Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982–A recounting of my own thoughts and experiences
Updated: Mar 25
“If you are a woman, you are in this book.”
“The world had changed a great deal, but the little rules,
contracts, and customs had not, which meant that the world
hadn't actually changed at all. Do laws and institutions
change values, or do values drive laws and institutions?”
-Cho Nam Joo.
If you would have asked me what my favorite book was a couple of months back, I would have given you a simple three-word answer: “I don’t know.” Perhaps I was too indecisive; in reality, I had not yet read a book that felt like it was mine. That all changed once I let my eyes roam through the pages of “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 (82년생 김지영)” written by Cho Nam Joo.
The story in itself isn’t out of this world. It has no mystery, no cliché romance, no wild plot twists, and no love affairs. However, its normalcy is what makes it an international bestseller. The book tells the story of Jiyoung’s childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, marriage, and finally motherhood, all while including the demoralizing daggers thrown at her by Korea’s patriarchal society that are too often ignored.
Cover of “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982.” Image from Amazon.
The eerie normalcy of this book begins when Jiyoung is born and is followed by her sister, who was later aborted. As the novel states, “‘daughter’ was a medical problem” (Cho 19). Through the statistics embedded into the novel, the reader learns that in Korea there is a huge disparity in the sex ratio at birth. The thing is, it’s not fate that there are fewer women being born; frankly, it’s because women are seen as a burden by their own family, which they will eventually leave once they marry and which as a consequence believes women are a burden to, essentially, everything and everyone else around them. These statistics found in the novel give a shocking–not so shocking–sense of reality to the story. Although Jiyoung is a fictional woman, Jiyoung is an every woman.
Jiyoung’s story transcends individualism; she is a collection of all our stories as women. Jiyoung is me. Jiyoung could be any woman around you, even yourself. In South Korea specifically, “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982” was a novel that angered men. But, “For Korean women, this is the first novel that offered a full, panoramic cradle to the present-day view of all of their collective plight. So in that way, it doesn’t just represent one experience, but everybody’s experience,” says Jamie Chang, who translated the novel into English.
At the start of the novel, Jiyoung shares her hardships in elementary school, where her male classmates would tease her but everyone around her simply replied with, “It’s because they like you.” These troubles–which may seem minuscule at first–like for all women, follow her into the rest of her life. But, the thing is, we women become so used to these troubles that we face along the course of our lives, troubles that are straight-up misogyny, but we fail to recognize and call out as so. Jiyoung questions why she feels angry at comments thrown at her like, “Companies find smart women taxing. Like now–you’re being very taxing” (Cho 84) or, “This is why we don’t hire women… women don’t stay because you make it impossible to stay” (Cho 85).
Even though Jiyoung is decades older than me and lives a world away, the things she went through at school, with her family, and eventually her career, echoed so much into my own life. Growing up, I’ve always known that I would face these troubles along the way; a company hiring me, but earning less than a man in the same position, or having to hide a wedding ring in a job interview because I’m expected to have children somewhat soon, when in my opinion, not all women need to have children. Although I should not think that receiving degrading treatment for the sole reason of being a woman is normal and to be expected, the part that haunted me the most from this book was when Jiyoung got pregnant.
Motherhood has always felt very foreign to me–I mean, I am 16 years old. I had never really put thought and weight as to what women give up when transitioning to motherhood. When a woman becomes a mom, how much of her identity does she retain? She is no longer just a woman, she is a mother. Although it sounds poetic, it is a harsh realization of what women give up when pregnant, and later, when transitioning into motherhood. Women sacrifice their mental and physical health, jobs, social life, and more, all when having a child. But, what does the man sacrifice? Not much, if anything, at all in my opinion. The man can’t carry a baby to term, but it's men's perception of pregnancy, birth, and eventually motherhood that is an issue.
My mom and I circa 2006.
I’ve always thought that there is something special about having a daughter, not that if I were to have a son, I wouldn’t love him equally. Reading the final part of this novel made me think a lot about my own mom, whose had me first, and what she had to give up when having me–eventually, with my brother as well. I often find that I used to look at my mom as just my mom–not as a woman who is passionate about her college major and what would come after it, a woman that has taught me that no simply means no, a woman that has taught me that this world will treat me differently because of my sex, but that I should make the change in the world for that to no longer happen. A human being. A woman.
It often angers me how other people are simply blind to the discrepancies that women face in today’s world. In reality, a lot of the discrepancies that we face are invisible to men, and more often than not, to us women too. “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982” was a much-needed magnifying glass on microscopic issues, issues that are hard to recognize. There is definitely a factor involving social class, but that is a discussion for later.
Let’s work on creating a world where women aren’t seen as someone’s sister, daughter, wife–because women don’t need to belong to someone to have value and be treated with such–simply see us as human beings.