The search for a heritage ignored
Jane JEONG TRENKA knows a thing or two about identity. Born in Korea in 1972 and adopted at 6 months by a conservative Minnesota family, she felt pressure to be a perfect all-American girl, in denial of her Korean heritage. In part because nearly everyone around her was white, blond and blue-eyed, she didn’t blend in seamlessly, which led her to self-loathing and feelings of failure. In her inventive memoir “The Language of Blood,” she describes her arduous effort to reconcile past and present, to construct her own meaning of family -- and most of all, to accept herself.
Like Dave Eggers’ “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” and Maxine Hong Kingston’s “The Woman Warrior,” Trenka’s memoir uses a variety of imaginative forms to tell her story and, perhaps, to deflect some of its more painful elements. At random moments, her prose bursts into fairy tale, correspondence, stand-up comedy sketch and even crossword puzzle.
Trenka doesn’t learn until she is 20 why her biological mother, called Umma, gave up her and her sister, whose given names were Kyong-Ah and Mi-Ja. In a letter, Umma reveals that she sent them away to save their lives, to protect them from an alcoholic and physically abusive father. It is a decision over which Umma has never stopped agonizing.
There could hardly be a more far-removed place for two Korean girls to end up than Harlow, Minn., “the Turkey Capital of the World,” a town where men are expected to be husbands and fathers and women “must be mothers, not just wives, and if the children are not born soon, people talk.” Harlow has no notion of diversity, Trenka writes. It is “the last bastion of all that is good, right, fundamental, and homogenous. It’s the kind of place where vandalism to a flower garden makes front-page news, where the weather has an effect on what you wear and hunt, where all the people celebrate the same holidays, where you don’t have to remember the latest politically correct vocabulary.”
Trenka’s adoptive parents, who in the book are given the pseudonyms Frederick and Margaret Brauer, have no interest in learning about Korea, and have never cared to travel farther than Minneapolis. They also deny the need for Trenka and her sister to have any relationship or contact with their birth mother. As a result, the two girls “never spoke a single word to each other about Korea. We wove a gag over our mouths as thick and impenetrable as love.” Trenka found solace in playing music, specifically piano, to “express all the things I felt but was not permitted to say out loud.” (She earned a music performance degree from Augsburg College in Minneapolis.)
Her college years proved difficult: She details how a stalker ruined her life, pulling her into a severe four-year depression. (He was eventually jailed, after having confessed his intention to kidnap, rape and murder her.) This traumatic experience led her to Korea, where she didn’t speak the language but where her birth mother was waiting to meet her.
Interestingly, it is not Umma whom Trenka must work to forgive -- they bond as soon as they meet, and form a close relationship -- but her adoptive parents, who seem content to be her mother and father so long as uncomfortable issues of identity aren’t discussed. She critiques the problematic aspects of transnational adoption, particularly cases in which (like that of her own parents) there is little or no education required of the parents about the child’s home country, culture or history. “How do I explain in the course of polite conversation,” Trenka asks, “that my seemingly flawless assimilation into America has yielded anything but joy and gratitude? How do I explain my ambivalence?”
Because her parents never celebrated her Korean heritage but instead felt threatened by it, Trenka feels perpetually displaced. “Some things I will never know; others I am learning gradually, with effort and determination,” she writes. “In the latter category are Korean manners and language, including the names of things with no English equivalents; Korean history; the difference between Eastern and Western dragons; how not to stereotype other Asian people. I am learning to navigate the gap in perception that lies between my view of the world, the white American view of the world, and the Korean view of the world.”
There are painful descriptions of loss and longing, hilarious passages poking fun at Asian stereotypes, the narrow-mindedness in small-town America and the hypocrisy of politically correct thinkers. And her brutal honesty complicates the bumper-sticker notion that to adopt a child is to save a life and ensure a happily-ever-after ending.
Trenka has survived a lengthy battle with herself, her family and her traumatic memories, achieving self-acceptance as an “exile,” the label she finds fits her best: “ ‘Adoptee’ never seemed quite right; it didn’t address what I had lost, which was an inseparable part of what I had gained.”
“The Language of Blood” takes an unflinching look at the messier aspects of making a family and the shaping of identity. The ending it offers is not predictable or easy, but bittersweet, perhaps the only kind an exile could achieve.