Title: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982
Author: Cho Nam-Joo
Pages: 176 pages
Translated from the Korean by Jamie Chang
As a US citizen, I may be familiar with the workings of feminism here but it’s definitely an experience learning about it from a citizen in a country foreign to me. What I know, I know only from Korean dramas, other Korean novels, and the news. This book and its surrounding controversy really shed a light on the complications the word feminism holds in Korea.
This story definitely made its mark in Korea, becoming the first Korean novel to sell a million copies in Korea since 2009 and already has a movie adaptation out. I sped through this riveting book in a few hours. I definitely did not expect the book to be written like this. It has a detached, dark tone to it like The Vegetarian but definitely grounds itself in its contemporary setting, not surrealism. It follows Kim Jiyoung who is living with her husband and daughter in present day. One day, she suddenly possesses the ability to act uncannily like the different women she has met in her life. Her concerned husband recommends seeing a psychiatrist. This synopsis, I thought, was what was going to make up the entire book. I was wrong; it only takes up the first maybe 20 pages. The rest of the novel tells of Kim Jiyoung’s life (sped up almost) from her childhood all the way up to where she is now. This little novel is reminiscient of a documentary because even though Kim Jiyoung is fictional, the author infuses the story with real facts about Korea and women, footnotes where appropriate. These include stats on abortion, maternity leave and working women in Korea. It was definitely a learning experience; one of the most fascinating facts I learned was that Korea was one of the worst OECD coutnries to live in for a working woman; women earn 63% of what men earn vs 84% as the average. The story also represents a documentary in that there’s no real style, it is blunt and factually precise as any documentary with no style and euphemism to hide the horrific realities behind. You can only stare at the cold, hard facts. Kim Jiyoung’s life just gives reader a person to connect onto, but it’s almost unnecessary as Kim Jiyoung could represent any everyday woman and the societal oppression she faces.
I definitely appreciated seeing feminism explored from an Asian perspective because Nam Joo talked about the unfair precedence that a son needed to be born. In order for a mother to gain any respect, she must give birth to a son so important that boys are in this culture. I definitely was not removed from that talk and it’s still prevalent in the Asian world. Mothers would continue trying until a son was born. Similarly, this is why China has a 2:1 ration of boys to girls which is leading to a shortage of girls due to the one child policy that is still having consequences to this day. When the son is born, they get the best food, do no work, and sit near the head of the table. Sons were expected to carry on the family name. Isn’t it interesting that a patriarchial cultural norm like taking on a man’s last name when you’re married only perpetuates more patriarchial norms like revering sons because they are the ones who can carry on this name to their children? I also appreciated the commebtary on Asian familial dynamics especially regarding the mother-in-law. It’s still a very real thing about the mean mother in law, a character still portrayed in korean dramas but rooted in truth. I found it so ironic that a woman would willfully wish her daughter in law to have a son and scoff at the daughter, a true testament to the hold this dangerous cultral sentiment holds, that a boy is more important than a girl that she would willfully disrespect a daughter, a member of her own sex!
Those discriminations are more prevalent in Asian speaking households in my experience, however, the rest of the book is not surprisingly very similar to other sexisms women around the world face in the workplace and in school. There are many scenes when Kim Jiyoung is going through interviews and men promoting other men but not women regardless of merit because the women would “eventually leave anyways” when they had a child.
I also appreciated that the author explained why men and other women would be unaware, even complicit in this discrimination. I like that she doesn’t attribute the sexism to a few bad apples but to a system where most everyone is culpable. Because everyone is to blame, passing on these toxic ideals to children perpetuates a vicious cycle of sexism. One of the book’s many strengths is the insidious little ways that women are forced into a certain box and the context surrounding that. Taken out of context, the things that women complain about would seem ridiculous. For example, Kim Jiyoung’s sister in the story wants to become a journalist. The mother herself advised against it, recommending the job of a teacher instead because of the shorter hours so she could take care of her family. The mother insinuates that the sister’s first job is to take care of her future family even though the sister had not even expressed any interest in children. Some people may say why didn’t the sister just go with her dreams? No one was technically stopping her. Well, as you move along in the story, you see the amount of familial pressure and societal pressure, whether direct or indirect, that the sister faced to fit into that mold and her anger makes sense.
It’s insidious because it is masked. The story took into account the history of women making sacrifices for their family and the unfair expectations placed on them. I felt more and more hopeless and more of a sense of injustice as Kim Jiyoung felt more and more disenchanted with the discrimination. What women are doing is not selfish, neither is it necessarily brave or admirable, they are just the best with what they have. I find that Kim Jiyoung has been praised as brave simply because she is fighting against a system that should not have to be fought. A system that should not be as oppressive as it is now.
I hope with books like these that just the discourse will spur a cultural change or one another’s point of view at least. It seems the world, every group digs its heels into the ground before considering anotehr viewpoint but it seems hopefully that this book is makign the wave it needs to in Korea.
Additional Links about the author and the book’s controversy that I found interesting:
- The Heroine of This Korean Bestseller is Extremely Ordinary by Alexandra Alter from NY Times
- In this Korean bestseller, a Young Mother is Driven to Psychosis by Eun Hong from NY Times