In brief: Kim Jiyoung is a woman who others think has a problem. But a look at her life suggests that it’s society with the problem.
The good: Powerful read.
The not-so-good: A quick read.
Why I chose it: I like reading fiction from Asia.
Year: 2020 (originally published 2016 in Korean)
Translator: Jamie Chang
Publisher: Scribner (Simon & Schuster)
Setting: South Korea
Rating: 9 out of 10
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is a slim book that punches well above its weight. It’s a look at the way society favours boys and men over women in South Korea (and elsewhere). This is what happens when women are continually disadvantaged, even when they are better for the task at hand.
Jiyoung is born the second of three children in South Korea. Her little brother is the star of the family being male, and even his mother gives him extra food. It’s something that she learned from her family, where the boys were given precedence for education. (Yet Jiyoung’s mother is far from unintelligent. She runs the household, takes on extra work, runs a business and improves the family’s finances greatly). Jiyoung’s school days reveal the same preference from males from the simple (no socks during winter, only stockings at school – this I can relate to 100%, right down to the chilblains) to the sly (the girls who bring a flasher to justice get in trouble). Unfortunately, this is a theme that continues through university (sexist job interviews asking how to manage sexual harassment ‘nicely’), work (being passed over for new projects because she’s female) and motherhood. It’s Jiyoung who gives up work and who is labelled as a parasite on her husband’s purse. She’s not happy about it and she’s started acting strangely. Is there any reason why her husband asks…well, Jiyoung has had enough.
This novel exposes sexism brilliantly and also frames it through the lens of South Korea and the changes that have happened during Jiyoung’s lifetime. The snippets about inequality were very useful (I’m not sure if they were in the original text) as most of them I didn’t know about. I wasn’t aware of the strong preference for male children to the point of abortion and the preferential treatment of boys in school. And the sexual harassment Jiyoung and other women experience is disgusting. It’s portrayed so well that I’m getting annoyed just reflecting as I write this. Will anything change? I’d like to hope something will. But the ending paragraph makes me suspect that Cho thinks it could be a long time coming.
This is a fantastic read that gets into a different culture and shows that women suffer the same problems, no matter where they live.