She is me. She is you. She is all of us. She is Kim Jiyoung
A book review of international bestseller Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo translated by Jamie Chang from Korean.
By Hughlyn Wong
January 1, 2022
“Jiyoung became different people from time to time. Some of them were living, others were dead, all of them women she knew. No matter how you looked at it, it wasn’t a joke or a prank. Truly, flawlessly, completely, she became that person.”
In this contemporary fiction book by Cho Nam-Joo, Kim Jiyoung, the main character of the book is sent to a psychiatrist by her husband for her psychosis. After going to school, getting her first job, quitting to raise her daughter, and taking on part-time jobs that can “accommodate” motherhood, Kim Jiyoung’s mental state deteriorates as she impersonates different women she’s known. In this novel set in South Korea, her life is narrated by her psychiatrist in a detached manner as he attempts to diagnose Kim Jiyoung.
“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.”
This novel has simple prose that’s easy to understand, which works great for a topic as important as institutional gender oppression and cultural misogyny. However, it did feel like some cultural significance was lost in translation. Throughout the book, Nam-Joo’s writing is supplemented by statistics cited with footnotes. For example, under social and familial pressure, Kim Jiyoung’s mother Misook aborted her younger sister as it was common practice to abort female babies in a society that valued sons more. At the height of the male-to-female ratio imbalance, the ratio for the third child and more was two-to-one. The combination of fiction infused in reality made the novel incredibly impactful.
“What do you want from us? The dumb girls are too dumb, the smart girls are too smart, and the average girls are too unexceptional?”
Throughout her life Kim Jiyoung faces sexist incidents at home, at school, at work, anywhere; These experiences are painfully relatable for many women and girls which is shown by the multiplicity of her identity. Reading this book left me livid and truly heartbroken at how misogyny is ingrained in society. I went into the book expecting a raw and emotional narration and was met with a distant, unemotional, third-person account. Some may find this unmoving, but I found this way of writing more powerful (at least as a girl), as you can feel Kim Jiyong’s pain seeping through the facts. After summarizing her life and the injustices she faced, the male psychiatrist is “enlightened as to what it means to live as a woman, especially as a mother, in South Korea.” The way he treats the women in his life shows that despite hearing Kim Jiyoung’s story shows how men remain unsympathetic to gender oppression and are reluctant to do anything that jeopardizes power structures that benefit them.
Throughout Kim Jiyoung’s life, we learn about how South Korean culture emphasizes the patriarchal authority within the household. Not only is there a cultural pressure to have sons instead of daughters, when the son is born, he is “entitled” to have privileges his sisters don’t, enforced by a gendered hierarchy. Showed in her day to day life, Kim Jiyong’s brother never has to lift a single finger while his sisters and mother took care of all household chores. When there was not enough rice in the rice cooker for the entire family, her father got all the rice in the rice cooker, leaving the siblings and her mother with packs of ramen to share. However, the younger brother would take most of his mother’s share of noodles. In South Korean classrooms, the first half were boys and second half were girls in order of birthdays. Boys were first in everything. From being in front of lines, to having their homework checked first, giving their presentations first, to almost exclusively being class monitors. This book is set from 1982-2016, and while things have gotten better for women, casual misogyny and gendered hierarchies remain in South Korean culture.
Everyone, especially non-feminists should read this book. This short read can really help you understand how women understand the world, as well as the cultural and systematic oppression that women face in South Korea.
Trigger warnings to watch out for: sexism, sexual harassment, mental illness, abortion, sexual assault
Cho Nam-Joo. Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982: A Novel. Translated by Jamie Chang, Liveright Publishing Corp., 2020.