This week’s first post looked at the treatment of a group of Korean women around the time of the Second World War, and today’s book covers a similar theme, albeit with a twenty-first century slant. Once again, we’ll be meeting a woman whose life has been one of struggle in a society where the chips are stacked against her. This time, though, her name is no secret – it’s even emblazoned on the book’s cover 😉
Cho Nam-joo’s Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 (translated by Jamie Chang) is a book that struck a chord with the women of Korea right from its publication, going on to sell over a million copies and spawning a film adaptation. It begins in 2015, with our titular heroine, a thirty-two-year-old housewife with a young daughter, preparing for a visit to her husband’s family home to celebrate chuseok, the Korean autumn harvest festival. It’s here that Jiyoung breaks down, insulting her in-laws by mockingly impersonating her own mother and criticising her in-laws for forcing her to spend time away from her side of the family. As her bewildered husband Daehyun drives her back to their own home, we wonder just what’s going on.
To find out the cause of her problems, though, we need to go back in time, and the rest of the book follows Jiyoung as she grows up. As we accompany her through her childhood and schooling, and then onto her brief work career and finally family life, a picture emerges of someone living a limited life, surviving within the constraints of a society where women are expected to play a particular role. There’s a lot here to horrify the reader, but the scariest part is that it’s really nothing special – this is just how Korean women live…
I’ve been meaning to get to this book for a long time, and by a most fortunate coincidence, a library copy became available for pickup last Tuesday, just before my Korean online book club was due to discuss it on the Thursday. I finished it off in a couple of days, giving me ample time to prepare for the talk, and I enjoyed the hour or so we spent going over the book. It’s the first time I’ve done this before writing the review, and it was fascinating to get other people’s perspectives before starting to write.
From the start, Kim Jiyoung… is the story of a woman in a society where men are simply seen as being more important. This is instilled into children at an early age, through activities as commonplace as eating dinner:
It was a given that fresh rice hot out of the cooker was served in the order of father, brother and grandmother, and that perfect pieces of tofu, dumplings and patties were the brother’s while the girls ate the ones that fell apart. The brother had chopsticks, socks, long underwear, and school and lunch bags that matched, while the girls made do with whatever was available. If there were two umbrellas, the girls shared. If there were two blankets, the girls shared. If there were two treats, the girls shared. It didn’t occur to the child Jiyoung that her brother was receiving special treatment, and so she wasn’t even jealous. That’s how it had always been.
p.15 (Scribner, 2020)
Throughout her childhood, Jiyoung must share a room with her elder sister while her younger brother gets his own, and it’s certainly not the boy who has to do household chores. These are the perks of being the little master and the hope for the family’s future.
The idea of female subservience is continued in the outside world, but with more serious consequences. While Jiyoung learns to put up with the ‘pranks’ of her male classmates at elementary school, she’s less prepared for harassment on the bus, and a boy she vaguely recognises from school who turns nasty when she neglects to accept his advances. Luckily for her, there are several strong women in her life, and in society in general, who are prepared to step in and help her out at times, but the general message (even from her father…) is to ignore it all and simply carry on.
These youthful problems are all just preparation for the ‘real’ world, though. Jiyoung grows up into a hard-working young woman eager to make a career for herself, but she soon realises that this isn’t how Korea works. She has great difficulty in even getting job interviews, despite her qualities, and even when she does get a job, she’s treated as a second-class worker. The expectation is that she’ll be gone soon enough, anyway, so there’s no need to train her up and prepare her for a future that’s never going to happen.
What you’ve just read may make for fairly grim reading, yet what comes across most strongly while reading Kim Jiyoung… is the fairly mundane nature of the discrimination. I was expecting a far more sensationalised account of systematic abuse, and in our book club one participant agreed, pointing out the “micro-aggressions” Jiyoung is confronted with. But this is perhaps what makes the book so relatable for Korean women – by not making this about beatings, rape and murder, the book actually works more effectively. Instead of being a distorted exaggeration that allows readers to hide behind the “I’d never act like that” excuse, it’s a mirror that shows life for contemporary women, and men, as it really is.
Another benefit of this subtle approach is that most of the men featured in the book, rather than being monsters, are simply average blokes coasting along on the wave of their male privilege, never intending to belittle women, but not going out of their way to come to their aid, either. Daehyun is a prime example here, coming across as a perfectly reasonable, helpful man who is completely blindsided when Jiyoung points out his shortcomings:
Jiyoung knew that Daehyun was being sincerely supportive, but she still couldn’t hold back her anger.
“Help out? What is it with you and ‘helping out’? You’re going to ‘help out’ with chores. ‘Help out’ with raising our baby. ‘Help out’ with finding me a new job. Isn’t this your house, too? Your home? Your child? And if I work, don’t you spend my pay, too? Why do you keep saying ‘help out’ like you’re volunteering to pitch in on someone else’s work?
It’s the internalised passive acceptance of the patriarchy, not an evil toxic brand of misogyny that’s at play here, and that just adds to the realistic nature of the book (on a personal note, I can’t wait to see the film as I suspect that Gong Yoo, the star of the K-Drama Guardian: the Lonely and Great God, will be perfect as the lovable yet clueless husband…).
Kim Jiyoung… is far from perfect, and many will find this a fairly quick and simple read, with little in the writing that stands out. One notable feature mentioned by many reviewers is the way statistics about women in society are clumsily dropped into the text, a form of info dumping that detracts from the flow of the narrative. However, I would caution readers to withhold their judgement on this issue as there’s a clever twist in the tale here that actually justifies the approach Cho takes. I won’t say anything else about this to avoid spoiling the effect for anyone wanting to read the book, but I’ll just say that you shouldn’t make up your mind about the structure, or the approach taken, until the very last section 😉
While One Left would certainly be my pick of the two Korean books I’ve covered this week, having approached Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 with fairly low expectations, I’d have to say I was pleasantly surprised. It’s by no means a world-changing work, but it does a good job of pointing out the inequalities inherent in society in Korea (and elsewhere) while avoiding falling into the trap of going over the top and distancing the action from real life. It comes as no surprise that Cho’s novel resonated so much with female readers. Sadly, it’s also unsurprising that many Korean men saw it as an attack on them and lashed back online. You see, that’s the problem with books that act as mirrors – you might not always like what you see…