Sunday, May 30, 2010

Can a Fugitive Ever Go Home?

Book review by Mirah Riben

Monarchs migrate. This is different than species that emigrate. Species that emigrate travel one way. Species that migrate travel back and forth between two different places. They have two homes.
The Language of Blood
Jane Jeong Trenka bares all. She bares her naked truths in beautifully poignant poetic prose, informing us that: “There are real orphans and created orphans, paper sons, picture brides, imaginary orphans, foreigners born and created.”

Trenka gives them all voice. Her gentle voice sings the tortured words of heart felt’s pain and confusion to the tune of the harsh realities faced by longing for truth – her truth – her mother’s arms, since the tender age of five.  Trenka knows that living in Paris does not make one a Parisian, and who wonders if she was “merely interchangeable with any other Asian bride” to her white, Minnesotan husband, of the same European ethnicity and heritage as her adoptive father.
Keeping a Protestant family together hinges on the beliefs that everyone is the same and nobody should be treated different and nobody should get anything special – which is not faith in the invisible, but invisibility….
She has to believe that treating me ‘as her own’ (and no one else’s) was absolutely, unquestionably right.
Yet, even after three years in Korea, Trenka, who has tried to make a home for herself there for four years, “still wake(s) from nightmares almost every morning, knowing where I am, running from something invisible.”

“I have seen things that no tourist will ever see even though I am still in many respects a tourist.” She says she’s been traveling back and forth between worlds for eleven years. Actually, it’s been 36 more than thirty years.

Trenka paints in abstract realism “the constant chore of explaining why [she] exist[s]”…
“I am an overseas adoptee.”
“I came and went from the U.S.”
“I am your countryman!”

… and why she “fled the U.S., unable to bear the sight of yet another adopted child with white parents.”

“Where are you from? America? But you look Korean. Where are you really from?” She reads “a poem about salmon, the way they struggle, the way their skin tears as they leap upstream, the way they go back for no apparent reason, they are not even starving. They are not even starving –“

Raised in the town of Harlow, a town with only one Black resident who was adopted by a white family. Harlow, where she was called: “Frog-eyed nigger-lipped Dumbo-eared chink” by her best friend, as she laughed at the joke and discovered her white mother not only didn’t see or her or, she didn’t see how other people saw because in her mother’s imagination she was white.
“Made in Korea
Cheap goods
Cheap labor
Cheap womb
Cheap adoption
Cheap immigration
Cheap immigrant
Cheap yellow daughter
Honorary white almost but not quite”
Harlow, she recalls, discovered “the monkey’s indomitable preference for the familiar face.” 

In the end, she has “observed that all of the opportunities that transnational adoption gave [her and all Korean adoptees]…the one opportunity we were not given was the chance to be an ordinary Korean person.”
“Why did you come to Korea? Because YOU’RE KOREAN? Ha ha ha!!”
She is “an ex-Korean possessing Korean language skills inferior to those” of her two-year old nephew a “Korean boy raised by Korean parents.”
“Which country do you come from?”
“I come from our country”
“Our family, our home, our culture.”
“That feeling of Joeng – in which Koreans recognize themselves and each other as Korean – binds together mother and daughter…” had not “the adoption agency exiled [her] for no crime except being born to a battered wife…”

Trenka writes musically lyrical words in vibrant and colors and muted tones. “’This is the language I speak’ is one color. Spoken in Korean, This is the language I have lost is another.”

She asks us to ponder:

-    “If you knew your child was not capable of loving you back, would you still adopt her?
-    “If you could recognize a filthy gook in white pajamas as a human being, would you still shoot him?
-    “If you could recognize a child’s mother as a human being, would you still think of taking her child from her as a charitable act?”

In a sea of adoption memoirs Fugitive Visions soars high above the rest. It is not a “must read” book, not the kind you filled with statistics and data activists might crave and those who affect adoption legislation need, but rather one you will savior reading and re-reading for its delicate flavors whether or not you have any connection to, or interest in, adoption or Korea. 

Trenka masterfully opens her wounds and exposes her pain with rawness but not bitterness in a book about a life, which like the Joni Mitchell song, looks at life from both sides now.


Fugitive Visions is Jane Jeong Trenka's third book.  She has also written The Language of Blood and is editor of Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption. Jane is founder of TRACK Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea.  Consider by many the preeminent voice of and for adult Korean adoptees, she blogs at and


Mei Ling said...

"She says she’s been traveling back and forth between worlds for eleven years. Actually, it’s been 36."

I own the book and either I missed that last part of your sentence in her narrative, or I honestly don't know where you got the number 36 from.

Fugitive Visions is... just... a highly emotional book.

"If you could recognize a child’s mother as a human being, would you still think of taking her child from her as a charitable act" <- that, in particular, makes my breath pause. And there are some who would say yes - it is a charitable act so she can get her life back on track, it is a charitable act for medical expenses she cannot pay, it is a charitable act because she 'chose' to place her child anyway, it is a charitable act because if she did not want to give up her child she would not have done so, and so on...

" She is “an ex-Korean possessing Korean language skills inferior to those” of her two-year old nephew a “Korean boy raised by Korean parents.” " is also true. When I think of myself overseas, my own observation of my linguistic and comprehension skills were maybe that of a 2-year-old Caucasian who is linguistically slower than others, being raised by English-speaking Caucasian parents.

I remember one time in Taiwan I was sitting in a noodle shop on my own. A lady and her son came in for a meal. Her son was perhaps 3-years-old and came over to "talk" to me in Mandarin, you know, like how little kids will sometimes go up to strangers and say hi?

Well, he started talking to me in that way. His mother just watched him and spoke to me in an adult voice - much like how a stranger's child's mother would talk to an older person about her child.

It did not fail to surpass my attention that this 3-year-old spoke far better Mandarin than I could. So all I did was sit there, eating my lunch, smile sheepishly at the child, and acknowledge what the mother said.

It was actually rather humiliating, to see that I barely had the skills to understand a toddler, and that this 3-year-old knew more of the language than I ever hoped to possess during my time there.

Mirah Riben said...

Mei Ling,

The 36 years is her life at the point she wrote the book. She traveled from her her homeland to the U.S. as a young child... and that started her travels back and forth between worlds.

Yes many people want to beleive that adoption is a charitable act and rescues "unwanted" "orphans." All too often however, mothers are duped, lied to, coerced, pressured or epxloited because their children are in-demand commodities. THAT is NOT charitable no matter how much one might want to believe it is.

Adoption - and especially international adoption - should be a last resort after all efforts to keep families together have been tried and exhausted.

Von said...

Thanks for bringing this to attention and the issues it raises, such a valuable book to have in the growing library of work on adoption by adoptees...with real feelings, real situations and the honesty of truth.
I'll post a link on my blog is I may....

Mirah Riben said...

Links are always welcome.

Sharon Stein McNamara said...

I have read this book and her previous book called The Language of Blood. Both books are wonderful for adoptees who were raised by somewhat self absorbed parents. I could very much relate to Jane's feelings of abandonment when the parents who raised her could not be compassionate about her birth mother's death. It is such a lie in US culture to believe that adoption is such a wonderful solution for infertile couples. I was adopted by similar parents to Trenka's and my adopted mother told me that I should not feel sad about my adoption because I was a baby and babies don't remember that type of loss. Sadly my mother needed to believe that to raise me in her world, but it leaves a part of me out of her ability to know me. I have found that only through understanding the circumstances of my birth and finding out my history, as Trenka does, can healing take place.

RussiaToday Apr 29, 2010 on Russian Adoption Freeze

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