by Elise Yoon
published in LooseLeaf Volume 3
In 2011, I was a volunteer for the Toronto Fringe Festival and was scheduled for a shift at Randolph Theatre. The line-up started hours before the show and stretched around the corner and down Bathurst Street. At the time I hadn’t read the reviews of Kim’s Convenience; I was just a 19-year-old collecting theatre tickets at a lineup of mostly early-30s, cultured white liberals. As a volunteer I got to watch the play; I remember feeling unprepared, baffled, apprehensive, but proud by obligation to have my story told on stage to what I saw as a mostly non-Korean audience. This was before Fresh Off the Boat or any viral social media conversation around whitewashing in Hollywood. I was a 2nd year English literature student with no theoretical understanding of what it meant to see myself in art. Something so personal—the food, the language, the accents, the economic status, the family tension I grew up learning to hide—was unraveling unashamedly on stage, and not only that, but was becoming hugely successful.
Five years later, Kim’s Convenience is a network television show on CBC. This kind of attention as an underrepresented community, despite our want for it, is always unnerving: will they do it right? When we passed by a bus shelter ad for the show, I asked my own Umma if she was going to watch it. She had read about it from the Toronto Korean newspaper. She said no, brushing off the question like a touchy subject. It might not be good. They might do it wrong. I recognized her apprehension: the practiced embarrassment of your immigrant story as a sitcom. How can we laugh along? Who is the humour really for?
My Korean family arrived in Canada when I was five in 1996, and for an important part of our lives, we settled into the unit above my parents’ newly-owned storefront (a bakery-café), much like the Kim family and their convenience store. The premise of Kim’s Convenience is familiar to many; several Koreans I know are store-front owners or work in them on minimum wage. We have church-going Ummas who are overly involved in our dating lives, and stubborn Appas with bitterness towards the Japanese. Despite this, as I watch these characters unfold I still think “my Appa would never say that” and “my Umma would definitely be harsher about that” as if I expect this show to tell my story exactly as it is; as if all Koreans live synchronized behind store counters.
I realize that I need more stories about us too, because my understanding of Koreanness and myself are inseparable, and I cannot differentiate the personal from the shared.
I’m trying to watch the show with this in mind, that they do not have to tell my story exactly as it is. Even so, I find myself disappointed. For one, I cannot get over the way Umma and Appa speak to each other in accented English. Why can’t we have a multilingual show with English subtitles, CBC? In the play I remember the Korean dialogue, no subtitles, no translation, but a stunned, alienated audience that awkwardly, intrusively watched something so personal as a Korean family argument. That was beautiful. Why can’t we have this on television? Is it too heavy? How do we tell our story lightly?
There is a particular plot point that is inexplicably light. Why on earth does Appa want Janet to take over the store? No immigrant parent I know wants this for their child. Owning a convenience store is not a mark of pride, it is one of the only sources of survival in a country where experiences like Umma’s past in teaching (revealed in Episode 11) go unrecognized. My parents want me to get a stable job with benefits and have the freedom to choose my career, not continue the business they wish they could quit. Maybe there are families out there who are proud of the hard work that goes into a storefront and are content with their finances, but as one of the only existing Canadian series telling an Asian immigrant story, Kim’s Convenience seems to deliberately dance around the truth of immigrant hardship.
It’s not like I can’t hear the lived experience in the writing; I don’t believe there’s a way someone can write the tensions between Appa and Janet or Appa and Jung without having lived it. Some scenes are so intensely relatable that I find myself in tears, knowing the hurt, the guilt, the absolute fury and bitter love of a 1st generation Canadian family divided by culture and language. But the show is careful not to let on too much; it gives us little by little, or throws down an anvil only to wrap it up in the end like it’s nothing. In a private Facebook group called “Angry Asian Feminist Gang” that holds online space for creative Asian feminists to discuss topics such as Kim’s Convenience, Thembani Mdluli, a South African Chinese-Filipino filmmaker, writer, and intermedia artist, writes:
“There were a number of cultural conflicts between child/parent that I could really relate to, but I just couldn’t have a sense of humour about it because a lot of those conflicts for me have been deeply traumatizing.”
Mdluli refers to Episode 2 where Appa sells Janet’s photography, and in response to her appall, tells her he and Umma have a shared right to her work as they have struggled and sacrificed everything for her while she chose to take pictures. He guilts her as an ungrateful, selfish child while she tries to take ownership of her work. The scene ends with a joke; Appa makes it impossible to communicate with a childish “no you stop” and Janet storms off like the general message of this scene was CBC shrugging “dads will be dads.” Mdluli continues, “That scene/the whole scenario was delivered to the audience as though it was a light misunderstanding that could easily be rectified later (and was, of course, easily rectified by the end of the episode).” Arguably the show depicts lasting conflict through Appa and Jung’s broken ties, and this for me is where the show is most genuine. Unfortunately, it is lost within the simple wrap-ups that we get over and over. The same thing happens at the end of Episode 6 “Rude Kid”, an entire episode dedicated to discussing eastern versus western parenting styles. Janet tells Appa, “I don’t think you were a bad Appa” in tears, and this breaks me.
In one line she sums up the shame of having wanted anything else, especially the soft laissez-faire white parenting we never had. She voices the complex gratitude-guilt-resentment we carry at all times for our tireless parents.
Then it’s over. Appa flicks Janet in the forehead and leaves. I watch stunned, and heart stopped, willing to interpret this as characteristic of Appa’s pride deliberately diffusing intense moments, but then Janet’s slight smile throws it off. Maybe she’s worn out, amused, of course they couldn’t have one moment together. I want to believe this narrative, badly, but the show moves on. Conflict resolved, episode over. For the people this show speaks for, we cannot laugh.
I have strong, mixed feelings of “Rude Kid”. It is at once my favourite episode and the one I feel most betrayed by. I want to commend and celebrate their choice of taboo topic. They execute it with nuance, demonstrated at its peak in the conversation between Appa and his friend Mr. Mehta as they affirm each other’s harsh parenting styles, but sheepishly end with how they are both not in speaking terms with their children. I love the moment with Janet’s art teacher Ms. Murray, a caricature of a white yuppie mom who refuses to use the word “No” with her son as it is too negative. After condescendingly accusing the Kims of a broken home, she yells at her child, “YES put down the crackers because YES we are leaving now. I will give you some iPad time if you leave with Mummy now!”. It is such a great moment that lays out the hypocrisy of white pity and is perfect in its criticism of a white-centered definition of parental neglect and abuse. Yet the show is still afraid of going too far. It beats around the bush about corporal punishment in Asian homes by focusing on a “flick”. There is danger in generalizing that all Asians have grown up with the slipper or the wooden spoon, but it is undeniable how the experience of it is wrapped up in culture. There is also diversity in how each immigrant child chooses to self-conceptualize their experience, whether it is with bitterness, respect or both. I wanted Kim’s Convenience to address this straight-on, not hone in on the occasional flick to represent the whole. Perhaps I’m expecting too much from a “family friendly” CBC series, but I can’t help but wonder exactly whose family it is trying to be friendly for.
This isn’t to say I won’t watch the show. I am faithful as long as it remains one of the few Asian faces and storylines I see on a major television network. I want this show to do well in the way that I pressure myself to do well. It’s personal. I want less flattening of hardship through humour and more jokes seamlessly written specifically for us, like Janet in Episode 8 shutting down Appa’s “don’t go” with the childishly clever “no you donko” (Korean word for ‘butt hole’). I want family tension to last after the credits. I want English subtitles. I want talking about the hard stuff straight on, no euphemisms. We are fighting against a dominant white narrative that has told the story of us for generations. It would be heartbreaking to watch this show fall so easily back into appeasing that narrative. Like the way I was raised, I hold high expectations for Kim’s Convenience, and my criticism will be harsh but only because I love my community and believe in the show’s potential to do it right.