The JRB presents an excerpt from Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo, originally published as 82년생 김지영 by Minumsa Publishing Co. (민음사) in 2016.
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982
Cho Nam-Joo (translated from the Korean into English by Jamie Chang)
Simon & Schuster, 2020
Read the excerpt:
Kim Jiyoung was born on 1 April 1982 at an obstetrics clinic in Seoul. She measured 50cm and weighed 2.9kg. At the time of her birth, her father was a civil servant and her mother a housewife. Jiyoung’s elder sister had been born two years earlier, and a brother was born five years later. In a roughly 35-square-metre house with two bedrooms, one dining and living room, and one bathroom, Jiyoung lived with her grandmother, parents and two siblings.
Jiyoung’s earliest childhood memory is of sneaking her brother’s formula. She must have been six or seven then. It was just formula, but it was so tasty she would sit by her mother when she was making it for her brother, lick her finger, and pick up the little bits that spilled on the floor. Her mother would sometimes lean Jiyoung’s head back, tell her to open wide, and pour a spoonful of that rich, sweet, nutty powder in her mouth. The formula would mix with her saliva, melt into a sticky mass, then turn soft as caramel, before sliding down the back of her throat and leaving a strange feeling in her mouth that wasn’t quite dry or bitter.
Koh Boonsoon, Jiyoung’s grandmother who lived with them, detested the very idea of Jiyoung eating her brother’s formula. If her grandmother ever caught her getting a spoonful of it, she would smack her on the back so hard powder exploded from her mouth and nose. Kim Eunyoung, Jiyoung’s big sister, never ate formula after the one time she was admonished by their grandmother.
‘You don’t like formula?’
‘So why don’t you eat it?’
‘I don’t want their stinking formula. No way.’
Jiyoung couldn’t understand what she meant by that, but she understood how she felt. Their grandmother wasn’t scolding them just because they were too old for formula or because she was worried there wouldn’t be enough formula for the baby. The combination of her tone, expression, angle of head tilt, position of shoulders and her breathing sent them a message that was hard to summarise in one sentence, but, if Jiyoung tried anyway, it went something like this: How dare you try to take something that belongs to my precious grandson! Her grandson and his things were valuable and to be cherished; she wasn’t going to let just anybody touch them, and Jiyoung ranked below this ‘anybody’. Eunyoung probably had the same impression.
It was a given that fresh rice hot out of the cooker was served in the order of father, brother and grandmother, and that perfect pieces of tofu, dumplings and patties were the brother’s while the girls ate the ones that fell apart. The brother had chopsticks, socks, long underwear, and school and lunch bags that matched, while the girls made do with whatever was available. If there were two umbrellas, the girls shared. If there were two blankets, the girls shared. If there were two treats, the girls shared. It didn’t occur to the child Jiyoung that her brother was receiving special treatment, and so she wasn’t even jealous. That’s how it had always been. There were times when she had an inkling of a situation not being fair, but she was accustomed to rationalising things by telling herself that she was being a generous older sibling and that she shared with her sister because they were both girls. Jiyoung’s mother would praise the girls for taking good care of their brother and not competing for her love. Jiyoung thought it must be the big age gap. The more their mother praised, the more impossible it became for Jiyoung to complain.
Kim Jiyoung’s father was the third of four brothers. The eldest died in a car accident before he married, and the second brother emigrated to the United States early on and settled down. The youngest brother and Jiyoung’s father had a big fight over inheritance and looking after their mother that led to a falling-out.
The four brothers were born and raised at a time when mere survival was a struggle. As people died, young and old, of war, disease and starvation, Koh Boonsoon worked someone else’s field, peddled someone else’s wares, took care of domestic labour at someone else’s home, and still managed to run her own home, fighting tooth and nail to raise the four boys. Her husband, a man with a fair complexion and soft hands, never worked a day in his life. Koh Boonsoon did not resent her husband for having neither the ability nor the will to provide for his family. She truly believed he was a decent husband to her for not sleeping around and not hitting her. Of the four sons she raised thus, Jiyoung’s father was the only one to carry out his duties as a son in her old age. Unwanted by her ungrateful children, Koh Boonsoon rationalised this sad outcome with an incoherent logic: ‘Still, I get to eat warm food my son made for me, and sleep under warm covers my son arranged for me because I had four sons. You have to have at least four sons.’
Oh Misook, her son’s wife, was the one who cooked the warm food and laid out the warm covers for her, not her son, but Koh Boonsoon had a habit of saying so anyway. Easy-going considering the life she’d had, and relatively caring towards her daughter-in-law compared to other mothers-in-law of her generation, she would say from the bottom of her heart, for her daughter-in-law’s sake, ‘You should have a son. You must have a son. You must have at least two sons …’
When Kim Eunyoung was born, Oh Misook held the infant in her arms and wept. ‘I’m sorry, Mother,’ she’d said, hanging her head.
Koh Boonsoon said warmly to her daughter-in-law, ‘It’s okay. The second will be a boy.’
When Kim Jiyoung was born, Oh Misook held the infant in her arms and wept. ‘I’m sorry, little girl,’ she’d said, hanging her head.
Koh Boonsoon repeated warmly to her daughter-in-law, ‘It’s okay. The third will be a boy.’
Oh Misook became pregnant with her third child less than a year after Jiyoung was born. One night, she dreamt that a tiger the size of a house came knocking down the front door and jumping into her lap. She was sure it was a boy. But the old lady obstetrician who delivered Eunyoung and Jiyoung scanned her lower abdomen several times with a grim look on her face and said cautiously, ‘The baby is so, so … pretty. Like her sisters …’
Back at home, Oh Misook wept and wept and threw up everything she’d eaten that day, while Koh Boonsoon heard her daughter-in-law retching in the bathroom and sent her congratulations through the door.
‘Your morning sickness is awful this time! You never got sick once when you were pregnant with Eunyoung and Jiyoung. This one must be different.’
Reluctant to leave the bathroom, Oh Misook locked herself in, to cry and throw up some more. Late that night, after the girls had gone to sleep, Oh Misook asked her husband, who was tossing and turning, ‘What if … What if the baby is another girl? What would you do, Daddy?’
She was hoping for, What do you mean, what would I do? Boy or girl, we’ll raise it with love. But there was no answer.
‘Hmm?’ she prodded. ‘What would you do, Daddy?’
He rolled over to face the wall and said, ‘Hush and go to sleep. Don’t give the devil ideas.’
Oh Misook cried all night into her pillow, biting her lower lip so as not to make a sound. Morning came to find her pillow soaked and her lip so badly swollen that she couldn’t stop herself from drooling.
This was a time when the government had implemented birth control policies called ‘family planning’ to keep population growth under control. Abortion due to medical problems had been legal for ten years at that point, and checking the sex of the foetus and aborting females was common practice, as if ‘daughter’ was a medical problem. 1 This went on throughout the 1980s, and in the early 1990s, the very height of the male-to-female ratio imbalance, when the ratio for the third child and beyond was over two-to-one. Oh Misook went to the clinic by herself and ‘erased’ Jiyoung’s younger sister. None of it was her fault, but all the responsibility fell on her, and no family was around to comfort her through her harrowing physical and emotional pain. The doctor held Oh Misook’s hand as she howled like an animal that had lost its young to a beast and said, ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ Thanks to the old lady doctor’s words, Oh Misook was able to avoid losing her mind.
It was years before Oh Misook fell pregnant again, and the boy made it safely into this world. That boy is the brother five years younger than Jiyoung.
About the book
The multi-million copy selling, international bestseller Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is the South Korean sensation that has got the whole world talking. The life story of one young woman born at the end of the twentieth century raises questions about endemic misogyny and institutional oppression that are relevant to us all.
‘This is a book about the life of a woman living in Korea; the despair of an ordinary woman which she takes for granted. The fact that it’s not about ‘someone special’ is extremely shocking, while also being incredibly relatable.’—Sayaka Murata, author of Convenience Store Woman
Kim Jiyoung is a girl born to a mother whose in-laws wanted a boy.
Kim Jiyoung is a sister made to share a room while her brother gets one of his own.
Kim Jiyoung is a female preyed upon by male teachers at school. Kim Jiyoung is a daughter whose father blames her when she is harassed late at night.
Kim Jiyoung is a good student who doesn’t get put forward for internships. Kim Jiyoung is a model employee but gets overlooked for promotion. Kim Jiyoung is a wife who gives up her career and independence for a life of domesticity.
Kim Jiyoung has started acting strangely.
Kim Jiyoung is depressed.
Kim Jiyoung is mad.
Kim Jiyoung is her own woman.
Kim Jiyoung is every woman.
About the author
Cho Nam-joo is a former television scriptwriter. In the writing of this book she drew partly on her own experience as a woman who quit her job to stay at home after giving birth to a child. Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is her third novel. It has had a profound impact on gender inequality and discrimination in Korean society, and has been translated into eighteen languages.