The Language of Blood: A Memoir

The Language of Blood: A Memoir

3.8 10
by Jane Jeong Trenka

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For years, Korean adoptee Jane Jeong Trenka tried to be the ideal daughter. She was always polite, earned perfect grades, and excelled as a concert pianist. She went to church with her American family in small-town Minnesota and learned not to ask about the mother who had given her away. Then, while she was far from home on a music scholarship, living in a big city… See more details below

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For years, Korean adoptee Jane Jeong Trenka tried to be the ideal daughter. She was always polite, earned perfect grades, and excelled as a concert pianist. She went to church with her American family in small-town Minnesota and learned not to ask about the mother who had given her away. Then, while she was far from home on a music scholarship, living in a big city for the first time, one of her fellow university students began to follow her, his obsession ultimately escalating into a plot for her murder.

In prose that ranges seamlessly from pure lyricism to harrowing realism, Trenka recounts repeated close encounters with her stalker and the years of repressed questions that her ordeal awakened. Determined not to be defined by her stalker's twisted assessment of her worth, she struck out in search of her own identity - free of western stereotypes of geishas and good girls. Doing so, however, meant confronting her American family and fighting the bureaucracy at the agency that had arranged for her adoption.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publishers Weekly
Trenka remembers with gross delight headless chickens dancing around until collapse at her adoptive family's farm. She writes, "I wanted my head to be removed, a metaphor so strong that only later did I realize that it was not a death wish at all.... What I longed for was wholeness, for my body to be as white and Northern Minnesotan as my mind." Original and beautifully written reflections like these fill Trenka's memoir, a brave exploration of her identity as a Korean adoptee and pensive young woman trying to negotiate between two mothers and two lives. She traces her life from young, eager-to-please child to questioning adolescent. Once at college, she is stalked by an acquaintance with a sick fascination with her Asian heritage, forcing her to ask important questions about exoticization and violence. Finally, she brings readers with her to Korea, where she is reunited with her birth mother and homeland. Unlike some first-time writers, Trenka is unafraid with her prose and rarely falls into clich s, which is especially admirable given the subject matter. She brazenly dabbles with playwriting, screenwriting, crossword puzzles, myths and dream sequences throughout her account. Her journey, from the conservative Christian roots of rural Minnesota to her cramped and corrupt homeland of Korea, is winding, but it ends at an important place for both reader and writer: transformation. She writes, "I have made it my task to reconstruct the text of a family with context clues, and my intent is... to trust in the mysterious; to juxtapose the known with the unknown; to collect the overlooked." Agent, John van Vliet. (Sept. 8) Forecast: Trenka's work will appeal to admirers of unorthodox autobiography ( la Maxine Hong Kingston's The Fifth Book of Peace [Forecasts, June 23]). Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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Minnesota Historical Society Press
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5.75(w) x 8.75(h) x 0.90(d)

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[a memoir]

By Jane Jeong Trenka
Copyright © 2003

Minnesota Historical Society
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87351-466-8

Chapter One To him that overcometh, to him will I give of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and upon the stone a new name written, which no one knoweth but he that receiveth it. [REVELATION 2:17]

The beloved queen lay dying. No one could cure her. Frightened whispers swirled like ghosts as day after day the queen lay still, and only her most faithful servants were allowed to enter her rooms.

In desperation, the king called upon two Buddhist monks. They took the pale queen to their hermitage, where they tied one end of a long string around the queen's tumor, the other to a tree outside. The monks chanted, keeping vigil throughout the night. In the morning, the tumor had disappeared: the tree was withered.

Out of gratitude for this miracle, the king helped the monks expand their small hermitage. Eighteen buildings were harmoniously arranged upon their mountain, where they continued to study the philosophy of Flower Garland at the temple named Haeinsa, Reflection on a Calm Sea.

* * *

Nearly twelve hundred years later, I am resting in the courtyard at Haeinsa. The original hermitage once stood on this site, and it is here that the tree took the illness from the queen.

The spiritual descendants of the two monks go about their daily business at the temple: sitting, studying, chanting. With their shaved heads and loose gray clothing, they are identical to those who have lived and worked here since the seventh century.

Mountains, temples, ancient dolmens: I am afloat in the beauty of a culture deeply mysterious to me and, yet, my birthright. This is the heart of my ancestry, with its dark odor of incense; its rhythmic tok, tok, tok of tiny drums; its eighty-four thousand woodblocks containing the Korean Tripitaka, over seven hundred fifty years old and without error, each character carved following one bow to the Buddha.

I must take something from this place, something more meaningful than the plastic tapes of chants, the cheap postcards, the wooden bead bracelets. I must remember what I feel on this day, in this place that swallows me in profuse, deafening color.

I squat to the ground. A small white stone the size of my palm lies next to my feet. It is jagged and dusty, so I wrap it inside a blue handkerchief and place it in my backpack.

I will remember this place, this moment-the blossoming trees, the upturned tile roofs, the way the sun warms my neck-and who I am in this place:

My name is Jeong Kyong-Ah. My family register states the date of my birth, the lunar date January 24, 1972. I am the fifth daughter of Jeong Ho-Joon and the third daughter and fourth child of his second wife, Kang Ahn-Sun. I am the granddaughter of my father's parents, Jeong Song-Pil and Yi Chin-Hwa. I am the granddaughter of my mother's parents, Kang Soon-Ok and Pak Ok-Poon. My ancestry includes landowners, scholars, and government officials. I have six siblings. I am a citizen of the Republic of Korea. I come from a land of pear fields and streams, where Buddhist temples are hidden in the mountains, where people laugh loudly and honor their dead.

Halfway around the world, I am someone else.

I am JANE Marie Brauer, created September 26, 1972, when I was carried off an airplane onto American soil. My State of Minnesota birth certificate declares my date of birth to be March 8, 1972. I am the younger daughter of FREDerick and MARGARET Brauer. I am the granddaughter of my father's parents, Darwin and Doris Brauer. I am the granddaughter of my mother's parents, Iver and Lourine Reichmann. My ancestors were farmers, factory workers, a sometime Bible salesman. I have one sister; she is my blood sister, adopted with me. I became an American citizen at age five, when I stood before a judge and pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. I come from a land of plains, where the sky touches the earth in uninterrupted horizon, where Lutheran churches dot the corn fields, where stoicism is stamped into the bones of each generation.

* * *

In Minnesota, it is night, and JANE Brauer is missing. She is gone-only a memory in the minds of those who imagine her. Meanwhile, in the mountains of Korea, Jeong Kyong-Ah fills her pockets with stones and blinks hard in the sunlight, as if awakened from a deep sleep, or perhaps a very long fugue.

* * *

Highway 10 A Play for Imagining CHARACTERS FRED, Caucasian husband of MARGARET and father of CAROL and JANE MARGARET, mother of CAROL and JANE, also Caucasian CAROL, Korean birth sister and adopted sister of JANE, 4 1/2 years old JANE, Korean birth sister and adopted sister of CAROL, 6 months old

Minnesota, early 1970s. Characters are dressed in middle-class, inexpensive clothing according to the era.

The action on stage must start ten minutes later than advertised on tickets, publicity, and programs. However, houselights must be turned down at scheduled performance time, so that the audience will wait for ten minutes in anticipation. Meanwhile, the sound system plays airport noises-constant talking, public announcements, airplanes taking off and landing. After the action begins, all theater exits must be locked, preventing anyone from leaving before the end of the play. The scene takes place in real time, approximately four hours, or long enough to make the audience feel uncomfortable and trapped.

Night on a rural highway. Fade out airport noises. Fade in sounds of an am country-western music and weather station. Lights come up slowly on a late 1960s-model American car. The car's passenger side faces out, so the audience views its occupants in profile. Headlights shine full power, giving the impression that the driver, FRED, is able to see only straight ahead. MARGARET sits in the passenger seat holding JANE, and CAROL sits in the seat behind MARGARET, staring out the window into the blackness. During the dialogue, CAROL looks into the audience, examining each person with very large eyes and an expressionless mouth. FRED drives for several minutes, smoking. Sound of a passing car is heard, and its headlights flash across the stage.

FRED: [Looks into rearview mirror to see CAROL] How you doin' back there?

[CAROL continues to scan the audience]

MARGARET: [Pats baby gently but constantly, like a nervous tic. Turns head to look at CAROL but is unable to see her. Speaks over her shoulder.]

Are you okay?

[Long pause]

FRED: [Louder] Your mother asked you a question.

[CAROL does not look at MARGARET but searches the faces in the audience, looking for a Korean face, any Korean face. Finding none, she closes her eyes and decides to forget.]

[Behind and above the car, fade in a reel-to-reel home movie playing scenes from CAROL's (Mi-Ja's) life in Korea. Each scene in Korean language plays for fewer than five seconds before it is faded into black and the next scene plays. Scenes are various memories, showing an account of her young life so far. They include playing with her sisters and friends; eating with her family; sleeping next to her mother; her father raising his fist; a small room; rides on the bus in Seoul; the beginning of her long journey from Kimpo Airport, where she said good-bye to her mother, her uncle, and her elder sisters. At the end of the movie sequence, the Korean memories are completely erased, and the reel-to-reel projector shows blank frames and white noise, as seen at a beginning or ending take-up length of tape. CAROL has willed herself to become a girl with no history and is now ready to start her new life.

The family drives down the highway, the movie projector above them showing nothing but illuminated scratches and other imperfections.]

* * *

Harlow, Minnesota, is the Turkey Capital of the World. In Lions Park, Big Tom lords over his habitat. The giant fiberglass turkey faces Town Lake and "downtown" Harlow, which stretches three blocks north to south and two blocks the other way. A butcher shop, bakery, barbershop, and gas station occupy permanent spots in the town's economy, but other businesses come and go. The restaurant used to be the drug store; the store across from the sign advertising "Anteeks" has been transformed from bar to ice cream parlor to furniture store. Swift's, the turkey-processing plant, has closed.

The look of the town changes as utilitarian white letters nailed to storefronts evolve to trendy purple and pink color schemes, but the people remain the same: Americans, mostly of German or Scandinavian descent, who believe in the value of typing, home economics, and machine shop as academic courses and Future Farmers of America for extracurricular enrichment. In August they celebrate Turkey Days, when Miss Harlow, a high school graduate, is crowned on a Friday night after winning the hearts of celebrity judges like Princess Kay of the Milky Way, whose likeness is sculpted into a giant block of butter at the state fair. During the weekend, Miss Harlow presides over the flea market, parade, and demolition derby, all in an evening gown and tiara. Because everyone deserves a chance, the contestant who knows she will win neither the crown nor the competitions in talent, swimsuit, evening gown, or interview can always work hard to be nice and earn the title of Miss Congeniality.

In Harlow, men must be husbands and fathers. If they are not, they are eccentric old bachelor cousins or junior high English teachers.

Likewise, women are wives and mothers. They must be mothers, not just wives, and if the children are not born soon, people talk. They ask nice questions. These in turn became questions my mother asked herself: When are you going to have children? What is a woman without a family? After years of marriage, collecting toys for children, and mothering cats and dogs, those same questions became twisted in her mind: Why hadn't God chosen to bless her and her husband with a family? What was wrong with her body? What was wrong with her husband's body?

Mom and Dad had nieces and nephews to visit, but the hallway in their own house was devoid of pictures. The bedrooms were empty, the rec room downstairs quiet. There were no diapers to change, no birthday parties to plan, no homework to supervise.

But there was church to attend every Sunday, and depending on who died or got married, Mom and Dad could also attend on Saturdays or maybe Wednesdays. There was work to do, ways to feel useful. Dad wouldn't read the lessons because he wasn't a good speaker, but he would usher, silently nodding the parishioners in and out of their pews, collecting offerings, standing at the front of church so that the pastor could bless the wooden plates. He'd never angle for a board position, and Mom would never try for a secretarial position; they were too humble for that. But they could wash pews, make hot-dishes and bars, serve dinners, prepare for another baby's baptism. They could help kids make plaques out of beans and alphabet noodles, show how an X turned sideways became the cross, where Jesus X'd out our sins. At the end of Maple Street, Bethlehem Lutheran Church of the Missouri Synod was always a welcoming place, a place to feel needed.

Each member of the congregation was bound to act in community, with one mission, and all those working hands and offerings added up. Those hands and dollars, multiplied by one hundred fifty-seven Lutheran congregations across Minnesota, equaled Lutheran Social Service.

Lutheran Social Service was for changing lives.

Every week, Pastor Mattson saw the empty spot in the pew beside Mom and Dad, where there should have been a growing family. Shaking Mom's hand while leaning forward to whisper into her ear one Sunday, Pastor asked if he could meet with them in his office after coffee hour. Mom couldn't imagine why.

They thought maybe their offerings weren't large enough or maybe they were not involved enough. But Pastor, who had changed into a dark suit, shook their hands, touched their shoulders, and seated them opposite his enormous desk, the sun throwing harsh, examining light through the modern sixties windows that did not open.

"Mr. and Mrs. Brauer," he began. "It has come to my attention that there are some children who need you."

* * *

If it were possible, I would move back to Harlow. But I have been living in the city for twelve years, and it would be hard to say good-bye to United Noodles grocery store and Dr. Wong, who still can't get my name right but who can cure me with acupuncture. I prefer kimchi to sauerkraut these days, and I eat turkey only for Thanksgiving.

If I were from Harlow, I would never have left in the first place. Harlow 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.

Harlow has its own self-purging system. The Hmong people came and left. There is no gay/lesbian/bi/transgender support group. The sole black person of Harlow, adopted and raised by a white family, punched in his years as a high school drumming phenomenon, lived through rumors that he raped his adoptive sister, then left and never came back. It's not that the Nicaraguan refugee family or anyone else was chased out of town by a torch-wielding posse. The homogeneity is probably more due to the fact that the minorities who've been brought in by church groups eventually figure out where to move to be among their own. And then they leave.

But for those who are already home, it's a good place to raise children. And why not raise them just the way you were raised? Maybe raise them even better.

Mom taught me the elements of embroidery and macramé; Dad taught me the names of all the trees on our forty acres. He taught me which kinds crackle in the fire, which kinds burn slowly through the night. Life on Mears Lake was filled with small pleasures-fresh wild strawberries; blackened shoes on newspaper; the lake's turnover in spring and fall; the lowing of cows on the opposite side of the bay; the unblinking eyes of sunfish at the bottom of the boat.

* * *

My Korean mother's face is luminous. She sits in the center of the black-and-white portrait with my father. She wears her traditional hanbok and holds me, her baby, in her arms. My father wears a dark suit. Behind them, two daughters stand in school blazers, and two more small daughters in hanboks flank the parents on either side. They are solemn, not smiling for this formal family portrait.

My kindergarten class was fascinated by the photograph.

"Is that really you?" they chimed.

"Yes," I said, "and this is my Korean family."

"What else do you have to show us today?" prodded Mrs. Hoffman.

"I would like to show the boys and girls real Korean clothes," I announced, reaching into my paper grocery bag.

"Can you tell us more about your clothes?" Mrs. Hoffman's whipped-up brown hair was like cotton candy. She smelled like Cashmere Bouquet. I was in love with her.

"Um," I stalled, not knowing anything about Korean clothing or traditions. Then I remembered my one fact, my single piece of Korean history. "My mother sent them to me when I was a baby, after I came to America. It's a Christmas present."

"Thank you very much, JANE," said Mrs. Hoffman. "Now, boys and girls, be very, very careful when you pass JANE's picture and clothes around. These things cannot be replaced. Be very careful."

The items made their way around the circle, each child oooh-ing and aaah-ing over the beautiful embroidery, the rainbow-colored sleeves, and the strange rubber shoes, shaped like Indian canoes.


Excerpted from THE LANGUAGE OF BLOOD by Jane Jeong Trenka
Copyright © 2003 by Minnesota Historical Society . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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