Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982

  • By Cho Nam-joo; translated by Jamie Chang
  • Liveright
  • 176 pp.

A case history of a South Korean Everywoman driven to the brink by misogyny.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982

Cho Nam-joo’s feminist debut novel, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, strikes a deep chord with me, and not only because I’m female. Every woman who reads this strange, extraordinary, and infuriating document (and every woman should read it) will find glimpses of her own life.

Though the granular details may be particular to Jiyoung (born in Seoul, the second daughter in a middle-class family), the milestone events are universal: Gender stereotyping starting from birth in ways both subtle and overt; sexualization; victim-blaming; thwarted ambitions; and pressure to stay at home and raise children while fading into ladylike irrelevance.

While the story is recognizable to women the world over, it is a damning portrait of South Korean society in particular. From the ineffable pressure to have a son that forces Jiyoung’s mother to undergo a sex-selection abortion, to the legal precedence men enjoy over women, to the unending drudgery of a housewife’s chores (which include preparing three elaborate meals a day), Cho paints a bleak picture of the average South Korean woman’s life.

It is that deeply entrenched national attitude that makes the story so personal to me. I was born a bastard in South Korea, my birth mother one of the legions of women who helped prop up a debilitated post-war economy by bringing in much-needed American dollars.

While both governments were complicit in the trafficking of women like my birth mother, the South Korean government was coldheartedly exploiting their own female citizens while simultaneously shaming them, denying them assistance, and further profiting from their bodies by exporting their mixed-race children, like me, to wealthy, white nations in what became the model for a lucrative system of inter-country adoption.

Once the South Korean government realized how remunerative the baby-trade was, they went on to facilitate the adoption of babies who weren’t mixed-race and whose mothers weren’t sex workers or unwed, but rather married women who couldn’t afford to feed their children, or who were pressured by relatives to sacrifice a girl child for the greater wellbeing of the family.

Set in contemporary times, the novel doesn’t refer to this dark chapter of South Korea’s history. The main character does not have a tragic upbringing or the hard life that a bar girl might’ve had. And that’s just the problem: Even the life of an ordinary South Korean woman is fraught with institutionalized abuse, double standards, and everyday, random acts of misogyny.

The narrative is framed as a psychiatric case study, and translator Jamie Chang captures the dry, clinical tone of a therapist’s report that painstakingly records the abuse endured by the patient.

Indignities start at childhood, when Jiyoung is chastised by her grandmother for sneaking spoonsful of her baby brother’s formula. “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 brother gets the best of everything, while she and her older sister serve him hand and foot.

At primary school, she is victimized by her male desk-mate, who plays pranks on her. “To Jiyoung, it felt more like harassment or violence than pranks.” Then her teacher suggests something that Jiyoung finds confounding: The boy picks on her because he likes her. It’s her first encounter with victim-blaming.

And so it goes, through high school, university, her job search, a short-lived career in a marketing firm, marriage, childbirth, and the inevitable decision to give up her career to be a stay-at-home mom.

By presenting the narrative as a study, complete with footnoted statistics from government documents, the author eschews the angst and high drama of another conversation-changing work from South Korea, Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning movie, “Parasite.” Bong, a man, enjoys the freedom to be as histrionic and emotive as he wants, while author Cho wisely sticks to a cold, antiseptic narration, free from any whiff of “feminine hysteria.”

Though the women in the novel are chronically mistreated, and, as in the case of Jiyoung’s grandmother, act as agents of oppression against their own, it is their intelligence, ingenuity, and kindness that are the real engines of Korean prosperity. Jiyoung’s mother carefully invests the family money, keeping them in the middle class. Her older sister sacrifices her dream of being a television producer for a more staid and predictable teaching career.

Their protests ignored by their male peers, women must rely on each other to hold offenders to account. Since Jiyoung’s middle school won’t do anything about a flasher, it’s up to the girls to turn him in to the police.

It correspondingly falls to the female workers at her ad agency to expose a colleague (the security guard!) who plants a camera in the women’s locker room, posting the photos on porn sites that are then passed around by male colleagues (a similar, real-life story recently rocked South Korea).

And these are but a fraction of the heinous acts catalogued in Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982. But don’t think the book falls flat due to its format: It is a fascinating, terrifying, and necessary read.

Half a century after I was separated from my birth mother by the profoundly misogynistic policies of the South Korean government, Cho Nam-joo has drawn a portrait of a country stuck in the past. Through her plain, straightforward, detached analysis of an unsustainable situation, Cho has brought South Korea to a long-overdue reckoning. With the book now in global translation, she’s exporting that reckoning to the world.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2020.]

Alice Stephens is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People.

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