The Language of Blood: A Memoir

The Language of Blood: A Memoir

3.8 10
by Jane Jeong Trenka

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Editorial Reviews
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Born in Korea and raised by adoptive parents in the U.S., Jane Jeong Trenka had traveled more miles in infancy than many of us will travel in a lifetime. Her inventive memoir, The Language of Blood, bears witness to the fact that 30 years later, her journey continues, marked not by miles but by painstakingly small increments of self-understanding.

Residents of a small, homogenous Minnesota town, Jane and her older, Korean-born sister, Mi-Ja, are continually reminded of their status as foreigners. And Jane's attempts to fit in by becoming the perfect all-American girl are thwarted when she is victimized by a stalker while in college. Out of this shattering experience, she slowly puts her life back together and retraces the journey she and her sister made so many years before.

But Jane's plans to meet her birth mother and the rest of her Korean family have an unanticipated effect, leaving Jane stranded between two competing identities: Jane Brauer from Minnesota and Kyong-Ah, as she is known in Korea. And her personal yet enlightening struggle to bridge this gap raises questions -- at times uncomfortable ones -- about the nature of family and self. In The Language of Blood, Trenka has penned a courageous memoir that deserves a wide readership. (Fall 2003 Selection)

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.

Product Details

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

Read an Excerpt

[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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The Language of Blood 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
The author should have written this memoir after she reached a level of self-awareness as well as learned the meaning of being humble, a respected trait in Korean culture. Adoption does not give entitlement. As a parent who has adopted two Korean children, I was excited to purchase this book, but came away with an empty stomach. Trenka reveals herself as selfish and arrogant and I'm not surprised that she had relationship tensions with her American family and adopted sister. I questioned her sincerity when she let money and vacation days come between her when her birth mother passed away. Her real struggle appears being a Korean in a white community. She seems only to find peace within herself after her birth mother has died and she's marries a white man, returning to Korea to show him off to her half sisters.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This memoir is 'about' being a Korean-born adoptee, and many of the author's experiences are unique to her. Nevertheless, some of her observations will ring true for anyone who has ever wondered whether/how they 'fit in,' with family or a culture. Trenka is still a young woman, and her life story remains a work-in-progress. She's not pretending to know the answers to all the questions she raises. The story itself is riveting; it's hard to put this book down. I was left wanting a sequel.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm a 28 year old white male and I'm not adopted. While I'm sensitive to Trenka's messages regarding trans-racial adoption, I feel that her book offers everyone an insight into their own humanity. Trenka tackles issues of identity, familial relationships, and self discovery, to name a few. As a human, her messages couldn't be more relevant. Whether you're an adoptee, adoptive parent, or just another person, Trenka's book bears a human message which speaks to us all.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Original? The parts with crossword puzzles and one-act plays have been done before. The collage is an old medium, the dadaists did it, others did it. I think the reviews call this book original because it goes into subject areas memoirs haven't before(transracial adoption in the Midwest), not because the ways of telling the story are original. Or let's hope so. Otherwise North America really is as underread as people say. Poetic? Compared to other memoirs you could call it poetic but what does that say? Anyone can and mostly everyone does write a memoir. The question is whether this a poetic book compared to other non-fiction works, Anne Dilliard or Jane Bronx? Maybe. Probably not. So this is a pretty good memoir, but personally I can't shake the feeling reading the book that it is all so self-pitying. The ending hinting at redemption feels forced. The family in Minneosta one-dimensional and wooden. It's okay. I would rather pick up a novel.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Generally I have enjoyed all of the books I've purchased from the Discover New Authors selections, but this one was a disappointment. Certainly it has numerous merits; the prose is lovely and the emotions heartfelt. But as a memoir the book tended to gloss over many less comfortable areas. I would have liked to have seen a more honest examination of the relationships with the adoptive parents and sister. The candid and heartfelt telling of the relationship with Umma was strangely juxtaposed with a contrived, one dimensional look at identity and life with the adoptive family. As an adult adoptee and an adoptive parent I am familiar with the complexity of these issues and found this portrayal of them to be overly simplistic.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Jane Jeong Trenka captivatingly writes about her struggles in the dichotomy of being an adopted Korean living in a small, rural town. In essence, it's living two lives. She writes (about her former self before being adopted, Kyong-Ah, and her sister, Mi-Ja) '...Kyong-Ah, who lived to the age of six months, and Mi-Ja, who died at four years of age when she became Carol. From the photographic evidence, Carol came into this world as a child and was never a baby at all.' These words echoed truths to me, as I was able to relate to Trenka's struggles to find her identity as an adopted Korean. Raised in a small, farming community in rural Minnesota surrounded by blonde haired, blue eyed Minnesotans; Trenka doesn't fit in with her black hair and slanted eyes¿even though she's as American as they are. When Trenka visits Korea, again, she struggles to fit in because although Trenka physically blends in, cultural customs and language barriers initially stand in her way. Once Trenka faces her past, she is able to find peace with her two families and two cultures, which ultimately is the key in finding her voice. Trenka¿s story is one that can be related by anyone who has struggling to define themselves. The Language of Blood gave me courage to face questions about my own past, and helped me be more open to embracing my different cultural influences. It showed me that to fully understand myself, I must first understand my past. In a lyrical prose style, Trenka begins each chapter with originative passages written in the forms of a short story, a play or monologue, a crossword puzzle or letters exchanged with her birthmother, which was insightfully written and easily flowed from one chapter to the next. The Language of Blood is an exemplary work of creative literary non-fiction and memoir.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'The Language of Blood' is one of the most creatively told, well-written autobiographies I have read to date. Jane Jeong Trenka's story is one that in a sense feels familiar to me, as a fellow Midwestern-raised Korean adoptee - yet each adoptee's journey is personal and varied, so reading 'Blood,' I found myself transported into a life experience both oddly parallel to and uniquely different from my own. Simultaneously poetic yet openly honest, Trenka's personal narrative takes you from her childhood in a conservative, rural Minnesota setting, to Korea itself, where she walks the grounds her birth family knew as home, and whose history courses through her veins. From facing her stalker, who transposes his own warped racist stereotypes of Asian women onto her surface appearance, to facing her difficulties grasping the language that her blood should know as its own, Trenka's story is real and truthful in its humor and pain. Asians, Asian Americans, adoptees and adoptive families, as well as anyone who falls into absolutely none of those categories, can appreciate the warmth, truth and spirit in this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was insanely well written. The author does a good job of pulling you into her emotions, so you feel exactly how she feels. I admire the bravery the author took to state her feelings about her experience growing up as a Korean-adoptee in rural Minnesota. You really have to read the book to get the feel for what I am saying. Go on! Read!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Wonderful book. Great for Korean Adopties over the age of 14. Jane Trenka is almost cynical in parts of her writing, which makes her book even more fun to get caught up in. However, you cannot say even in the slightest manner that this woman has a cold heart. Language of Blood is filled with some pretty heart breaking scenes from Jane's childhood, but in the end manages to reverse her past luck into making some beautiful relationships with her extended family in Korea. (I don't think she would refer to them as extended family.) I recommend this book because it's insightful, in all sense of the word. I believe all Korean Adoptive Parents, and Adopties themselves should read this, and although each of our stories are different - it is often easy to grab tid-bits of stories that we find easy to relate to. I hope that made sense. Now go out to your local bookstore, (support the local shops) and buy Language of Blood. It's a book you'll surely enjoy.