You are also the editor of the one published essay that I have—

NC: Mm-hm.

MS: —which was sort of about this topic, right? So... It's tough. Especially, you know, I live in San Diego, so, you know, being a border city is a—it's a topic that comes up a lot as well right now.

NC: Sure.

MS: And obviously it came up a lot right after the election in 2016. And it's one of those things like—I don't want to say this is a positive thing because I unequivocally don't think it's a positive thing, but one thing that this political climate has done, it's made it so that it's not a choice that I've made to talk about this stuff with the kids or not. You know, like it's not like—I'm not hemming and hawing about "When are we going to talk about this stuff with the kids?" because they're already talking about it at school and they're already—

NC: Yeah.

MS: —you know, they already know a lot of these things just from, you know, what's going on with their friends and what they hear. So we kind of have to—they bring it up, you know?

NC: Right, right. I'm the co-leader of my older daughter's Girl Scout troop and so, you know, this was—it was two years ago, God, it feels like a decade. But like two years ago during the campaign I remember before, I don't generally talk with them a lot about politics at Girl Scout meetings.

MS: [laughs]

NC: I'm just not sure how the other parents would feel about that. But like they would bring it up, they would talk about what they had heard. They would talk about—like they would ask each other, "Did you watch the debate?" And I was like, "Oh God, who's having their like third or second graders watch the debate?" Because normally it would be fine and like I applaud your civic involvement, but like some of those debates were so terrible.

MS: Yeah.

NC: Like seriously deeply traumatizing to watch. Anyway—

MS: As an adult!

NC: Right! Right. Like I would just find myself bracing, you know, like it was just so terrible. I didn't want to expose the kids to that. But, I mean I understand why some of them were watching and they were all talking about it and they knew about like in broad strokes, you know, but they knew about like horrible things that Trump has said about immigrants. You know, they had heard about things he'd said about Muslims, and women. Like it just was heartbreaking that this had reached them. But also you're right, the choice of whether or not to talk about it with kids I feel like has been removed for a lot of us. That said, I'm sure a lot of people still aren't as much as they maybe should be. Yeah, it's definitely been... For me, I sometimes struggle with like when and how to bring up things that she might not necessarily—you know, the kids might not hear about at school on their own.

MS: Mm.

NC: I remember specifically talking with like our older daughter about Charlottesville in part because our in-laws live there, so it's a place we go a lot. But also I just felt like she needed to know, like, what had happened.

MS: Mm.

NC: And... Yeah. I mean, I remember—I mean, years ago I remember talking with her about Ferguson and trying to figure out how to raise a subject that she wasn't going to hear about probably unless I brought it up. And I find it kind of difficult to know when and how and how much to say and how many—I mean, I just try to answer her questions as honestly as possible.

MS: Yeah.

NC: But, you know, it's definitely... It can definitely be challenging. And I know it's necessary, but of course a little part of you wishes you could sort of protect them a little bit longer.

MS: Yeah.

NC: From all of this. Even though I know we have a responsibility to make sure they know.

MS: Yeah.

NC: It's definitely—it's just a constant negotiation, I guess.

MS: Mm. For me, you know, another time that it comes up a lot is because I've been a lot more politically active recently.

NC: Mm-hm.

MS: So, like if I'm going off to a rally—well, a couple of times even they've wanted to come with me. Like when we had the big March for Our Lives back in the spring.

NC: Sure.

MS: My son wanted to go with me, and he like came and waved a sign and shouted and everything. And it was a big deal. Other times, you know, I mean he sees me working on stuff, whether it's like I'm prepping for a meeting with our Congressman or, you know, going to some planning meeting to try and figure out how we're going to address such-and-such an issue. And that is an opportunity, because he knows that I'm not going to be around during those meeting times.

NC: Mm-hm.

MS: That it comes up a lot more. It is something that I tend to discuss more with him, being the oldest—

NC: Right.

MS: —than with my daughters just because they're so much younger. And like the four year old, she's, I think, still a lot more in the dark about a lot of these things than the other ones. But yeah, that's another time it comes up for me.

NC: Yeah. I remember when my kids were younger, like preschool and kindergarten, a lot of times I'd introduce topics with like children's books—

MS: Mm.

NC: —and then we'd talk about it and I wanted—I mean that can backfire because then they can think about it sort of the way I grew up as like "This is all in the past and we've moved past it. Isn't that wonderful." Like so, you have to be careful I think to to make sure they know like things like this are still going on, or there are still effects from these systemic problems and draw those connections. But I found that starting like at a young age sometimes with books, that sometimes that would just make the conversations a little bit easier and I could refer back to them when they were older and were ready to hear more.

MS: Mm.

NC: In more detail and more nuance. It's been kind of helpful. I don't know.

MS: Yeah. I think the trickier thing for me is, you know, the big, like, political or like traumatic kind of topics like, you know—like talking about family separations, for example, is—

NC: Yeah. Yeah. That was horrible.

MS: I mean that's a huge issue here. Even here in San Diego, right?

NC: Mm-hm.

MS: But—because we have like two or three detention facilities in the county here.

NC: Yeah.

MS: But like talking about those things that are in the news, that is something that, it's sort of not obvious but sort of paradoxically is easier to bring up with them because...

NC: Hm.

MS: Because that's part of the conversation that's sort of already happening. The stuff that I find trickier to talk about is stuff about sort of race in general or like identity, especially as relates to—

NC: Yeah.

NC: —my identity or their identity and... Yeah, it's really—I'm often not sure how to talk about these things with them because I feel like a lot of the ways that we talk about the bigger things, it's really clear like this is happening to other people right now. Like it's important and we care about it and we're upset. But like it's obviously not happening directly to them right now. You know?

NC: Mm-hm. Yeah. My older daughter is much more able to have these conversations than my younger daughter, as well. And so, you know, we have talked a lot about identity, like hers and mine. And it's definitely confusing. You know, she's the daughter of an adoptee, so there was already going to be this disconnect from like her Korean heritage. And then there's just this additional fact that, you know, we're a multiracial family and so there are other parts of her heritage, too, that she knows and cares about and feels connected to. And I recognize that her... You know, she will have—my kids will have their own negotiations to figure out their identities and who they are and I can't and don't want to like dictate that for them. It's interesting, like every few months, like we will have this conversation about the fact that she is like multiracial and like, you know, she's not white, but there are other parts of her heritage besides Asian and like what does that mean and how do other people see her? And, you know, we talk about how some of her friends go to Korean school but she doesn't. And it's because I'm not fluent and she didn't grow up speaking it. A lot of the schools where we live are—they're really meant for kids who are growing up speaking it. And several of them have told me like "Probably she wouldn't feel comfortable here."

MS: Mm.

NC: So like I've tried to teach her a little and I thought about getting her like her own tutor or something, but she can't access this in the way that some of her friends can. And I wonder if that's hard or confusing for her. Maybe it's fine, but—I don't know, there are just certain things that she was always going to be a little more removed from because I'm adopted. And I know it's not my fault, it's not anybody's fault, but it's just like one more piece of her negotiation. You know, figuring out who she is. Yeah. Yeah, those are tough conversations to have. You'd think they'd be easier because it's personal, so like there aren't wrong answers. But it can really feel so high-stakes.

MS: Yeah.

NC: Right. So. Of course as a parent there's little I care about more, right, than my kids'—

MS: Yeah.

NC: —development and like their view of themselves. So, yeah, those conversations can definitely be hard. I actually really love to have them, but they're still... It's still challenging. It's some of the hardest conversations I think I've had as a parent.

MS: Yeah. There's something... Like for me the remove is... I mean, I'm not adopted but I feel like there's a similar thing for me in the fact that I'm like five generations removed from the immigrant generation by the long path. Like my great-grandparents were born in California. And, at that, I'm multiracial myself. Like I have one white grandfather, so it's... There was a thing that you wrote late in the book, like right towards the end when you were describing taking your older daughter to like start learning the Korean language and there's a—I even wrote down this line that... You wrote, "I tried to ignore the voice of doubt suggesting that perhaps I had no right to any of this; that all of it, country visit and potential language study included, represented little more than a glorified, grasping form of cultural appropriation." And like that line just kind of slew me. [laughs]

NC: Oh. [laughs]

MS: Because there is this exact question for me about to what extent even I am entitled to participate in my ancestors' culture. You know?

NC: Mm.

MS: Because I grew up in a majority white town. Like I have cousins who grew up two towns over who—there is a big Japanese American community there. Or like my cousins who are half Japanese and half Filipino. There's both of those communities there and they feel very connected to both of them. But for me, I grew up in a white town and my parents were divorced so I grew up with my half Japanese mom and a white stepdad.

NC: Mm.

MS: So like my connection—I have some connection to that culture because I still know my grandparents and stuff like that.

NC: Right.

MS: But it's always been very tenuous. And then when you take that one more generation down the line where—like, my wife is white so my kids are less than half Japanese.

NC: Mm-hm.

MS: I was talking to my son the other day and... I was talking to all three of them, we were coming back from school or something, and I asked them whether they even thought of themselves as Asian. And they basically said, "Well, we think of you as Asian."

NC: Hm. Yeah.

MS: And, themselves, they just don't really think about it at all. And I really didn't know how to feel about that, you know?

NC: Yes, yes. I remember feeling... You know, it's interesting—like, not to dwell on the unpleasantness of the election and our current administration, but one of the interesting conversations I had with my older daughter was like... It was either during the campaign or just after the election. And it was the first time she told me definitively without—you know, with no questions, no preamble—like "I'm not white." And like, I don't know, I mean that—I was a little bit surprised how much that felt like a victory to me at the time. I was extremely bitter and angry at the time about the election. I mean, I still am.

MS: I mean, aren't we all.

NC: So I know that was part of it, but also I was like—I took it as some kind of sign. Maybe I shouldn't have but I took it as a sign of like... First of all, she said that unprompted. And it wasn't after a long conversation we had. And I don't think it was as a result of me ever saying like, just flat out like, "This is who you are." I try really hard not to do that. Like independently, but also as a result of all of our talks ever, and all of the talk we were having about like the election, you know, she just arrived at this definitive conclusion and it was not a question. It was like a statement. And I don't know if she meant it in some kind of empowering way or whatever, but she just—the way she stated it as this bald fact, I guess I was glad about about that and about the fact that she was identifying so strongly as Asian American. But yeah, I do worry that it's still... Like for me and for my kids a tenuous grasp and that... You know, I don't want them to ever feel like if they want to explore even more of their Korean heritage than I'm able to give them, I don't want them to feel like imposters. I don't know, it's just really... It's difficult. I want them—of course I want them to have everything like, and all of the positive history and associations I didn't have. And at the same time, like I know I'm so ill-equipped to provide that as an adopted person. It's difficult. I'm not really able to give them as much as I wish I could in this area. So—and we can, yes, we can learn together and we can question and talk together. But yeah, I mean because of me there is this remove from their culture and I will never be able to entirely bridge that for them.

MS: Yeah. It's tough. It is tough. One of the things for me, we live in sort of the majority Asian neighborhood in San Diego. Which is really different from how I grew up being like, you know—there were like maybe five or six Asian kids in my high school.

NC: Mm-hm. Yeah.

MS: Whereas like in my kids elementary school, it's more than half Asian kids. And so like my kids, you know, they have friends that are white, but like most of my son's friends are Vietnamese or Filipino or Chinese or Korean.

NC: Yeah.

MS: And so like I feel like maybe that plays into it too. Like for me, looking the way I look in a school full of white people, like that was sort of a big part of it.

NC: Yeah, you never forgot who you were.

MS: Yeah. Whereas for him and for my daughters, like they just have all kinds of Asian people of all different ethnicities all around them all the time. And...

NC: Yeah, my kids do, too.

MS: So it's—I've always wondered if that was maybe another part of it, especially considering that we live far away from my family so they don't have that connection either quite as strongly. So—I don't know, it's... I don't know, you never really stop worrying about whether or not you're doing things the right way or not. [laughs]

NC: Right, right. That's true.

MS: [sigh] Well, okay, so we're actually getting pretty close to time but—so there's one question that I like to close with.

NC: Okay.

MS: And that is whether there is a piece of art or literature or just general creativity that you've experienced recently that meant something to you.

NC: Oh gosh. I mean that happens all the time. [laughs] I feel really lucky, I feel like it's been a banner year, too, for Asian American authors, like we were talking about before. I have to say like probably for me, the most powerful novel I've read in the past couple of years—and it's not an original, like, unique answer—but Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere.

MS: Yes!

NC: I mean, I did an event with Celeste here where I live and like someone asked me at one point like, you know, "When was the first time you saw yourself in literature?" And I was like, "Maybe this book, actually."

MS: [laughs]

NC: Because it's the first—I mean my story is nothing like what happens in the novel at all, but it was the first time I'd seen a transracial adoption of an Asian American child who was born in the US, like was a daughter, a child of immigrants like I was. For the most part, you know, when there are adoption stories, it's often—especially Asian adoptees—I mean, the default is that they're from another country, were born there and that just happens to be the case. There are so many foreign adoptions. And China and Korea in particular are like huge countries for adoption. But, yeah, Celeste's book was also just beautifully written. It meant a great deal to me. It meant so much that I have not been able to like reread it since it came out.

MS: Mm.

NC: Like I've kind of just been emotionally bracing myself. I read it twice and then, you know, I put it on the shelf and I think about it a lot and emotionally haven't quite been ready to tackle it yet again. But I really am meaning to. It just... Reading that while I was writing my own book and thinking so much about my own story just mattered to me a great deal. And, you know, there's so many other books I could mention, but I think, you know, that is probably probably the most important book to me personally that I've read in the past in the past couple of years.

MS: Yeah. Well, I mean, I have said this on the show before, many times, but her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, was—

NC: Yeah, so good.

MS: Yeah. And that was for me the first time. That was the book that I first had an experience of seeing some aspect of myself represented that I—and I'd never, literally never in my entire life, had that experience before. She was the one that did that for me, so I can relate and I—obviously I loved Little Fires Everywhere as well, so...

NC: Yeah, it was so good. So good.

MS: Alright, well thanks so much for talking with me, I really had a good time.

NC: Thank you so much for having me, I did too. And thank you for taking the time to read the book and invite me on your show. It means a lot to me. Just that you spent time with it and are thinking about it.

MS: It's been my pleasure. For sure.

[Music]


Outro

OK, so as I mentioned at the top of the show, Nicole has a whole bunch of appearances all over the country coming up over the next couple of months, so do check out her events page for more information, there’s a link in the show notes for that.

Now, on to the giveaway! As I mentioned, I have a signed copy of All You Can Ever Know that I will be giving away to one lucky listener. To enter, all you have to do is go to keepthechannelopen.com/allyoucaneverknow, one word, and sign up for the KTCO newsletter. If you’re already signed up for the newsletter, you don’t even need to do that, just drop me a quick email at podcast@keepthechannelopen.com and let me know you’d like to enter. And that’s it! Patreon subscribers will each get one additional entry as a thank you, but as always, the giveaway is free to enter for everyone. I’ll be doing the drawing and announcing the winner on Wednesday, October 17th, at 1 PM Pacific, so good luck, and happy reading!

And that is our show. If you’d like to get in touch, you can follow me and the show on Twitter at @ChannelOpenPod, on Facebook at facebook.com/keepthechannelopen, or you can send an email to podcast@keepthechannelopen.com. If you’d like to support the show, a monthly pledge in any amount to our Patreon campaign is greatly appreciated, it also gets you access to our subscriber-only bonus content. You can find that at patreon.com/sakeriver, that’s sake like the drink and river like river. And please leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts, that does help new listeners find the show. Our theme music is by Podington Bear, you can find more of his music available for licensing at soundofpicture.com. Just a quick programming note: I’m prepping for a big portfolio review this month so the show will be on a short hiatus. But we will be back very soon with new conversations, and until then remember: keep the channel open.

Michael Sakasegawa