The Korean drama I’ve been waiting for

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Photo by Kseniya Petukhova on Unsplash

I had a driveway moment the other day when NPR reported on a Korean novel that had been translated into English: Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982, just before the film based on the book was to be released. I had to get my hands on this novel.

As a white American married to a Korean-American man for the last 15 years, I have not had to explain or defend the societal norms that have served as the backdrop to my whole life. White normativity has been my province, for better or for worse. My husband John, on the other hand, has been a patient teacher, explaining the culture into which he was born, as well as the ways he has assimilated and absorbed the culture in which we live now.

This is the work of anthropologists; it is also the work of people in cross-cultural relationships. So when a book or a film or other media offer a keen perspective on historical or contemporary Korean culture, I leap for it.

Not that Korean culture is obscure. Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” practically swept this year’s Oscars. The wide popularity of Korean Dramas, the global acclaim of K-Pop boy squad BTS, and Korean adaptations of shows like “Designated Survivor” are ubiquitous. There simply are so, so few books translated into English from a modern Korean woman’s perspective, however.

The more I delved into this disparity, the more I found that the Korean woman’s perspective is missing from media on the whole — even in Korea. The patriarchy is often the default Korean perspective — which is exactly what the book Kim, JiYoung, Born 1982 seeks to expose.

The only touchstone I had for so long was Margaret Cho — the queer Korean-American comedienne whose impressions of her mother as owner of a book store in San Francisco are legendary. John and I would watch her early specials and laugh with recognition at some of the similarities between Cho’s parents and John’s, who emigrated from South Korea in the late 1970s.

More recently, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, an epic novel that covers the long struggle of Korean people through Japanese occupation, offered new light on the history and loyalties that have informed my Korean family’s lives. I loved the characters in Pachinko and the way the author describes the ways that many of the women read expressions or hesitated to explain their feelings to male partners.

This was a huge lightbulb moment for me, after years of wondering why feelings and desires were rarely expressed out loud in my Korean family. After reading Pachinko, it led me to the Korean cultural concept of noon chi, a sort of mindfulness around the perceived needs of others. The disconnect I had been feeling — as someone whose love language is words — was not merely because of a pronounced language barrier with John’s parents. It was not simply because they spoke love through acts of service. It’s because it’s a cultural virtue to be able to gauge what a person needs or may need in the immediate future, and to provide that without them asking. This is, effectively, the definition of noon chi.

When I can connect with a text and read and highlight it over and over again, it’s as if I’ve been allowed into a room where the party is happening, when for years I had been loitering in the vestibule. Whiteness has for too long been the province of my own privilege. Being challenged is good, but I want to treat others with understanding rather than simply by rote of custom. Books allow me that ticket in the door.

Kim JiYoung is fiction but is written as a sort of extended sociological case study. It’s not a book where the reader connects with the depth of character necessarily, but more with the situations in which the Everywoman (Jiyoung) is contending. I appreciated how most of the male characters were monolithic whereas the female characters revealed so much about their inner psyches.

Jamie Chang translated Kim JiYoung into English to offer a voice that had for too long been repressed. As she said to NPR: “For Korean women, this is the first novel that offered a full, panoramic, cradle to present-day view of all of their collective plight…So in that way it doesn’t just represent one person’s experience, but everybody’s experience.”

That Kim JiYoung was such a watershed moment in Korea cannot be overstated. It helped to promulgate the #MeToo movement, and resonated with women readers of multiple generations. It seems as though the rest of the world has been reveling in it, as well. The book reportedly became a bestseller in Japan, China and Taiwan, and the publishing rights have been sold to 17 other countries.

The novel is a swift read and Chang’s translation of it makes the language plain and easy to decipher. But I swallowed it whole in practically one sitting because I had been starving for this book. For example, long had I wondered why my Korean friends fussed over my pregnancies, casting a critical eye at John when they learned I was still working until my due date. It was what I saw many other American women doing — what other options were there if we wanted a paycheck?

As the main character Kim JiYoung experiences in the eponymous novel, a stranger scorns her on the subway for being so pregnant and still going to work, as evidenced by her work attire. The passenger accuses Kim JiYoung of getting pregnant before she could truly afford a child. I had never considered this was the message my Korean peers might be receiving when I reported that I was still working during my third trimester.

Conversations I have had with Korean male elders echo many in this novel, as well, particularly around career prospects and child-rearing. I often felt judged by my father-in-law for placing my children in daycare while I worked. He told me once that he thought I should be a receptionist for my husband’s therapy practice, even though I had earned a master’s degree in journalism. That the numbers for women in Korea are so staggeringly low for those returning to work after having a child, as cited in Kim JiYoung, brought new light to those past conversations. They were not judgments on my decisions but rather observations from a man who would not have had to make those decisions in his native country.

Another revelatory moment in Kim JiYoung for me was how victims of sexual harassment or assault were often blamed for bringing the attention or violence upon themselves, simply for wearing the clothes that they wore. My mother-in-law has told me numerous times how riding the bus was such a painful experience for her as a young woman. The experiences of Kim JiYoung magnified my mother-in-law’s tales and made my heart swell with compassion for her all the more.

Culture is effectively invisible until it defies the norm. This is true for what is considered taboo, what is trendy, and what is adopted into the mainstream — or what ultimately becomes obsolete. I’m so grateful that Kim JiYoung, Born 1982 was written, translated, and made available on the stateside to better understand what was for too long not invisible, but simply unnamed and unvoiced.

Written by

Writer of essays, collector of vintage, reader of books, wife of one, mother of two. Subscribe to my monthly love letter:

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