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Adoptee in Exile

Edited by Sasha Aslanian

More than 100,000 Korean children have been adopted abroad since 1955. A trickle of them have moved back to South Korea, including 33-year-old writer Jane Jeong Trenka. In 1972, when she was six months old, Trenka and her four-year-old sister were adopted by a family in rural Minnesota. What was unsual about Trenka's story was that her Korean mother managed to write to the girls in the United States and Trenka kept up a tenuous correspondence with her. Then, as a young adult, she traveled to Korea, and was reunited with her mother and older siblings who had stayed behind. When her mother grew sick with cancer, Trenka resumed her role as a daughter in the family and helped care for her dying mother. In 2003, she published a memoir about her story, called The Language of Blood.

Jane Jeong Trenka in Sinchon

In 2005, Trenka returned to Korea for the sixth time, this time permanently. She agreed to keep an audio diary for American RadioWorks about building her new life in her birth country. These entries were recorded from June to August 2005.


Hello, this is Jane Trenka. It is June 24, 2005 and I am recording from Seoul, South Korea. I am in my gositel room at the top of the hill, in the Sinchon neighborhood behind the McDonald's.


I'm coming out of my room, through the hall of the gosiwon, barefoot because I've left my shoes out by the door as Korean people do. And of course, you don't need to worry about anybody stealing your shoes.

So I think I'm just going to walk around on this very, very lovely Friday night and tell you what I see. So, I'm coming out of the gositel right now, and this is a neighborhood that is full of gositels and hasukchips, which are boarding houses. So there are a lot of young students out tonight. And they're all either on their cell phones or eating something. [laughs]

Oh, whoops. Did you hear that? I just ran into another adoptee. I didn't realize until he started speaking English on his phone that he's not a Korean person. So, I greeted him in Korean. Oops.


Hey, its me again, and it's still the same day. Further thoughts on immigrants. So I'm walking around Seoul thinking, "Wow, I'm so lucky, because I can be here for as long as I want to, because I've got my magic F4 visa. And when I get sick of it, I get to go home. I can freely go between two countries. That's pretty cool." However, I counted myself very sad today because I was walking around shopping and my phone rang, so I answered my phone and its my oppa, its my older brother. And my oppa called me and he just wanted to talk. I think he was feeling in a good mood, he was like, a little bit drunk, and you know how people like to call you when they're drunk. [laughs] So my oppa wants to talk to me, and I don't understand his dialect because he's not from Seoul, he's from Geochang, Gyeongsangnamdo, see I can hardly say it. He's from a different part of the country. And I can't understand what he's saying. So I told my brother, in Korean, that I haven't studied, I'm ashamed. And my brother meets me halfway. He has learned how to say "Okay." And he has also learned how to say "good-bye" on the phone. So it's me stumbling around in Korean, my brother saying "Okay," and when he's done "bye." Ugh, its so frustrating. It's just incredible to not be able to talk to your own family. It's like a joke. This is the only time I think when I feel like really, really - okay, its not the only time, but one of the times that I feel really angry about the adoption thing. Because, you know, if you get adopted domestically in the United States, chances are, if you get back together with your family, you can talk to them. Not the case here, you're just screwed.


TV: Welcome to Arirang TV's "Let's Speak Korean!" So today we're going to go to the salon, the beauty shop and get our hair done.

Today is Wednesday, June 29, and I'm not learning Korean by going to class, so I've been using the Arirang TV website.

[murmuring in Korean]

Oh, I'm so slow. Rewind. I need to hear that again. About 500 times.


All my English language muscles don't help me speak Korean. I have to retrain all the muscles in my face.


TV: Thank you for joining us, see you next time, buh-bye.

Well, that's my language lesson for today. If I'm a good girl, it takes me, I maybe study about an hour a day, which isn't very much. But I hope that you can hear how dastardly hard this language is. You know, so I learned like two sentences. I learned about two sentences and probably what its going to help me do is just when I actually do go to get my hair cut, I'm not going to say pama malgo cutuh man haejusaeyo, probably I'll be way too nervous and stressed out to actually say that sentence, but I'll be able to understand just a little bit more when I go in. So there it is, and I'm going to take you over to the window now.

It's monsoon season, this is the sound of the rain which is going to come for maybe two months now.

I feel ... comforted by the hills and the mountains, which is so different from Minnesota. In the plains area where I grew up, it's just flat. And I used to love it, when I lived in Minnesota, I loved these flat, flat, flat plains. I could ride my bicycle for 30 miles without hitting much more than maybe a slope, a very inclined lazy slope. Here, I'm climbing stairs all the time. I feel like a mountain goat. I'm always hot and sweaty. And I have officially worn through the heels in my shoes. Yes, I've been assimilating and wearing my heels. But it's very comforting to me now. And the last time that I did go back to see my parents, I don't know how many years ago that was, like two years ago, that wide open sky of northwestern Minnesota doesn't feel very comforting to me anymore. It feels very lonely. And I have this kind of love/hate relationship with the people in Korea. There's so many people! I have to kind of steel myself to go outside, because you can really get crushed by people. And if you're not careful, people will just walk right into you. People are always touching you, and its not on purpose, its just that there's no more room on the sidewalk for any more people. A lot of shoving, people stepping on the back of your shoes. It's really irritating, I hate it. Sometimes it really makes me want to throw punches and yell at people. It's just so bothersome. But that's what it's like here, that's part of Korea.


Friday, August 12, it's quarter to 10 p.m. This is Jane Trenka and I am in Seochodong, Seochogu, south of the Han river in Seoul. And I'm in my mother's old neighborhood. This is the first time I've come down here. I've been in the country since the end of May, but it's the first time I've come down to my mom's old neighborhood. I was feeling lonely tonight, so I thought I'd just come down and see.

So I'm looking for the blue violin shop. I remember there was a certain violin shop that I used to find to know which alley to turn down. And I think it should be on the next block. I just passed a bank that I remember.

Anyway, part of the reason why I came down here is because I'm getting so sick of my neighborhood at night because it's filled with drunk college students. So I thought I'd check out my mom's old neighborhood and see how it is at night, and it's quiet and it's beautiful. They've been knocking down a lot of old housing in Korea and putting up big apartment buildings. And where I'm walking right now looks to be like a lot of newish apartment buildings. So maybe they tore down my mom's old place. It was pretty old.

I'm pretty sure I'm on the correct side of the street though. Maybe this could be it?


Well, I guess I am officially unsuccessful in finding my mother's old place. Probably if I really wanted to do that, I would have to find her old address and have a Korean person help me. But I'm happy that I got to see her old neighborhood, and see how it's changed.


Well, I think that this is going to be one of my last entries, so I'll try to kind of sum up my Korean experience. So at this point, I'm actually going to make a life here. And when I go places, I look around to see if there are things that I'll to need to buy for my new life. You know, where can I buy a mat to sleep on? Where can I get cheap pots and pans? Where can I buy dishes? Where can I buy curtains? That sort of thing.

I want to talk a little bit about my American life. I had a really great American life. I had the American dream. And it didn't make me happy. Okay, actually maybe I'll just read a piece, and this might make sense to about 100 people in the world, but I'm going to read it anyway. Hold on.

Living in Seoul is like living inside a video game. I keep getting bumped up to the next level. At level one, body language was good enough. I could point at something and dumbly pay for it after peeking at the cash register. Level two was memorizing what the check-out ladies say at the Sinchon Grand Mart. The first question is, "Do you want a bag?" and the second question is, "Do you have a points card?"

At level three, the questions got harder. Whereas the day before, the woman at French Kiss just gave me a straw, the next day she felt compelled to ask, "Do you need a straw? Do you want sugar?" "No, but I want milk. What? I can't just get a little milk in my coffee?" At Starbucks, "Do you want a one-time use cup or a glass cup?" At the toast place, "Do you need a tissue?"

My last promotion, last week, was when I actually allowed three sales girls at Grand Mart to help me choose exactly the right maxi pads, the perfect maxi pads out of a wall of seemingly identical maxis. You see, guys, they come in many different sizes which are labeled in centimeters. For an American, that's ridiculous, we gave up on learning the metric system 20 years ago. Plus that, I want to choose my pads in anonymity. I do not need help, thank you very much. But it's part of the game, and I chose well that day. Bling bling bling! Bonus points.

Most of the game is easy. I am able to tell curious people, in Korean, that I am adopted, and they usually know what “ibyang in” means. And they are usually nice, though nosy. I get the feeling that they have seen and heard about adoptees in the media, but meeting a real one is sort of like meeting a unicorn. Thanks to frequent taxi-cab and shopkeeper interrogation, explaining my existence ("No, I am not Japanese.") is one conversation that I can actually have in Korean. I don't mind telling complete strangers that I am adopted. The Korean language is still so far out of my reach that I don't have any emotional reaction to it. I feel that I am simply rehearsing a string of sounds. And besides, I view personal confession as my public service announcement. "Yes, you have just met a real, live unicorn! I mean, an adoptee." I wonder how long I will stay here, playing this elaborate game. Before I returned to Seoul, this past May, I decided that I will stay in Korea until I am good and sick of it. I had looked back upon my "better" life and its accoutrements, the American dream, the American husband, dog, yard, house, garden, piano, the fiction of golden America that lives in the Korean mind, and realized that I had spent the past ten years in the unrequited love affair with the place where I was born, with a language I could not speak, with a people that are no longer mine, who at times laugh at me, or refuse to understand me through my American accent.

In choosing between the familiar comforts and discomforts of my adopted life, that role-playing game which I play exceedingly well, or Korea, with all its overwhelming discomforts, I chose “uri nara.” I burned all necessary bridges. At the moment, I am surviving.

Jane Jeong Trenka is the author of The Language of Blood. She's working on two new book projects in Korea.

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