Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is an absolutely furious short novel about sexism in South Korea, and while its incidents and statistics are specific to that country, it can stand in for how badly half of the world’s human population commonly treats the other half, often without even noticing. The book opens with what appears to be a breakdown by the book’s titular character, as she slips into note-perfect imitations of people from her life without noticing — first her mother and then a college friend who had died a year before — falling so deep into the roles that she refers to herself in the third person. Matters come to a head at a family holiday gathering when Jiyoung (the book follows the Korean practice of putting the family name before the personal name) takes on the persona of her mother again and gives her father-in-law a thorough telling-off.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo

The book then returns to Jiyoung’s childhood, relating incidents from her life and her family’s history in a matter-of-fact tone that moves the story along quickly and lets readers imagine the details. Cho (the book’s publisher also follows Korean name order) leaves lush description to other writers; she has enough to say with just sketching what has happened, selecting crucial dialog, and occasionally letting readers in on her characters’ thoughts. There is a particular reason for the novel’s style that becomes clear in its hard-hitting final chapter. Jiyoung has a sister who is a couple of years older, and a brother who is six or seven years younger. Their paternal grandmother lives with them in quarters that are initially quite cramped. Cho sets out how things are when Jiyoung remembers herself as a child eating something that was ostensibly for her baby brother:

The combination of her [grandmother’s] tone, expression, angle of head tilt, position of shoulders and her breathing sent [Jiyoung and her sister] a message that was hard to summarize in one sentence, but, if Jiyoung tried anyway, it went something like this: How dare you try to take something that belongs to my precious grandson! Her grandson and his things were valuable and to be cherished; she wasn’t going to let just anybody touch them, and Jiyoung ranked below this “anybody.” [Her sister] Eunyoung probably had the same impression.
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 at 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 Jiyonug that her brother was receiving special treatment, and so she wasn’t even jealous. That’s how it had always been. There were times when she had an inkling of a situation not being fair, but she was accustomed to rationalising these things by telling herself that she was being a generous older sibling, and that she shared with her sister because they were both girls. Jiyoung’s mother would praise the girls for taking good care of their brother and not competing for her love. Jiyoung thought it must be the big age gap. The more their mother praised, the more impossible it became for Jiyoung to complain. (pp. 14–15)

Flashbacks show how hard life was for previous generations. This was the horrible grandmother’s life as a young mother: “As people died, young and old, of war, disease and starvation, [the grandmother] worked someone else’s field, peddled someone else’s wares, took care of domestic labour at someone else’s home, and still managed to run her own home, fighting tooth and nail to raise the four boys.” The account also intersperses sociological facts, complete with footnotes, such as the extreme male-to-female ratio that prevailed in South Korea in the 1980s and 1990s, thanks to ultrasound and selective abortion. “[I]n the early 1990s … the ratio for the third child and beyond was over two-to-one [male to female].” (p. 19)

Jiyoung’s mother worked in a factory to help put her brothers through school, only going back to finish her own schooling later in life. Unlike her live-in mother-in-law, she did not fully internalize the misogynistic ideas that she had grown up with, and that becomes more noticeable as Jiyoung grows up over the course of the book. When her husband’s civil service salary was insufficient for the family’s needs, she took on side jobs, eventually settling on hairdressing. Her operation was off the books, and sometimes competition was tough. “The neighbourhood hair salon lady did try to pull a chunk of her hair for stealing her customers, but Mother was a local with a well-cultivated reputation — the customers took her side.” (p. 23) Her business savvy, and her assertiveness both increase over time. At one point, Jiyoung’s father considers investing in a Chinese import-export business, but her mother puts her foot down. “I don’t want to hear another word about China. The second you invest, I’m divorcing you.” (p. 64) Significantly, her mother-in-law had passed away by then. Jiyoung’s parents try several different businesses before they find one that boosts their prosperity considerably. Each time, it is her mother’s ingenuity that helps them out: insight into where potential customers will come from, knowledge about how a neighborhood is changing.

Jiyoung’s own experiences reflect growing up in 1990s South Korea, with considerable emphasis on her bad experiences with boy and then men. The elementary school deskmate who won’t stop pestering her. The flasher who shows himself to her middle school from across the street. The fellow members of a college hiking club who talk about her when they think she can’t hear what they’re saying. The young acquaintance who follows her home on the bus. In most instances, authority figures let her down, taking the boy’s or the man’s side. These experiences spook Jiyoung; it’s not an unreasonable response, but Cho hints that her sister reacts differently to similar situations. Their society can be dangerous to girls and women, but not everyone feels it as acutely as Jiyoung.

Taking all of these stories together — with more from the workplace and adulthood as Jiyoung navigates married life and the birth of a daughter — the book stays just this side of polemic. It’s powerful testimony, specific to its time and place but also pointing to how common the incidents and attitudes are across the modern world.

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