Jane Eyre Gets A Korean-American Reboot

Patricia Park
The coming-of-age story of Jane Eyre has found a very special place in many women's hearts. After all, it's hard not to relate to the titular heroine in the Charlotte Brontë classic on so many levels — the navigating of sexuality, morals, self-identity, economic status, family loss, feminism, and acceptance. In essence, Jane is every woman and her universal appeal has transcended many generations since the novel was first published in 1847.

In the new novel Re Jane (Pamela Dorman Books), the spirit of Jane Eyre gets channeled through a modern-day young woman named Jane Re. Jane is an orphaned, mixed-race Korean-American living in Queens who attempts to escape her humdrum life, defying her traditional uncle's wishes, by (unthinkably) crossing borough lines into Brooklyn. She takes up a job as an au pair to a young couple living in the affluent neighborhood of Park Slope, where she is hired to help raise their adoptive Chinese daughter. Naturally, all sorts of drama begins to unfold as Jane begins to fall for Ed, the father of the child. Her cumulative actions and self-journey eventually leads Jane to travel from Queens to Brooklyn to Seoul, and back again.

Ahead, read an excerpt from Re Jane by debut Korean-American novelist Patricia Park. The book is out today.   

Bridges and Tunnels

The next day I boarded the 7 train leaving the Main Street—Flushing station. There was an unmistakable rattle whenever you stepped aboard the 7, as if the train cars were hinged together by a single loose pin. We passengers accepted this precariousness with not much more than a sigh before slumping into our seats.

But I wasn’t heading for the city, the way Eunice Oh and I always imagined when we were growing up. I was on my way to Brooklyn. There was a geographical irony of leaving Queens for Brooklyn — two outer boroughs that abutted each other. The fastest route was to make a right angle through Manhattan, crossing both bridge and tunnel.

It’s not that we had beef, per se. We acknowledged our kindred scrappiness to Manhattan. We were, after all, Bridge & Tunnel: all our roads led to Manhattan. Wit was the borough that blazed in its own violet light and threw scraps of shadows on the rest of us.

I had been to Brooklyn only a handful of times in my life. Whenever we drove through, Sang would make us roll up the windows and double-check that our car doors were locked. He’d written off the entire borough after a fruit-and-vegetable he owned on Smith Street went up in flames during a blackout. According to Hannah, Sang had stumbled home that night with burnt clothes, a black eye, and a busted rib. Since then his mind conflated the three B’s: Brooklyn, black people, and the blackout. Add to that one more B: a baby. A bundle of joy. Me. When I arrived not one year later, he was still picking up the pieces of his broken store. He took to carrying a metal baseball bat on the passenger side of his car. His wife was budding with her own pregnancy. I was a burden, the daughter of his dead younger sister — and a honhyol bastard to boot.

My mother was one of four children: two boys and two girls. First was Big Uncle, a man I’d never met, who still lived in Korea. Sang was second. Then my mother only two years later. Emo, the youngest, trailed behind them all by more than a decade. I had never met her either. Sang spoke little of the family in Korea and even less about “that stupid thing” my mother had done as a college student up in Seoul: she fell in love. It was an indulgence at a time when most marriages were arranged. Worse, she fell for an American man, a GI, or so the story went. My grandfather kicked my pregnant mother out, or maybe she left of her own accord; Sang was stingy with the details, and Hannah filled in patches of the narrative of the sister-in-law she had never met, colored with her own perceptions. (“Your mother was a wild fox-girl. Don’t you dare grow up to become like her.”) In any case, my mother had me — a honhyol, a mixed-blood. Then she died of carbon monoxide poisoning from the fumes of cheap coal briquettes used for cooking and heating — an all-too-common occurrence in Korea back then. Rightfully I should had died, too, had not Providence, or maybe it was the police saved me from the wreckage.

After my mother’s death, the responsibility of dealing with me defaulted to my grandfather. The way I pictured it, was he was stepping outside one morning to get a drink from the well and there I was, swaddled on his doorstep. He stared down at me and thought, Oh, shit.

There was no question I would have been stigmatized if I’d stayed in the motherland — a society where the slightest physical differences were scrutinized like a genetic anomaly. Where my dubious lineage would have undoubtedly come to light. So perhaps my grandfather was benevolent in sending me to live with my uncle in America, when he could have carted me off to an orphanage instead. Either way, he rid himself of an inconvenient problem. But here’s another geographical irony for you: I traveled nearly seven thousand miles across the globe to escape societal censure only to end up in the second-largest Korean community in the Western world.

We were stuttering our way out of Queens. The 7 train was like that: Tourettic. The lights blinked on and off; the rickety train cars jerked from side to side as much as front and back. I stared at the other slumped passengers. The faces repeated in a pattern: Korean, Hispanic, Chinese, Chinese again, Indian. You would always tell by their worn expressions that they were going from home to work. You could always tell by their worn shoes: sometimes high-top sneakers with the backs cut out to form makeshift slippers, sometimes pleather platforms or paint-splattered construction boots — all sharing the same thick rubber soles, designed to absorb the work of the day.

The train emerged aboveground, the windows opening to the sprawl of Flushing. First you saw a beautiful clock tower sitting on top of a concrete storage warehouse with loud capital letters: U-H-A-U-L. Then the Van Wyck, snaking its way through heaps of sand and ash, through auto-body shops and junkyard lots. Wood and steel beams had lain in abandoned stacks for as long as I could remember; whether they represented the start of construction or the aftermath of demolition was anyone’s guess. There were rows of brown, frayed, tarped storefronts with Korean lettering. Then the view of Shea: a stadium the shade of working-class blue with dimly lit neon figures at bat. On game nights  you could barely make out the halfhearted roars in the half-empty seats — a smattering of loyal fans in blue-and-orange satin jackets. Ahead, the silvered peaks of the midtown skyline glinted in that violet light. This was our Queens wasteland.

Then the lights flickered off.

In the expansive darkness of the tunnel between Queens and Manhattan, the 7 stalled and let out a low, hesitant sigh that echoed inside the train car as one passenger after the next breathed out with exhaustion. It was the same sigh Eunice had let out on the drive home. We were frustratingly close, yet so far from where we wanted to be.

Then the lights flickered back on and we surged forward, Flushing falling away behind us.
From Re Jane by Patricia Park, published on May 5, 2015 by Pamela Dorman Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright by Patricia Park, 2015.

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