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Bringing to light the subtle sexism in modern Korea: Cho Nam-joo’s book reflects the discrimination many women face daily

Sept 06,2017
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Cho Nam-joo, author of the best-selling book “Kim Ji Young Born 1982,” speaks about how she came to write the book. She wanted to show people how, living as a Korean woman, she faces subtle discrimination every day. The book was initially aimed at those oblivious to the idea of feminism and gender equality. [MINUMSA]
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“Kim Ji Young Born 1982” was published in October 2016, and has sold over 270,000 copies since. [MINUMSA]
Kim Ji-young is a 33-year-old housewife who went to university like everyone else around her, got herself a decent job, met a nice man and quit her job to take care of her loving family. Over the course of 192 pages, readers follow Kim’s typical Korean life from her early childhood to her adulthood and see how she ends up needing to get psychiatric treatment from all the damage she had to endure during her life.

“Kim Ji Young Born 1982,” written by Cho Nam-joo and published by Minumsa, was released in October 2016 and has sold over 270,000 copies as of Aug. 30. It wasn’t an instant sensation at first, but started gaining attention in early 2017 when readers posted reviews of the book on social media. On May 19, after Roh Hoe-chan, the floor leader of the Justice Party, gave the book as a gift to President Moon Jae-in with a message that read, “Please embrace ‘Kim Ji-young Born ’82,’” the book’s sales shot up.

Even though the book lacks spectacular twists in the plot or extreme adventures fought by the protagonist, it has touched the hearts of readers of diverse backgrounds across Korea for its subtleness. Rather than depicting extreme situations for the sake of the plot, the book calmly describes common experiences that happen in the everyday lives of Korean women - things that have always been there, but have never been thought of as problematic until recently.

Ji-young is a common name in Korea, as well as the surname Kim. Female readers see the subtle hardships they have to endure while reading about Kim’s life and male readers see a side of the story that they have previously only seen in little pieces. The popularity of the book symbolizes the anguish of Korean women that has accumulated over the years. It may be fiction, but Kim’s life is no figment of Cho’s imagination; every detail and incident in the story has been based on statistics by the government, newspaper articles, research and interviews. It’s a story, but it’s also a testimony of being a woman in Korea.

In elementary school, when a boy pulls Kim’s hair and makes fun of her, the teacher tells Kim that he does all those things “because he likes you,” and her mother tells her off for making a fuss out of nothing. When Kim goes to an after school academy in high school, a random boy follows her to her house on the same bus, saying, “You always sit next to me and smile at me. You flirted with me, and now you’re treating me like a pervert?” Then after graduation when Kim is making her way to an interview at a company, the taxi driver tells her that he “doesn’t let women be the first customer of the day,” but that he’ll “make an exception.”

These are just a few of the relatable examples of hardships that Kim faces throughout the book.

According to Cho, the book has a clear goal of enlightening those oblivious to the gender discrimination that takes place everyday. It may lack excitement, but the dry tone has won the hearts of its readers nonetheless. The JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, sat down with Cho in Aug. 12, at a cafe in Gangnam, southern Seoul, where she likes to bring her laptop and work after she has dropped off her daughter at daycare. How did she come to write feminist books? How does a keen feminist sharpen her pen? The following are edited excerpts from the interview.



Q. How do you feel about the popularity of the book?

A.
My mom texted me with all these typos saying, “Even the president reads your book.” That’s how I found out. Nothing’s actually changed much for me, though. It’s the book that’s become famous, not me as the writer.



You’ve recently been given an award and 20 million won ($17,700) by your publisher. Have you made a lot with your book, “Kim Ji Young Born 1982?”

I used to work as a scriptwriter for TV programs, but I was making no money after I quit my job and stayed home to take care of the house and my child. Your attitude differs from when you have money coming in to your account and when you don’t. Quite frankly, I didn’t really think that writing novels was a career for me before I wrote “Kim Ji Young.” Because if it’s a career, then you have to make a living with it. Now that I’ve become more confident with writing, I’ve come to think that I could become a professional novel writer. It makes me think more seriously about writing stories.



What do you think about some reviews that say the book is more like a documentary than a novel?

I added footnotes here and there with statistics of all sorts, and I was actually a little concerned that people might not see it as a novel. But I did want to show what it was like living an ordinary life, or perhaps just a little better off than the average Korean woman has it in reality. It didn’t matter whichever shelf the book got put on, I just decided to go with this method.



Do you have a specific motive for writing a feminist novel?

Once I took my daughter out in the stroller at a park, and I was holding a cup of coffee in my hand. Then I heard a bunch of office workers - who were probably out for a walk during their lunch time - sneering at me for being a “momchung” [a portmanteau in Korean of mom and chung, meaning bug; the term is a derogatory name for mothers who disrespect others by using their children as an excuse]. They were talking about how women live much more comfortable lives compared to men. And then around the same time, a celebrity wrote a column that feminism is more dangerous than IS [Islamic State]. I had already been taking gender discrimination very seriously, and when I experienced those two situations, I thought I should write something.



It’s said that it only took you two months to write the story. Do you think it’s because it’s a story about your life, too?

Kim Ji-young’s life isn’t much different from the one I have lived. I think that’s why I was able to write so quickly without much preparation. Women have more or less the same kind of experience in their lives. For instance, when you come across an unknown man in a secluded place, you feel threatened - even if he’s not particularly following you. It’s those kinds of things I’ve gathered in this novel.



How have female readers reacted?

Some were completely unaware that these were actual problems, while some were aware and felt uncomfortable and threatened by these situations but couldn’t voice their thoughts out loud. Now that there’s a feminist novel saying that these are actual instances of sexual discrimination, and that these kinds of things are big problems in society, they’re coming forward with their own experiences in the past or sharing their opinions, saying, “I know how this feels.”



Were you a feminist from the start?

Just like Kim Ji-young, I grew up without knowing that the problems were real problems. I have a big brother who’s much older than me, then an older sister who’s a little closer to my age. When my mom was out working, my sister and I, from a very young age, had to take care of the meal for my father and brother, who were both adults. Those kinds of subtle injustices felt very natural. That’s how I was taught to feel. I went to a girl’s middle school, high school and university and still didn’t really understand the nature of sexual discrimination. Then I started changing after graduating from university, getting a job, getting married and dealing with my in-laws [Korean traditions tend to be very patriarchal, and a married woman is supposed to put her in-laws before anything else].



What happened specifically?

When I was working at a broadcasting station, it was always up to the female workers to set up the table, like napkins and spoons, regardless of the hierarchy within the company. Once, when we were ordering delivery food for everyone on the team, a male colleague told me to order a sandwich from a store none of us were ordering from. That’s when I thought, why am I doing this? Afterwards, I started seeing all kinds of weird situations like this.



Were there a lot of problems, since you started becoming aware of the situation?

This might make some men very uncomfortable, but I do think that there is a necessity to look deeply at why we are perceiving these situations as normal. Like, why are domestic and housekeeping roles given to females without doubt, such as nannies and housekeepers? Why do the social security numbers start with “3” for men and “4” for women? Why do men get angry when they are rejected by women, when the women weren’t interested in the first place but they were just being polite?



But wouldn’t anyone get angry if they’re rejected?

That may be so, but it’s also true that men have the bigger say than women in whether to form a relationship or not.



How do you feel about the ordinary households?

It’s common to say when a loving father meets his daughter’s boyfriend for the first time, he feels sad or even angry about it. But I think that’s because we’re so used to patriarchy and men see their daughters as either their possession or a part of the father-centered domestic structure. It’s a little different from the mothers becoming sad over their sons’ girlfriends, I think.



Why do you think this deep-rooted sexism comes about?

From the point of birth, males are welcomed, whereas females are not.



How you do think we can balance it out, then?

The first law making sexual discrimination illegal was passed in 1999, and the Ministry of Gender Equality was first made in 2001. But honestly, the reality doesn’t seem to be changing much. Or maybe that’s because we’ve started to see things as issues that we hadn’t been able to before, and that’s why we think nothing’s changing. Whichever way, we need to expand our awareness. My favorite American author, Rebecca Solnit, wrote in one of her books on sex crimes that the judgments which are favorable towards men are making women feel smaller in society and bringing further imbalance to the male-female relationship, and I agree. The punishments for sex crimes should be much stricter.

BY SHIN JOON-BONG [yoon.soyeon@joongang.co.kr]