From the first moment of the pilot episode of Kim’s Convenience—a Canadian network comedy created by Ins Choi, now available on Netflix—I was squirming in my seat. But it took me some time to figure out why.
Kim’s Convenience plunges the viewer into a modern variation on the family sitcom, where both the urban, diverse setting and the main character’s heavy accent take center stage. That accent seems to signify everything that’s out of place about Mr. Kim, the protagonist and patriarch of the show. He interacts with various groups of customers in his convenience store in a busy urban neighborhood in ways that are alternatingly charming and cringe-inducing.
From his attempts to capitalize on a gay-pride parade happening in his neighborhood to his overbearing ways with his daughter, Janet, Mr. Kim is the flashpoint for the viewer. Do you love him or not? Do you find him smart and gregarious or ridiculous and out-of-touch? Kim’s Convenience, for all of its charm and goodwill, has something that will no doubt offend—or at least make uncomfortable—nearly everyone on the scale from conservative to progressive. But paying attention to what makes us squirm illuminates the importance of the show. Kim’s Convenience is one in a slew of pop culture artifacts bringing accents, culture, and stereotypes—and faith—into the mainstream in ways that ask us to face squarely our discomfort with them.
Accents and Archetypes
There is a troubled history to the public reception of various Asian accents, from Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles and beyond. My sister, who watched the movie Downsizing in the theaters in Oregon, told me that the mostly white audience laughed every time actress Hong Chau spoke in her Vietnamese accent—and not because she was saying something humorous. Her accent has inspired pushback, with some actually insisting it is racist and a caricature. When asked by journalists about her portrayal of Ngoc, Chau asked them: What exactly is it about my accent that bothers you? When they couldn’t respond, Chau wondered aloud whether the accent only became a problem because she had a starring role, instead of being a background player.
Similarly, in interviews, Kim’s Convenience star Paul Sun-Hyung Lee talks about the decision to speak with an accent—how he himself chose to channel the voice of his father. “The accent isn’t the joke. It’s part of who [the character] is, but it isn’t the joke.” For him, Mr. Kim is an archetype of a Korean immigrant making his way in Canada, instead of a stereotype being mined for laughs.
His show and others like it are trying to show an accent not as a symbol of status or worth or intelligence or superiority but a lived reality for many. To represent in real and complex and intentionally hilarious ways the experiences and realities of Asian communities, which can and will shift dominant culture perspectives.
Caught between Cultures
Kim’s Convenience aims to unsettle the norm in other ways as well. Instead of an affluent suburb, this is a family-centered show set in a poorer urban context. The Kims sell lotto tickets and cigarettes to their neighbors, as well as diapers and gallons of milk. Mr. and Mrs. Kim’s children do not match up to the “model minority” myth in many ways: Janet (Andrea Bang) is an art student, and Jung (Simu Liu) is a high-school dropout who works at a car dealership. Indeed, one of the more poignant and complicated parts of the show is the relational fracture that runs throughout both seasons—the estrangement of Mr. Kim from his son, who was seen as a troublemaker and kicked out of the family home above the store several years prior.
Mr. Kim is magnetic and eminently watchable. Yet his pride has damaged his relationship with his son and made both his wife and daughter suffer in their own ways. Recognizing that I do not understand all of the layers of culture when it comes to familial relationships, I wrestled with the larger questions this plot arc brought up for me. How do different people categorize success for their children? How do we learn to grapple with a legacy that focuses on remembering history while parenting children in a modern and complex world? How do we stay true to our roots while adapting to our actual, complicated, diverse neighborhoods?
In an interview, show creator Ins Choi said that the rift between father and son is no accident: Kim’s Convenience is based on the parable of the prodigal son. In fact, the central role of the Christian faith in the lives of the characters is inescapable. Choi—who originally wrote Kim’s Convenience as a play that received critical acclaim in 2011—grew up in a family that was deeply devout. Many of his relatives were pastors, and Choi himself went to seminary, where he performed monologues on passages from the Old Testament instead of writing papers.
So Choi is uniquely placed to examine not just the disparity between traditional Korean and modern Canadian culture, but also the specific ways in which Christianity shapes an individual, a family, and a group. Just as the titular convenience store is a place of commerce and connection for the neighborhood, the church Mrs. Kim is actively involved in provides both a social core and a place to celebrate Korean culture. For me this was a revelation: The mostly Korean-immigrant church depicted in Kim’s Convenience is one of the few places we hear the Korean language in the show (in a touching song performed by members of the Kim family). It is also a place where Korean food is elevated and central to potlucks and communal gatherings.
It is both their faith and their Korean heritage, working in tandem, that shape the Kims and make them into the unique, compelling family that they are. These things are embodied in them in ways that are not always predictable or easy to swallow, even for viewers who are also Christians. Their ethnicity makes them part of the diversity of their culture; their faith makes them react to that culture in ways that may offend advocates of diversity.
The Discomfort of Diversity
In an interview, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee pointed out the advantages of setting the show in Canada, a place where diversity is celebrated as a strength. And indeed, as I watched, I imagined that some of the rough edges surrounding certain characters and situations would have been sanded off by the machine that is American network television. After all, the classic American “melting pot” metaphor is based on everyone assimilating into one shapeless dominant (white, middle-class) culture. As many have pointed out, this is a great flaw in neoliberal thinking—that we can and will all get along, as long as all everyone agrees to act the same.
The truth is, diversity can be uncomfortable. There will be a divergence of opinions. People will speak with accents that are thick or unfamiliar or not elevated in the same way others are (consider that a British or French accent is considered sophisticated by many Americans, while a variety of Asian or African accents are not). They will have priorities and values we don’t always understand. And we will have to think about what we do when faced with difference. Do we ignore it? Do we fear it? Do we feel threatened by it? Or can we acknowledge our reality and the complexity of emotions that come with trying to love our neighbors who come from a different background than us? Do we have the strength to interrogate our own cultural assumptions, to listen and watch and learn from people who are underrepresented in media?
These are important questions, involving far more than just our entertainment choices. Heaven, like the Canadian neighborhood in Kim’s Convenience, is going to be filled with people from all places and walks of life. How comfortable we are with that might just correlate to how comfortable we were in celebrating, and elevating, true diversity here on earth.
D. L. Mayfield is a frequent CT contributor and the author of Assimilate or Go Home. Learn more at DLMayfield.com.