Why Are We Here?

In a new memoir, a Korean adoptee struggles to figure out where the hell is home

The Language of Blood
Jane Jeong Trenka
Borealis Books

Jane Jeong Trenka says she was once a "people pleaser." And now: "I see someone driving around with their fucking bumper sticker saying 'All it takes is love to make a family,' and I want to get out of my car and beat that lady."

Trenka laughs, a high, emphatic "ha!" that blots out for a moment the syrupy "Irish" folk fiddle dripping out of the speakers of Open Book's coffee shop. Jane Jeong Trenka has a lopsided grin so roguish I think of Huck Finn. Though she calls her elegant semi-crewcut a mistake, it makes it easy to imagine her at the Triple Rock, jonesing for a drummer, a scenario mockingly portrayed in her new memoir, The Language of Blood. Like many Twin Cities drummers and lovers thereof, Jane Jeong Trenka was raised in small-town Minnesota, though she was not born here. She is an immigrant, though, as she points out, one not counted by City Pages in its recent story on immigration. She is Korean, though not recognized as such by many Korean nationals. And she is American.

Jane Jeong Trenka: "My mother had the choice to keep her kids and possibly have me be killed, or to give me away forever. That's not a real choice."
Kathy Easthagen
Jane Jeong Trenka: "My mother had the choice to keep her kids and possibly have me be killed, or to give me away forever. That's not a real choice."

Jane Jeong Trenka is adopted. Unfortunately, what she has to say about that fact won't soon be quoted in agency pamphlets on transracial adoption. "It's the American paternalistic thing that we put on other countries," she starts. "We say, 'Oh we can give you THIS, and it's much better than THIS', but actually that's not true. Transracial adoption is this big pile of gains, and it's this big pile of loss, and you just sit in paradox. The best adoptive parents I know sit in paradox right with me."

Trenka is Jane and she is Jeong and she is the marriage of the two--sometimes bitter and sometimes heartbreakingly funny. Like when you're carrying your dying Korean mother into the hospital on your back, the mother who finally found you, the mother you've only known for five years, and you imagine someday trying to carry your stout, German-potato-salad American parents between home and hospital bed. Like when, a couple of years later, you wonder whether you'd even want to care for them in their dying, given the way they refuse to acknowledge anything having to do with your Koreanness, let alone your grief, let alone your anger. Like when you marry happiness with a white man (a bassist!) and wonder about your future children's connection with your birth country.

"My parents never bothered to go to my country," Trenka says. "They never bothered to go further than North Dakota. They don't know what it's like to be a minority. They don't think racism is real, because they've never experienced it."

Jane Jeong Trenka and her older sister came to the United States on September 26, 1972, when Trenka was six months old. They are two of the 150,000 to 200,000 Korean children adopted internationally since the mid-Fifties. Minnesota took a disproportionate number of those children, 10,000, thanks to active adoption agencies such as Children's Home Society and Lutheran Social Service, and, as Trenka has said, "a perceived liberal culture of acceptance."

In the last decade, these adoptees have begun to tell their stories in public. Some, like the sisters of a recent Strib series, relate a comfortable tale of secure childhoods and adoptive parents who support their search for biological family. Others speak of cultural genocide.

Trenka's Language of Blood is courageous enough to be ambivalent: Its collage structure--combining memory shards, letters, quotations from Eastern and Western religious tradition, stage scripts--is loose enough to reveal the truth in between.

A typically considered and also pained reflection:

 

Would I rather have not been adopted?I don't know...How can I weigh the loss of my language and culture against the freedom that America has to offer, the opportunity to have the same rights as a man?...How many educational opportunities must I mark on my tally sheet before I can say it was worth losing my mother?

 

Trenka's book won't answer those questions. She describes her first trip to Korea, when she accompanied a Children's Home tour group of adoptees and parents, and found the latter's enlightened sensitivity to their children's culture at once inspiring (what an improvement over her own parents!) and haplessly inadequate (culture as tourism). The book shrugs off American myths of the rootless individual, the adaptable, adoptable child, to speak of a noisy language of the blood. At the same time, this is a work of self-invention, a conscious attempt to bring the languages of blood and mind together, "a new quilt of memory and imagination."

Trenka's book describes her white, middle-class small town as a unified, insular culture, influenced by German roots, rich in ritual, thick with emotional repression: "What were my parents to know of the inescapable voice of generational memory, or racial memory, of landscape--if they had never been separated from their own people?"

I tell Trenka that I am a parent of an adopted child from China. I tell her that the stories of the now-adult Korean adoptees are invaluable to parents adopting babies internationally. I don't tell her that in 2001 our adoption agency gave my husband and me one video and some worksheets to prepare us for adopting a child of a different race--little more than Trenka's parents received 30 years ago. I don't tell her that I still see white parents bringing Asian children home to small towns where no one looks like them. I don't say that the tenor of Chinese adoption discourse in particular is still about "salvation": rescuing girls from a culture that has seemingly abandoned them. But then, she already knows these things.

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