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Nicole Chung shares her journey through grief, capitalism and forgiveness

Bestselling author Nicole Chung.
Carletta Girma
Bestselling author Nicole Chung.

Updated April 6, 2023 at 4:14 PM ET

As a Korean American adoptee raised in Oregon by a white family, Nicole Chung spent years knowing nothing of her biological family. But after she became pregnant, she began the search for her birth family. That journey has inspired much of her writing.

That's how she described her experience on NPR in 2018, in an interview about her debut memoir, All You Can Ever Know, which narrates her adoption journey and highlights the challenges she faced growing up as an adoptee in rural America.

In her latest memoir, A Living Remedy, Chung not only recounts the death of her adoptive parents but also explores the challenges of healthcare access and equity.

Both parents faced different health emergencies without insurance coverage, placing financial strain on the family.

"I remember after my father died, and where some of this book came from, was just this rage that I felt at how young he died — at 67, after years of not being able to access the type of medical care he really needed, after literally having renal failure and being denied disability," Chung told NPR's Steve Inskeep.

Nicole Chung, left, smiles with her parents in Oregon in the 1980s.
/ Courtesy of Nicole Chung
/
Courtesy of Nicole Chung
Nicole Chung, left, smiles with her parents in Oregon in the 1980s.

Her father died before her debut book was published in 2018. Two years later, her mother died of cancer during the COVID-19 pandemic. For Chung, not being able to be with her mother as she died — due to pandemic conditions — exacerbated her sadness and guilt.

Chung lays bare the complicated, often unpredictable nature of grief; how it shapes the way we remember and honor those who have died. For instance, the stories about her father in her memoir are largely conveyed through the lens of her mother, who was the storyteller. She reckons with how her grandmother managed to outlive her son, despite encountering major health challenges of her own during the tumultuous 1960s and 70s.

As a college student, Chung says she used her powers of observation both as a defense mechanism and to help her gain understanding of difference. In her writing, she employs these same skills to explore her personal experiences of grief and guilt, without rushing to conclusions or definitive answers.

Chung's memoir, which released on April 4, is an exploration of loss, belonging, and identity. The book ends on a note of forgiveness and empathy, reflecting her personal growth as an adult orphan and a writer.

The below excerpts include quotes from the conversation with Nicole Chung that were not aired in the broadcast version. Use the audio player at the top of this page to listen to the broadcast version of the interview.


Interview excerpts

On the circumstances surrounding Chung's adoption

I was born very prematurely in Washington State in the early 80s to a Korean immigrant family. They had moved to the U.S. just a couple of years before I was born, so I was the first member of that family born here. And because I was born so early, the doctors were predicting a lot of medical problems, several disabilities. They told my birth parents that I would probably never live independently and might need constant care. And my birth parents were recent immigrants; they worked 14 hours a day at their small business. They had other children at home, and they had no health insurance.

On the relationship between her adoptive parents' health problems and their inability to access healthcare

There was definitely a connection because we were often as a family, uninsured or underinsured when I was growing up. And this is another thing I knew but didn't really think about that. There were years I would go to the doctor or the dentist, and there were years where I didn't.

I didn't necessarily think about it too much until these health emergencies started accumulating – my father's diabetes and the medications he needed, and my mother's cancer, and then a series of other health issues that actually went untreated for quite a while. My mother had a costly operation when I was in high school, and that was not covered. My father had a lot of ongoing medical issues as well. And so every time that happened, you know, quite often those bills would go on a credit card, and it took many years for them to pay off, ultimately bankrupting them.

On her experience of being isolated during the pandemic and writing her memoir

My approach to writing this book, I just really had to be so patient. And I think the most important thing for a writer is curiosity. And so even though a lot of these memories or these losses hurt to revisit, I was also genuinely, deeply curious about what it would be to examine them through writing.

In my first book, I knew the beginning, middle, and end of that story, but for this memoir, that actually wasn't the case. I ended up writing and rewriting a great deal. Initially, the book was not going to focus on my mother's death as well, but while I was working on the book, she got a terminal cancer diagnosis. And I'd never intended to write a chapter that took place during the pandemic because I did not know that would happen, and everything would change.

But at that point, of course, I'm thinking about readers. I'm thinking, what do they need to know or understand in order to care, to grasp the stakes, to be kind of brought along in this story? And how will it help them perhaps think about or relate to their own lives, their own losses, their own loved ones?

On how she's coping with the loss of her parents

Now I'm doing okay. I have learned how to be okay. And I've learned how to show myself more grace partly through the experience of writing this book. And I think I have a lot more patience for my own humanity than I used to — my own limitations. I am doing much, much better than I thought I would be.

The audio version was edited by Reena Advani and produced by Nina Kravinsky. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Majd Al-Waheidi
Majd Al-Waheidi is the digital editor on Morning Edition, where she brings the show's journalism to online audiences. Previously, Al-Waheidi was a reporter for the New York Times in the Gaza Strip, where she reported about a first-of-its-kind Islamic dating site, and documented the human impact of the 2014 Israel-Gaza war in a collaborative visual project nominated for an Emmy Award. She also reported about Wikipedia censorship in Arabic for Rest of World magazine, and investigated the abusive working conditions of TikTok content moderators for Business Insider. Al-Waheidi has worked at the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy, and holds a master's degree in Arab Studies from the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. A native of Gaza, she speaks Arabic and some French, and is studying Farsi.