Yesterday, I went to the teacher’s lounge for a cup of coffee, when I met one of my older male colleagues. He asked me how I had spent my Chuseok holiday, and I replied that I had mostly spent it in my office, as I had no Korean family to spend Chuseok with. And growing up with Christmas and Easter, Chuseok doesn’t really mean anything to me. “You’re lucky,” he told me, and elaborated “If you’d been a Korean daughter-in-law, you would have spent all of the holidays in the kitchen”. Face palm!
I then went back to my office to finish grading the quizzes that I had given my students before the holidays. One of the questions asked them to come up with reasons as to why a country can experience a growing adult population and a decreasing labor force simultaneously. Correct answer: Because of an aging society, where more and more people retire. My students’ preferred answer: Because more women get married and decide to stay at home while tending to the needs of their husband and children. (!)
This all came a few weeks after my best friend had told me out of the blue that it was generally considered problematic for men and women to be close friends in Korea, and that hanging out together after midnight was a big NO NO! If one of them was married (like I am) friendship was pretty much impossible. The exception in this case and the reason for us being able to still be friends: I wasn’t Korean. Needless to say, I felt pretty upset by his useless mansplaining of Korean culture, for which he did apologize the next day.
All of this made me think about the Korean mindset. In this day and age, is Korea really still this conservative? Is there no feminist movement? I’m no feminazi, but I consider myself a feminist, who just wants men and women to have equal opportunities without any discrimination or sexism. Although the tides may be turning, Korea is still extremely conservative, and even my cool and openminded friend is obviously still so influenced by his Confucian upbringing that it influences his values and judgment. Still having a hard time understand this Korean mindset (yes, I’ve lived here more than a year, but Korea still remains “the impossible country”), I decided to educate myself. So…
Last Sunday I went on a trip to the Kyobo bookstore by Gwanghwamun (book lovers’ closest proximity to paradise on earth) and browsed the “modern Korean literature” section. I decided that the recently published “82년생 김지영” (“Kim Jiyoung, born 1982”) would be a good place to start. I devoured the book within a few days and suddenly things started to make more sense to me. This book is an understated masterpiece describing the life of a fictional average woman called Kim Jiyoung (the most common name for a girl born that year) from the moment she is born in 1982 as the second daughter to much-disappointed parents (if only the next one is a boy, we’ll be fine), until she finally seeks professional help for her post-partum depression in 2016. The reader follows her journey through childhood, always having to share one room (and everything else) with her older sister, while the much-awaited and spoiled little
brat brother gets his own room and all the attention. We even hear that Kim Jiyoung’s mother illegally terminated her third pregnancy upon learning that she was carrying yet another girl, making the boy the result of her fourth pregnancy. Statistical facts are provided throughout the novel, and in this chapter, we also learn that terminating pregnancies based on gender was such a common practice that a whole generation had a completely distorted boy/girl ratio. To this day, it’s illegal for Korean doctors to let the parents know the sex of the baby until the end of the second trimester for fear of gender-based abortions.
When Kim Jiyoung starts attending school, the boys get preferential treatment by the teachers and are allowed to stand first in line to the school cafeteria. Boys are allowed to wear more comfortable school uniforms, while the girls have to wear pantyhose and short skirts with uncomfortable shoes even in winter time.
In university, she breaks up with her first boyfriend, and then overhears some of his friends talking and joking one night “sure, Jiyoung is cute, but who wants to chew on someone else’s old gum?” “So that’s what women with a dating history are in Korea”, she thinks “…old gum”.
After graduating and sending multiple applications, she finally gets a job interview. Running late that morning after having overslept, she gets into a cab. The driver tells her that he usually doesn’t take a female passenger as the first passenger of the day, as it’s bad luck, but that she looked like she was going somewhere important so he decided to pull over and pick her up.
She fails the interview miserably, by failing to answer the male interviewer’s question about how she would deal with sexual harassment in the workplace and gradually becomes more and more discouraged. The author mentions in a footnote, that when presented with two applicants with matching skill sets, a vast majority of Korean employers would pick the man over the woman. When Jiyoung finally finds a job she actually enjoys and is good at, it doesn’t take long before she get’s married.
Quickly giving in to the husband’s and his family’s wish for them to have children, she becomes pregnant but continues to take the “hell train” (지옥철, Korean slang for overcrowded subway during rush hour) to work every day, refusing to use the right of pregnant employees to get in 30 minutes later. She did so once and had to suffer being called lazy by her male colleagues. A few weeks before the due date, her husband suggests that she doesn’t return to work after her maternity leave ends, and instead becomes a full-time homemaker. She doesn’t want to, but, eventually, gives into his pressure and agrees. After an incident during Thanksgiving at her parents-in-law’s, she finally loses it and puts people around her in their place. What the h*** does her husband mean when he says he’ll “help” and makes it sound like he’s making a huge sacrifice. Isn’t this his house, his child, his life, too? There’s no talking about “help” when they share the responsibility of being parents(!).
This book is a true Korean feminist manifest. It brilliantly outlines the struggles of women in the male-dominant Confucian society that is present-day South Korea. For me, it was an excellent lesson in Korean culture, which I now feel I understand even better. Please bear in mind that understanding a culture is not equivalent to agreeing with it. I don’t, but I can see how this mindset can be difficult to change, and why many young people, including my students and people close to me, may have a hard time breaking free from a century-long tradition.
If you read Korean, I highly recommend giving this book a try. The author’s ability to capture an entire generation and provide insight into the Korean mind is truly amazing. It’s also a brilliant resource for advanced Korean learners as it includes so many various topics that are bound to boost your vocabulary!