A look into a Korean feminist novel: Kim Ji Young, Born 1982 (2016)

For anyone interested in understanding the situation of women in Korean society today, the feminist novel Kim Ji Young born 1982 by Cho Nam Joo (Minumsa, 2016) gives a realistic overview.

But as a recent publication, there is no English translation available. So in this post I’ll take a look at some of the main issues covered in the story.

The book was published in October 2016 and has sold over 270,000 copies leading the way in a trend for young feminist literature. Sales went up after talk on social media and then when President Moon Jae In was given a copy. And it’s still clearly on display in the bookshops in Seoul.

It’s an unusual book, more like a string of anecdotes than a novel. The plot is not exciting. Ji Young goes to school, gets a job, gets married, quits her job and has a baby. And nothing out of the ordinary really happens. But that’s the whole point.

Ji Young is the Everywoman. (Ji Young Kim was the most common name for a girl born in 1982 hence the title of the book).

She is not fighting the system as a feminist crusader. When the lecherous old client makes her go out drinking with him, she won’t stand up and throw the drink over his head and storm out. She will sit and take the sexist comments like many young female office workers do. She is simply a young woman caught up in a patriarchal society.

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We are introduced to Ji Young Kim when she has been married for 3 years and has a baby daughter. But she is acting strange. She has started taking on the persona of other people – first her mother and then a deceased friend – as though she has completely lost her own voice and identity. Reminiscent of The Vegetarian it seems that society has driven our protagonist mad – or at least needing some serious therapy.

A selection of scenes throughout Ji Young’s life then show the society that she has grown up in. They are experiences that happen to many women and may not even seem noteworthy at first glance. But on reflection they reveal the ingrained sexism that women deal with on a daily basis. The story is set in Seoul and some issues may be quintessentially Korean, but I too could relate to many of her experiences.

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THE TROUBLES START AT CHUSEOK

chuseok fruit

The trouble starts when Ji Young and her husband and daughter go to visit his family in Busan at Chuseok, Thanksgiving. This is perhaps the most stressful and dreaded event of the year for a lot of married women who have to spend the holiday in the kitchen with their mother-in-law cooking for all the family and friends who come to visit while husbands snooze and drink soju…

Then her sister-in-law arrives and suggests her parents buy the festive food from now on rather than making everything from scratch as it’s so much work for her mum and for Ji Young. Ji Young’s mother-in-law becomes upset. She likes cooking for her family. But she turns to Ji Young and asks her directly if she is tired of helping her cook.

Of course Ji Young can’t answer this question honestly.

But does she really want to drive over 5 hours down to Busan in a traffic jam and stay with her in-laws and spend the whole time cooking with her mother-in-law? She has a young child to look after. Her own parents live in Seoul. I think we can guess her true feelings.

But of course a socially acceptable response would be to say that she is not tired and it is her pleasure to help.  And that’s what the family expect.

That’s why her actual response SHOCKS everyone.

She chastises her father-in-law for insisting that she always visit HIS side of the family during the holidays. She points out that she is never allowed to see her own parents. (It’s a complaint that many married women have.) Ji Young’s words anger her father-in-law.

But her husband can see that something is wrong because she addresses her father-in-law in the persona of her own mother and the words don’t sound like her own. (She couldn’t possibly say these words as herself!) He quickly removes her from the house and they drive asap back to Seoul. That’s when he takes her to the doctor and the therapy starts.

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BOYS & GIRLS ARE TREATED DIFFERENTLY

So what are the experiences that have led up to her current state? They begin from childhood in her own home and at school where she recognises that boys and girls are treated differently.

She grew up with her parents, elder sister, younger brother, and grandmother in a small house. The sisters know that their grandmother doesn’t like it when they touch her precious grandson’s belongings. At meal times the family members are served in order of importance – father – son – grandmother – and then the daughters. If there are two cakes the brother will have one to himself and the girls will have to share one between them. And it is always like this. But they are not jealous or upset about this. They just accept the difference as ‘normal’.

At school the girls notice that the rules on school uniform are stricter for them than for the boys. They have to wear tights in the summer time and regulation shirts and shoes. The boys on the other hand get away with T-shirts and training shoes. When they question a teacher they are told that the boys are always outside in the break time playing sports – so how can anyone expect them to wear the regulation school uniform?!

annoyed

WOMEN DISCRIMINATING AGAINST THEMSELVES

Boys and girls are treated differently often by other WOMEN. Ji Young’s paternal grandmother puts the men in the family on pedestals. Even though the grandfather didn’t work or provide for the family, her grandmother never complained. She believed that since he wasn’t a womaniser and didn’t beat her up then he was a decent husband! And she worked hard herself cleaning houses and other jobs to support the family.

When Ji Young’s mum gives birth to her first child – Ji Young’s elder sister – she apologises to her mother-in-law for not having a son.

Never mind. You can have a boy next time‘ comes the reply.

After Ji Young is born, her mother becomes desperate to have a son. When she gets pregnant with another girl she has an abortion. (The writer points out that this kind of abortion became a trend which led to more boys than girls born in the 1980s. In the 90s the problem was so great that it became policy at hospitals not to reveal the gender of the unborn child.) When Ji Young’s mum finally has a son there is relief all round.

ACCEPTABLE SEXUAL HARASSMENT

As an adult Ji Young learns that sexual harassment is something that she will have to accept as part of life.

After she graduates from university she gets a taxi to a job interview. The driver doesn’t want to have a woman as his first customer of the day but grudgingly agrees to take her to her interview! (The first customer of the day is considered very important as they bring luck for the rest of the day).

At the interview the candidates are interviewed in groups of three. Ji Young is interviewed with two other female candidates and they are asked,

What would you do if you were at a meeting with a client and he started touching you inappropriately?

The older interviewer seems to be inferring that sexual harassment is part of the job which can’t be helped. And that female employees will simply have to find a way to deal with it.

Ji Young is asked first and she is caught off guard. It’s a question that she hasn’t prepared for. Flustered she announces that she will remove herself from the situation – go to the bathroom or whatever – to get away from the client. The second candidate has a more aggressive suggestion. She will point out that this is SEXUAL HARASSMENT and threaten to take legal action.

The third candidate has had more time to consider her answer and she says she will ‘reflect over her behaviour and appearance and if she has done something to encourage the client’s advances then she will correct this‘. So essentially she will blame herself assuming that it was her flirty behaviour or short skirt that encouraged him. The second candidate lets out a sigh as though she is impressed with this answer. Ji Young also wonders if this is the answer that the company is looking for.

But in the end none of them get the job anyway.

HIDDEN CAMERAS (a current issue in Korea)

Ji Young finally gets hired at a small PR company. But with pressure from family she soon decides to have a baby. And with no help at home as her parents run a business and her parents-in-law live in Busan, she quits her job to look after the baby full time.

She misses her job and wants to catch up on what’s going on. But when a female coworker comes to visit it’s revealed that the company is in uproar since a hidden camera was found in the ladies bathroom. The culprit who placed the camera there has been caught – ironically he’s the young security guard for the building – but he has been uploading the images taken in the bathroom onto an adult website for all to see.

One of the men in the office happens to recognise his female coworkers when he visits the site but, instead of telling the police or the boss or someone, he simply SHOWS the pictures to his male coworkers. The cat is out of the bag only when a female employee is told by her coworker boyfriend NOT to use the bathroom on that floor. Some of the female staff are now traumatised and on medication and can’t work at the company anymore.

An investigation is underway. And the male colleagues are investigated too. But they are incensed believing that they have done nothing wrong because THEY didn’t put the camera in the bathroom. And THEY didn’t upload the pictures. They simply looked at them but didn’t say anything… sigh.

NO VOICE IN A MISOGYNISTIC SOCIETY

In a review at the end of the book, a scholar of women’s studies describes Ji Young as representing the average woman who has to live in a misogynistic society where she has no voice. And this has led to her mental illness. She can only reveal her thoughts and feelings when she takes on the persona of someone else.

There are several instances throughout the book where Ji Young wants to say something but she simply can’t get the words out.

As a university student on an overnight trip Ji Young overhears a fellow university student say that he is not interested in her romantically because ‘nobody wants chewing gum that someone else has chewed and spat out‘. ( He considers her to be ‘used gum’ since she has dated one of the other male students). The next day he acts normal unaware that she overheard what he said. He notes that she looks tired and asks her if she didn’t sleep well.

Ji Young WANTS to say,

How can ‘chewing gum‘ sleep well?

But she doesn’t say anything to him at all.

There were several points in the book that got me worked up and this was definitely one of them. When will the ‘women have to be virgins‘ idea ever end?

THE LAST STRAW

The last anecdote involves Ji Young sitting on a park bench now a grown woman with her baby in a stroller. Short of money she has been looking for part time work – the hourly rate is only 5,600 won. She sips coffee from a nearby coffee shop, tired but happy to be out of the house for a change. She eyes some office workers on a nearby bench and envies them.

But then she overhears one of the young male office workers say something like ‘I wish I could buy coffee with my husband’s hard earned money’. He calls her a 맘충 mam-chung ( parasite mom) = a derogatory term for selfish mothers who exploit their positions. There’s more about parasite moms in this article.

Again Ji Young doesn’t confront the man. She runs out of the park, distraught that she has been labelled a ‘parasite’ by someone who doesn’t even know her.

I’m sure almost all of us (not just women) have been in a situation where we WANTED to say something but just couldn’t for whatever reason. I certainly have been there many times…

But what is the reason for this? Fear of confrontation? Fear of what others will think of us – heaven forbid I get labelled ‘AGGRESSIVE’. Fear of becoming an outcast from society?

I think it’s fine NOT to respond to this kind of name calling as long as the remarks are not taken to heart. But Ji Young seems to have taken every comment to heart. But WHY? Deep down are her insecurities telling her that the labels are true – that perhaps she really is a ‘parasite’ or ‘used chewing gum’ in this society?

Something that is very clear throughout the book is how much Ji Young worries about what other people think of her. Here she is traumatised over a remark. And it’s not the first time. Comments by elders in the family persuade her to have a baby perhaps before she is really ready. At work she is worried about taking the maternity leave and other rights that pregnant women have because she’s concerned that her coworkers will resent her for getting special treatment.

It’s like she is always walking on egg shells trying desperately to please everyone and fit in. She lives in a society where she feels everyone is judging her and watching her closely. She is not your typical spunky kid protagonist who will overcome every obstacle. She is real. And that’s frustrating!

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