I’ve said many times that The Fault in Our Stars, while it is dedicated to Esther, is not about her. When the book was published, lots of reporters wanted me to talk about Esther; they wanted to know if my book was “based on a true story.” I never really knew how to deal with these questions, and I still don’t, because the truth (as always) is complicated. Esther inspired the story in the sense that my anger after her death pushed me to write constantly. She helped me to imagine teenagers as more empathetic than I’d given them credit for, and her charm and snark inspired the novel, too, but the character of Hazel is very different from Esther, and Hazel’s story is not Esther’s. Esther’s story belonged to her, and fortunately for us she was an extraordinary writer, who in these pages tells that story beautifully. I find comfort in that, but make no mistake: I am still pissed off that she died. I still miss her. I still find her loss an intolerable justice. And I wish she’d read The Fault in Our Stars. I am astonished that the book has found such a broad audience, but the person I most want to read it never will.
maybe the current generation is more sensitive, empathetic, or generally informed. but when i was a korean girl growing up in the whitest, most wealthy part of a conservative state, girls would dismiss their “weird” sisters with the quip that “she’s the adopted one.” even though she clearly wasn’t, as if it were the worst possible thing you could be. more than being poor, more than being sick. & in the 1990s, in this tiny town where parents don’t get divorced, where all the stores close at 8pm, where all the most popular boys in school have cornflower hair & giant blue eyes, maybe it was
no one ever told me to “go home” but they pulled out the corners of their eyes & pushed down their noses & complained about not being able to see. they asked me if i ever wanted to go find my “real” parents. when mulan came out, they asked me why i never show off my martial arts at recess
later, it became a game: white people who encounter me in the wild would guess what “type” of asian i am. in their brains, two neon signs would light up: CHINESE & JAPANESE in bold block letters. there were no other options. even now, old white men will stop me at work & say “nǐ hǎo” to me, their white square teeth acting like they’re doing me a favor
the adopted one. like there’s anything glamorous about it. like blood is the only currency
this is the thing: nicole chung is korean & adopted, too, but her story is not my story. because there is no ~one~ story about the adoption experience. some big, easy differences between us from the outset:
- nicole has her shit together
- nicole loves her (adoptive) parents
- for most of her life, nicole was functionally an only child
- nicole searched for her birth parents
still, i would be lying if i said i didn’t request an ARC of all you can ever know to find out more about who i am. because the truth is that no one from a biological family, no matter how close to me, can understand how this feels, unless you’ve felt it:
Where did they get you? people at the grocery store asked. Or, on the playground, How much did you cost? Kids at school wanted to know why I didn’t look like them. Teachers stumbled over my Hungarian surname, looking perplexed even after my corrections.
up until last year, my legal last name was irish: the same letters in my first name, a tongue twister & a brain teaser. to see that name on paper then look at me. sometimes my new name turns heads (you’re not hispanic, tho??) but mostly, people think it sounds like a name for a writer
mostly, i’m no longer a korean girl in a town with sixteen thousand people
cindy is nicole’s biological sister & what they told her (& cindy’s half-sister jessica) was that their baby sister had died. or that was the implication when the baby was coming for so long & then gone (two went to the hospital; only one came back). while “Cindy would never be able to recall anyone actually telling her the baby had died,” it became a fact about her life, the same way nicole grew up with the story that she was her adoptive parents’ “gift from God”
as nicole got older, she “[could] make out the gaps; the places where my mother and father must have made their own guesses; the pauses where harder questions could have followed: Why didn’t they ask for help? What if they changed their minds? Would you have adopted me if you’d been able to have a child of your own?”
over & over, her parents would tell her the same story—they thought adoption was the best thing for you. they told her “the fact that I was Korean didn’t matter; what mattered was ‘the kind of person’ I was.” but things still happened. in second or third grade, a boy on the playground told her she was “so ugly, your own parents didn’t even want you!”
at that age, with white parents who “[took] a ‘colorblind’ view of our family…believed my Koreanness was irrelevant within our family, and should be so to everyone else as well,” there weren’t words for these attacks that didn’t leave bruises:
I never heard or read about any racism other than the kind that outright destroys your life and blots out your physical existence; even that was relegated in books and lessons to “it happened in the past.” What I experienced on the elementary school playground, and then later on my middle school bus, and for the rest of my years in Southern Oregon…always seemed too insignificant to be even remotely connected to real racism
instead, nicole was left with the feeling that she was “more like a white girl than an Asian one,” to the point where “sometimes it was shocking to catch a glimpse of my face in the mirror and be forced to catalogue the hated differences; to encounter tormentors and former friends and know that what they saw was so at odds with the person I was”
the white people that adopted me took a different approach. until third grade, they put me in a montessori school a long commute from where we lived so i could go to school with other people that looked like me, or at least were different than all the ashleys & sarahs. my best friends were from india, china, zimbabwe. one day, the white people that adopted me even came to my school & did a presentation about hanboks
maybe there’s other adoptees that would have flipped for this but it made me feel like i had done something wrong & didn’t know it, like i needed someone to apologize for me. in my childhood room, there was a poem in a frame about how i really had two mothers & that they both loved me the same amount. but unlike nicole who “kept a secret running tally of every single Asian person I had ever seen in public,” who “looked for my people, for my parents, for a sudden light of recognition that never came,” i had no desire to find the people that gave me up. i didn’t want or need to go back there; i wanted somebody who would take care of who i was here, now
old school adoptions were intense. in part one of her memoir, nicole explains that back in the day, “birth parents had no legal rights once an adoption was finalized.” that even more “open adoption [arrangements] at the time of placement—with, say, the exchange of regular letters, photos, and phone calls” were up to the continued active participation of the adoptive family. otherwise, “the adoptive family had the right to cut off contact, at any time, with or without an explanation”
on top of that, the names of the adoptee’s birth parents could only be “accessed and shared with [her] by a confidential adoption intermediary, and then only after [her] birth family approved the information exchange.” much different than today, where (in the state of washington) nicole could request a copy of her original birth certificate as part of public records. but the legislation did not change until summer 2014, years & years after nicole started her research
so nicole needed a “search angel,” an industry term for the intermediary. as with certain bureaucratic processes, however, nicole found it difficult to “hire someone who would listen, understand the unique circumstances of my placement, and see us all as individuals with our own feelings and histories to be respected” instead of “[viewing] my birth parents or me as a cause, or representative of larger problems with adoption.” she wanted someone to care about her, as she was trying to navigate the idea of discussing the search with her adoptive parents:
I tried not to recall the cautionary tales they’d told me about adoptees who should have been more wary of their birth families, or the way my mother had once said, You’re our daughter, no one else’s! In a joke attempt that struck me, even at the time, as strange and a little desperate
on paper, it was a lot. like why even do it if it was going to cost all this money, cause all this pain, ruin this neat little story where these white people saved her life & she lived happily-ever-after with her bachelor’s degree & scientist husband?
because she was pregnant & “couldn’t shake the overwhelming feeling that our baby was destined to inherit a half-empty family tree.” because “i don’t know” only goes so far. because “in most published stories, adoptees still aren’t the adults, the ones with power or agency or desires that matter”
she wanted to look her daughter in the eyes & tell her the truth, not a story
if the story in nicole’s head was a french omlette, perfectly fluffy with the edges folded just so, the truth was like the first & only time you order eggs benedict from a diner in the middle of nowhere: the eggs are goop, the canadian bacon is spam, you’re sure you could see the “hollandaise” from jupiter. in other words, not at all what she expected—messy, raw, pieces missing
imagine wondering your entire life if your parents thought about you, if your sisters still counted you when strangers would ask them about their family, wanting to know whose eyes & chin you had only for your search angel to tell you that you don’t exist. according to nicole’s file, the potential controversy over her korean birth parents bringing home a “sick” (premature) baby or having to explain why they had left her were so humiliating that “they thought it would be easier if they told everyone, including your sisters, that you had died.” not only that but her birth parents had since been divorced & lived in different states so she would now have to decide if & how she’d like to contact each of them
in the margin where the search angel delivers nicole this bad news as good news, i highlight it all & write holy fuck. the fantasy was not only blurry but obliterated: “If I opened my eyes to find my birth parents standing right in front of me, I wouldn’t have known what to say.” if it were me, i might have already hung up. but nicole stayed on the line & donna said the one thing that could have kept her from giving up: “There’s a name here in the file. I guess your parents chose it for you before you were adopted”
it was “susan” & it was enough
my american name is from a dead beauty brand named annalia’s garden. my brother’s american name is after saint nicholas. at first, though, we were going to be named lucy & jet, & i thank the universe every day that that was not the case
the white people that adopted us kept our first names in korean as our middle names, but we’ve always kept them close. my brother uses his full korean name as his email & lists his hometown as seoul on facebook even though he’s never lived there. i added the rest of my korean name to my middle name when i changed my last name
right now, neither of us speaks korean but my brother & best friend are learning. nicole is learning. in the last chapter of her memoir, nicole’s oldest daughter abby asks her, “Mama, am I a real Korean?” as an imported korean, i recognize this wonder, but it was not something i thought about until i was maybe fifteen, not five. abby explains that her “real” chinese friends speak chinese, & that they’re all chinese while abby herself is korean & “lemonese” (lebanese)
over signature floats at the drive-in behind our childhood house, i ask my brother about what it means to be a “real” asian. he’s visiting america after his first year of teaching english in japan; i’ve only been dragged to wisconsin for legal meetings related to our nana’s death. he says that he got made fun of in high school if his grades weren’t perfect but wasn’t as stressed about it during college. both of us agree that if our birth parents contacted us that we would talk to them or maybe even meet them but didn’t have any interest in looking for them or building like a life-long relationship because of it
i don’t know why other people look, just as nicole accepts that other people don’t. but i think the fact that i have had a brother since i was two years old helps me; we didn’t need to search because we had each other
nicole asked someone to be her sister for the first time when she was ten. i don’t know if there were other times or it was only this then finding cindy, but it intrigues me. thinking of her own sister, nicole’s grandmother encouraged the idea: “Mary always looked out for me. all our lives! that’s what sisters do. maybe your friend needs someone to look out for her, too”
it didn’t work out with her childhood friend but the bond with cindy was immediate. they wrote each other every day; nicole even made a “cindy” folder where she kept their missives. cindy flew out to meet nicole. after that, they arranged a trip where nicole would go to cindy, & part of that vacation was dinner with nicole’s birth father
& this, of course, is the view from space. each of these milestones was filled with much more tension, anticipation, complication than i’ve listed here. but the moment that rooted me to present-day nicole writing this book, giving me this window, is one where her & cindy weren’t even together. on march 12, cindy calls & tells nicole she’s six weeks pregnant
“we haven’t told anyone else,” cindy says. to check, nicole asks, “not even your dad?” cindy’s reply: “for now, you’re the only one who knows”
if this were a movie, here’s where we could cut. but cindy goes on, saying she’s “trying not to obsess over it,” & nicole holds her hope, crosses all her fingers & toes. “I’m thinking about you both,” she says. in the margins, i’ve written ¡THE ONLY ONE!
adoptee has never been the first word i would use to describe myself. it’s probably not even in the top ten & wasn’t a word that entered into my vocabulary until a few years ago. what comes before it? woman. feminist. older sister, failed pianist. poet. cat person. but being an asian woman in america affects every part of my life; i know it does
back in march, nicole wrote an article for longreads & one of the things she said was “Sometimes I wonder if I wrote a really bad book, and everyone is just afraid to tell me because my father is dead.” now it’s august. it’s been seven months & there’s still a month & some change until all you can ever know is out in the world
make no mistake: it’s excellent
w/ thanx 2 ella & jack for sharing this w/ me
james named the new place—his place—after this song. as if i needed more reasons to stay
for tattoos in houston, i would only give guts & marrow to
10708 grant rd (77070)
I did not know where this was headed. I did not know if I wanted to be a woman, if I wanted to be a person in a man’s body who could look sexy in a dress, if I wanted to be something else. I only knew I was realizing desires I had held as long as I had ever held desires.
The first time I had worn panties I was not capable of comprehending transgression. I wore them purely based on sensation and compulsion, similar to the childish impulse to eat glue. What struck in my memory was not the first moment I pulled on the panties, what struck was being told “no” in a way I had never been told “no” before. It was an accented “no,” a “no” that said, this is wrong for a dangerous reason. This was my foundation. Cross dressing was a transgression of the highest order. Under no circumstances should I ever do this. I should never. Not for any reason imaginable.
I now associate my years of middle school with stomach pains whose origins I did not understand. During those years I often theorized that they might be some form of punishment for my frequent masturbation. On at least one occasion they were of such severity that I convinced my mother to bring me to the emergency room hospital because I felt that my appendix might be inflamed. I also recall instances where I attempted to make deals with what I imagined was the deity so that these pains might cease.
It was only long, long thereafter that I understood they had been signs of enormous, ongoing stress.
I at last managed to exit my bedroom and walk out into the hall. Each step I took was a step unlike any I had previously taken. Never before had I stepped in full awareness that at any moment another human being might find me dressed as a girl. I might be seen—like this.
This is not a path I could ever choose. I will only ever feel that I must tear away my falseness.
If there are any of our readymade ideas that will survive our extinction, I trust that truth stands the best chance.
I will put it far more plainly than I could in my youth: I wanted pretty things. I wanted to be a pretty thing. I wanted permission to feel prettiness down to my roots, in every facet of my life to which prettiness pertained. I wanted the freedom to make my body pretty and feminine at times of my choosing.
For all the many times I cross dressed in that apartment, I never believed they made me a cross dresser. I also knew that they made me a cross dresser.
What is the difference between performing actions and inhabiting them?
At several junctures in the years between our first conversation in 2002 and our departure for Latin America in 2006, I made efforts to converse with this woman on the subject of my ache. All of these efforts concluded in failure. My hope for each of these conversations was that they would bring about a situation where I could live openly in my own home. Yet none of them brought me remotely near that mark. The blame is mine. These conversations failed because I was not yet prepared to claim my freedom. I had hoped that she would give it to me.
I walked down the hall and into the bathroom, and I stared at myself in the mirror above the sink. In the mirror reflection I saw the bathroom of a dingy hostel deep within South America. I peered into my own reflected eyes. I do very much believe that this was the first time I ever looked into those pupils and wanted to know what was in there.
Quite possibly, if I do not get this right I will go to my grave believing that much of my life has been in error. So I do my very best to converse with this thing, to find out what it wants, and to become it.
No one ever performs well the first time they’ve seen a close up. I take the blame for my own first two failures, those first two people who did not react well to what I had to tell them. They are people who love me, and I think their love would have won out had I the wherewithal to make my case as well as Sabzian made his that afternoon on the bus. But I doubted myself, and within a moment my doubt infected them, and we joined in rejecting what I had made us examine. But not that third time. On that third time I spoke without doubt, and I have done so every single time since then.
When I looked into the mirror and felt confidence fill me I decided to take just one photo of myself. I did not need to shoot photo after photo, because on that evening I knew that I was perfect, and when I looked at that image it would be perfect. I saw a woman. I could find not a single thing wrong with her. I was beautiful.
I did not hope to one day enter into my true body. My true body has always been and always will be the only body that I will ever have, the one that I had begun inhabiting with my emergence onto this Earth. This is mine and not any other. What coaxed my belief were the ceaselessly fluctuating states that would always want to control this body.
So many hurdles crushed, and at last I was broken upon too large a task, choking on my endless aspiration.
The clock was ticking and I was late. There was no choice but to go. But I could not go.
“Surrender to your desires,” I whispered to myself. Again and again I whispered it. “Surrender to your desires.”
For a year and a half I have been gathering the facts in this book. In that time I have lost the capacity to remember how it once felt to be myself. I no longer know this fear that once ruled me. It is inconceivable to me that there ever existed a person so paralyzed to take even one step forward. That person is now impossible.
In 2015, the year in which things would no longer be as they once were, I was reading Silvina Ocampo, Can Xue, The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek, Joan Copjec’s book on Lacan and Foucault, Sarah Manguso, Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine. I was most of all reading Thomas Bernhard’s autobiography.