This morning I finished the book, Kim JiYoung, Born 1982, by Cho Nam-Joo. A novel that paints a picture of the long standing, extreme gender inequality in Korea. While, a little underwhelming to me, as I had just finished a memoir that painted the same picture, this novel was extremely well received after it was gifted to the Republic of Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in.
Truly, flawlessly, completely, she became that person.
In a small, tidy apartment on the outskirts of the frenzied metropolis of Seoul lives Kim Jiyoung. A thirtysomething-year-old “millennial everywoman,” she has recently left her white-collar desk job―in order to care for her newborn daughter full-time―as so many Korean women are expected to do. But she quickly begins to exhibit strange symptoms that alarm her husband, parents, and in-laws: Jiyoung impersonates the voices of other women―alive and even dead, both known and unknown to her. As she plunges deeper into this psychosis, her discomfited husband sends her to a male psychiatrist.
In a chilling, eerily truncated third-person voice, Jiyoung’s entire life is recounted to the psychiatrist―a narrative infused with disparate elements of frustration, perseverance, and submission. Born in 1982 and given the most common name for Korean baby girls, Jiyoung quickly becomes the unfavored sister to her princeling little brother. Always, her behavior is policed by the male figures around her―from the elementary school teachers who enforce strict uniforms for girls, to the coworkers who install a hidden camera in the women’s restroom and post their photos online. In her father’s eyes, it is Jiyoung’s fault that men harass her late at night; in her husband’s eyes, it is Jiyoung’s duty to forsake her career to take care of him and their child―to put them first.
Jiyoung’s painfully common life is juxtaposed against a backdrop of an advancing Korea, as it abandons “family planning” birth control policies and passes new legislation against gender discrimination. But can her doctor flawlessly, completely cure her, or even discover what truly ails her? -(back cover)
While in America it is difficult to understand the cultural difference of gender roles in Korea. The Confucian influence of the patriarchal society dating back to long before America was even colonized. From birth, women were already at a disadvantage. Boys were prized above all, to be successful, carry on the family name, and bring honour to the family. Girls received less, as everything must be provided to the male heirs. Women were discouraged from attending higher education. The role of the woman was to get an education high enough to secure a good marriage, then they were expected to give up everything and become a housewife. Often a woman’s mother-in-law would live with them. It is the role of the woman to raise the children, clean the house, do the laundry, cook the meals, and care for the mother-in-law. It is back breaking work and women suffered physical ailments.
Reading Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 was not as shocking to me because I had just read the same story right before. It is a not uncommon story for Korean women. But it is bracing, because Kim Jiyoung was born only a few years before me. Were I still in Korea, would my life mirror these stories I just read?
Shortly after the book was released, they made a film version, starring Jung Yu-mi and Gong Yoo. While the book focuses mostly on Jiyoung’s upbringing and what shapes the person we meet at the beginning of the book, the movie acts almost as a sequel, focusing primarily on Jiyoung after we met her in the beginning of the book. As with all film versions, a lot of liberties were taken. While mostly staying true to the story, I also feel like they lost sight of the message. The biggest problem was, changing the psychiatrist from a male, in the book, to a female, in the film. It flips the dynamic and changes the feel of the story..