Written By Guest Contributor “This Korean Woman Reads” – Anna Song
“This Korean Woman Reads” is a book review series by Anna Song, who will be writing for the site reviewing books written by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) writers in Australia and from other parts of the world.
Headlines: A work of fiction that reads like an impeccably researched investigative report on what a truly typical Korean woman’s life is like living with sexism today.
Mood: A sobering reminder of how we collectively tolerate a deeply discriminatory reality for women.
Pair with: Acceptance. The status quo hurts our women, men and children. To achieve gender equality we have a lot of work to do, together.
I first heard about Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 as a successful book that was being turned into a movie in Korea. Hey that sounds interesting, I thought casually, because my sister-in-law is named Kim Ji Young and she was born in 1982.
The premise of the book is to capture the ‘typical experience’ of a Korean woman in this generation. The title and the protagonist bear the most typical name for girls born at that time. The chapters are organised into her childhood years (1982-1994), adolescence (1995-2000), university and work life (2001-2011), then marriage and motherhood (2012-2015). The common themes of unfair treatment, structural discrimination, fear and vulnerability against ubiqitous harassment, intimidation and degradation in everyday life flow through the narrative, footnoted by references ranging from government reports, academic analysis and literature.
In the original Korean text, Cho Nam-Joo says in her author’s notes that she feels as though her fictional Kim Jiyoung must in fact exist in real life. And that she writes for her, to support her and to advocate for her to have real choices in life and to be awarded fair pay for her work and contribution.
I read both the English translated text and the original Korean (as a bilingual reader does!), in that order, and found one key distinction. In English, I found the narrative voice clunky: it read like a third person narrative that also had a tone of an academic essay with footnotes such that it felt like non-fiction. What English readers may not realise is that throughout the entire book the third person narrative is actually that of Jiyoung’s psychologist – a biased lens of a male doctor.
In the original text, however, the psychologist’s narrative voice remains constant and steady (and not distracting) as Jiyoung is always referred to as Jiyoung ssi (ssi being a formal form of address between adults). So in Korean the entire book reads like a doctor’s note on a patient with the footnotes adding rigour to this (male) medical professional’s search for a correct diagnosis. This narrative mechanism, to me, adds strengths to what I understand to be Cho Nam-Joo’s intent: to show that the objective presentation of the (mounting!) facts alone is not enough to shift the male doctor towards gender equality. To me, Cho is a realist – she takes a disciplined approach to the subject matter of sexism by simply showing the facts in fiction, with powerful impact.
The real Kim Ji Young – my sister in law – lives in Korea with a breadwinner husband and two daughters. She became a full time mum after quitting her job at twenty eight. She asked me once, did I think her girls had a better chance in Australia?
I pondered while we both stood over the kitchen sink: she was doing the dishes after we ate the meal she cooked. And I was there because I wanted to wash away the guilt I felt for how our family get-togethers added to her workload. I would always offer to clean up, knowing I would always be turned down. If I insisted I risked causing a row in the family – nobody wins. So like an old habit, I chatted with her to keep her company while she worked; just as I often did as a girl with my mum, who was always in the kitchen.
Sexism is everywhere, my sad voice told the real Kim Ji Young. Koreans might think living in the West is better for women, and sometimes that might be true. But one in three women experience sexual violence in Australia. And at my workplace, women still don’t get promoted the same as men and get bullshit answers on why. When there is a sick child, the women get the calls from school and childcare, hardly ever the male colleagues. And when sex trafficking of Korean women was rife in Melbourne, I was stopped in the middle of the street one afternoon, given a card to call in case ‘I wanted to make money’ by a creepy old white man.
Stay in Korea, I told her. There is a better chance of Korea changing more quickly than Australia. And here, at least, the girls wouldn’t have to deal with racism on top of everything else as well. Send them to Australia, and they get the glass and bamboo ceilings!
A grim silence fell upon us in her dark kitchen. In that moment, her hope that there was a better place for the girls was dashed with my directness. I gave her my frank opinion, even though I knew it wasn’t what she wanted to hear. Because I would do everything in my power for Kim Ji Young’s daughters to live a better version of womanhood than what I have experienced: my nieces, Korean women born 2010 and 2012.
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 shows how bad sexism is in Korea. But I warn its Australian readers from oversimplifying their conclusions to oh, the poor Korean women, how terrible for them. No, sexism is discriminatory and undignifying for women everywhere. And when all of the small and not so small put downs, setbacks and attacks add up over a lifetime, to simply exist as a woman can lead to a decline in mental health. To me the truthful diagnosis of this is sexism and misogyny (rather than women’s ‘maternity blues’) and it is not just the women but our society who is the patient.
Buy this book as a gift to anyone willing to learn about (and accept!) the real experiences of women today – not just in Korea but everywhere.
Here’s to happy reading and happy International Women’s Day 2021!
This Korean woman reads
You can follow Anna Song on Instagram by clicking on “This Korean Woman Reads”
Images via NY Times and provided