This Kim Jiyoung Born 1982 review is a little late as I started reading Cho Nam-Joo’s novel as part of 20 Books of Summer ’21! When I picked it up, I didn’t know too much about it, despite its bestselling status. Now, all I can hope is that in future years, when the grandchildren of those of us born around the same time as Kim Jiyoung ask what finally made us burn down the patriarchy, we will be able to point to this book. When presented with such a frank accounting of the petty inequalities and ongoing frustrations that prevail in the lives of girls and women, maybe we will also have had enough and torch the whole thing and dance in the light of the flames together.
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 (translated by Jamie Chang) begins when Jiyoung is 33. She is married with a daughter and is living a fairly standard life. But Jiyoung has started behaving ‘abnormally,’ talking like a much older or younger woman at different times, using the mannerisms and ways of speaking of both her mother, Oh Misook, and an old college friend who has recently died called Cha Seungyeon. This ‘possession,’ or whatever it is, also seems to have removed her inhibitions, as she knows things she is not supposed to know and she is unafraid to speak her mind, directly and to other family members. When a Chuseok harvest festival visit back to her husband Daehyun’s family causes things to really let rip, it prompts a visit to a psychiatrist and the report this professional writes about his client then forms the rest of the story, as chapters that cover various incidents in Jiyoung’s life from Childhood through Adolescence, then Early Adulthood and Motherhood are recounted, while seeking to answer the question: whatever could be wrong with this devoted wife and mother?
The answer is perhaps everything and nothing. In Childhood, we see Jiyoung and her big sister Eunyoung learning that they are lower in the pecking order than their younger brother.
It was a given that fresh rice out of the hot 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.
Eunyoung is responsible for making sure Jiyoung has everything she needs for class as their mother is always busy. She is a force of nature, having supported her own brothers through their studies by working in a factory while never receiving the same level of support in return. Oh Misook’s dreams of becoming a teacher have fallen by the wayside, but she has a natural business savvy that keeps the family going as she works on various side jobs. Their mother is also quietly getting on with her own mini-revolutions, by making sure the girls get their own room with new desks when they move to a bigger apartment, which they can afford thanks to her careful ways with money and gifts for investing wisely. She is determined that her daughters will get a better start than she and her sister did.
As Jiyoung and Eunyoung progress through school, to university and into careers, so the ‘incidents’ continue. Without giving too much away, none of the things that happen to Jiyoung and her friends and colleagues are that unusual or earthshattering – and while some of them have a uniquely South Korean cultural twist, others are similar across Asia and sadly others are more global – they are all the kind of thing that you hear about over a glass of something at the end of a long day, before shrugging and saying, ‘Oh, well…’
Is there one incident that has pushed Jiyoung to breaking point, or is it like a dripping tap that eventually becomes an ocean? Is this specific to South Korea or is it the same ocean of bullshit that we are all struggling to stay afloat in? And if these things apply to Jiyoung, who has tried to do everything that was expected of her, study hard, build a career, settle down, marry and have a child, how much worse is it for women who don’t want to conform in those ways – such as Keiko in Convenience Store Woman – or who want to step outside the category of woman completely and define themselves how they choose?
Occasional glimpses of how things were for her grandmother and mother show that woman may have more options available to them now, but:
The world had changed a great deal, but the little rules, contracts and customs had not, which meant the world hadn’t actually changed at all.
You could argue that the men suffer in the midst of all this too, with pressure to be a good breadwinner as women will be completely dependent on them and their salary, but the book also shows that even the best ally or most considerate partner can be completely oblivious to the tide that women are swimming against. As this is a medical report, there are footnotes whenever there is a point that the reader might find contentious or exaggerated, as if to say ‘No, look, this is real.’ In the context of the psychiatrist’s report I thought this worked well and made sure that my rage had a rational edge to it! If this sounds like it could be quite dry, rest assured that it isn’t and there is plenty of darkly funny, sideways looks at what is going on around Kim Jiyoung.
Entering high school meant a sudden expansion of her geographical and social world, which taught her that it was a wide world out there filled with perverts.
I mean, you have to laugh, right… or not. So please go and read Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 and then join me in finding a big box of matches.