I recently read Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by South Korean author Cho Nam-Joo, originally published in 2016. By blending facts and fiction, the writer paints a frightening picture of the patriarchal society of South Korea and the deep-rooted discrimination against women with universal resonance. Here are nine quotes from the book that particularly stood out to me.
The factory girls were all about the same age, level of education, family background and so on. The young labourers worked without adequate sleep, rest or food, thinking that was what working entailed for everyone. The heat from the textile machines was enough to drive a person insane, and rolling up their uniform skirts, which were short to begin with, didn’t help – sweat dripped from their elbows and down their thighs. Many had respiratory problems from the plumes of dust that sometimes obscured their vision. The unbelievably meagre wages from working day and night, popping caffeine pills and turning jaundiced, went towards sending male siblings to school. This was a time when people believed it was up to the sons to bring honour and prosperity to the family, and that the family’s wealth and happiness hinged upon male success. The daughters gladly supported the male siblings.
Uncomfortable and anxious, Jiyoung lay awake next to her sister that night and calmly went over the things that had happened. She thought about menstruation and ramen. About ramen and sons. Sons and daughters. Sons and daughters and chores.
‘You’re right. In a world where doctors can cure cancer and do heart transplants, there isn’t a single pill to treat menstrual cramps.’ Her sister pointed at her own stomach. ‘The world wants our uterus to be drug-free. Like sacred grounds in a virgin forest.’
Entering high school meant a sudden expansion of her geographical and social world, which taught her that it was a wide world out there filled with perverts.
Jiyoung grew up being told to be cautious, to dress conservatively, to be ‘ladylike’. That it’s your job to avoid dangerous places, times of day and people. It’s your fault for not noticing and not avoiding.
‘Besides, I don’t know if I’m going to get married, or if I’m going to have children. Or maybe I’ll die before I get to do any of that. Why do I have to deny myself something I want right now to prepare for a future that may or may not come?’
I’m putting my youth, health, job, colleagues, social networks, career plans and future on the line. No wonder all I can think about are the things I’m giving up. But what about you? What do you lose by gaining a child?’
Since she became a full-time housewife, she often noticed that there was a polarised attitude regarding domestic labour. Some demeaned it as ‘bumming around at home’, while others glorified it as ‘work that sustains life’, but none tried to calculate its monetary value. Probably because the moment you put a price on something, someone has to pay.
Even the best female employees can cause many problems if they don’t have the childcare issue taken care of. I’ll have to make sure her replacement is unmarried.