Why Are We Here?

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
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 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.

"Have you read Something About Whiteness by Jane Lazarre?" Trenka asks. "She's the white biological mother of black sons. She calls her whiteness 'the sun-blinded desert.' Have you read Colonize This? Third-wave feminists talk about their mothers, and how they gave them this wonderful appreciation of their bodies, these wonderful coping mechanisms for being a colored person. And it's like, 'Oh shit, I didn't get any of that.' Have you read White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack? It's by Peggy McIntosh, a professor at Wellesley. She gives 26 examples of everyday white privilege. I was like, This is why I have such cognitive dissonance: I see white privilege in my family, but I don't have it. Although you can get a certain amount of it by being a transracially adopted person--you see from the inside how stuff works."

No, no, and no, I haven't read any of them.

"I've become friends with [transracial adoptees] from Sweden, Australia, London, Africa," Trenka continues, half enthusiastic, half wry. "The one thing they most have in common is that they were raised by white, middle-class parents. It's like there's a new class of people. I have more in common with an African-American woman in California who was transracially adopted than I do with a Korean national."

One reason for the alienation is language. Trenka doesn't know Korean, but more subtly, she is losing the ability to speak the truncated and stoic English of her adoptive parents. Communicating with her Korean mother and her other sisters requires a translator, whether a person, a phrase book, or a physical gesture. Turns out a translator would also have come in handy in Trenka's fractured conversations with the parents who raised her: Trenka fills in some of these gaps with storytelling--locating images that show her American parents' losses and gestures of love. Other gaps she leaves to speak for themselves.

Trenka holds close those Korean words she learns--Umma (mama), Unni (woman's older sister), nampion (husband)--and yet her relationship with her birth mother is almost preverbal, a language of sleeping next to and washing and feeding each other. Trenka's biological father beat his wife and children and attempted to kill Trenka. Her mother struggled to feed the family. The distance between this mother and daughter is perhaps not something that can be addressed in words. Trenka is a writer; she finds a way.

"I look at this like an American, and I go, 'Why didn't someone help my dad, who was an alcoholic? Why didn't somebody make a safe house, so my mother could take me and my sisters there?'" she says. "Gloria Steinem says the greatest gift feminists can give each other is choice. 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. I just want kids to be able to stay with their mothers if their mothers want them. If that mother doesn't have the education, well, why don't we help her get education? Why are we not empowering her with that 20,000 [to] 40,000 dollars that it takes [to adopt]?

"As we get further and further away from the Korean War, which is where [international adoption] got started, we're forgetting what this is for," Trenka says. "It's not so that Americans can get what they want because we can pay for it. It's for emergencies." Trenka laughs, high and quick. "Cheri Register wrote Are Those Kids Yours?--she talks about supporting adoption for kids who need homes now, meanwhile working toward the goal of 'This doesn't have to happen anymore.' But over 20,000 visas were given last year for kids to come into the United States."

Trenka talks about the Korean notion of han, a word without an English equivalent. She understands it as the spirit of Korean people: a longtime suffering under oppression, a bitterness, but also a celebration of endurance. In Language of Blood, she writes about han climbing up "from the other side of the earth, through the bottoms of her feet."  

I ask a Korean national I know about han. "In psychological terms," she says, "you could say it's about past trauma, and a long sadness."

One of those 20,000 visas was for the boy who is now my son.

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