The 가게 [Ga Ge] and Strategic Storytelling

by Elise Suk-Young Yoon [Non-Fiction]

An Interview with Paul Sun-Hyung Lee

Throughout our interview, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee who plays Appa in CBC’s Kim’s Convenience, casually peruses household Korean words.

He says the 가게 [ga-gae] instead of the store, 삼촌 [samchon] instead of uncle and 할아버지 [harabuji] instead of grandpa. I am struck by how language can so easily bring familiarity to someone I’ve just met. This way of weaving Hangul into English conversation belongs so deeply to immigrant children who grew up between two tongues, but only one language to speak about family and home.

We’re talking about the set of Kim’s Convenience and I’m pulled into the weight of the word 가게 as soon as Lee says it. It’s one of those words wired into the everyday for Korean diasporic people: we have to drop by the 가게 first, help out at the 가게 after church. It’s a word as close to home as 엄마 [umma] and 아빠 [appa], or 삼촌 and 할아버지.

In the Korean Canadian context, the 가게 is commonplace. We do our homework there, eat meals off-menu there. As Lee puts it, “It’s one of those things that becomes part of who you are and what your life is.” Not only your life, but the typical life of every Korean person you know. You grow up in one or a have a relative who does. It becomes the backdrop to your day-to-day, so it is fitting that the show depicts this.

On the storefront setting of Kim’s Convenience, Lee compares it to the trope of a sitcom taking place at a bar, where the setting is a catalyst for the characters that come together. He says, “For me, the 가게, that’s their hub; that’s where their lives are centred around.” This isn’t just true for the show, but for our real families as well. What does it mean for immigrant lives to be centred around this labour? And what does it mean for this labour, this kind of survival, to be seen and retold in a popularized television series for all audiences? He continues,

“For umma and appa that’s kind of their lives right there.
And it says something that they’re there for the majority of the time.
I really do love how there still are a plethora of stories available to be told in the store setting.”

Yet, these stories have not been told aside from Kim’s, so there’s an immense pressure to do it right. The answer to how this would look like is not straightforward. You can hear it in Lee’s voice as he defends the show from the critique it’s received— “Some people feel like they can’t relax and enjoy the storytelling and the craft… for example, pick on an accent and go ‘well he doesn’t sound like any Korean I’ve ever known’ … it frustrates me when people do this because that’s my appa’s voice… I also get a lot of people saying ‘that accent is exactly like my appa’.” He explains that his appa has lived in Canada for more than 46 years and likely doesn’t sound like an appa who arrived within the year, which is to say that every Korean accent varies to some degree but we only have Appa from Kim’s to showcase it.

Lee ends his statement by giving credit to critics where due: “I guess it’s a great thing that people feel like they can take ownership of it.” This is particularly true when it’s your identity being told to the masses in a spotlight it has never occupied. Without representation, your life begins to feel like a private matter, an experience not meant for an audience or a stage. Being from an immigrant, working-class family becomes at its worst, a source of shame, and at the very least, something unremarkable. We yearn for visibility, but being seen is a complicated experience for us. Our parents are seen behind the counter in real life and now internationally on the screen through a CBC show that has been nominated in 12 categories at the Canadian Screen Awards including a win for Best Comedy Series, and for Lee, two awards as Best Actor in a Comedy Series. Lee’s success is leading him to his next project as host of Canada’s Smartest Person Junior.

*Photos by CBC (Courtesy of Andy Vanderkayy)

On his new role, he comments on how his co-star reassured him about what he brings to this position by noting how he is like “Canada’s Appa… the dad figure for the nation.” Lee adds, “It never ever occurred to me that that was kind of the case. For a Korean kid who grew up in Calgary who now makes his home in Toronto, if you had told me that when I was 12 years old that one day you’re going to grow up and you’re going to be seen as Canada’s dad…” He laughs, then explains, “When you’re young and you’re acting, you just want work. You don’t think about being the voice of diversity or representation… you just want to do really good work, and if this is the by-product then I’m more than happy to embrace it.”

The Canadianness of all this is striking. What does it mean to have our stories not only told, but be recognized and awarded as a particularly Canadian story? Lee answers that it is an honour, “It means a tremendous amount obviously. It’s a culmination of so many years of struggling and grinding it out, just trying to make a living as an actor of colour, especially in this industry where for the longest time—you use the term visible minority—we were invisible when it came to storytelling. We were never allowed to carry any of the major storylines and we were overlooked and dismissed.” 

Despite the successes, celebrating 가게 work as a cheery Canadian experience makes me uncomfortable.

Some of the critique such as umma and appa speaking in accented English to one other also has its grounds. But for Lee, this is the first step of many. He is an actor in the industry who has seen what is permissible and not, and claims that the push for complex representation has to be strategic.

“As authentic as we want to make it, it’s still the television world. There are still things that need a suspension of disbelief… this is a sitcom, there are certain things that are intrinsically a part of this world.” The show is quite different than its original play, with its darker storyline and the characters speaking complete scenes in Korean despite subtitles not being an option. He describes his first performance in the play as “stunning because it was the first time I’d ever seen them represented, and in a sense, me. It really showed a part of me that I’ve been trying to bury for so long. But I loved the play because Ins [Choi] had dealt with these characters with such love, such honour, and such respect.”

This is what a lack of representation does to a person; a part of them is buried.

It’s a cautious thing to trust someone to display it well, and if they don’t, it can feel unforgivable. According to Lee, we need to take steps to reach where we want to be, and sometimes a compromise is necessary at first.

He refers to the accented English dialogue in the television show as “a compromise you have to make, but the lovely thing is… once you have the audience, once they’ve invested in you, then you can start pushing the envelope in terms of the storytelling, in terms of what the characters do… there is more Korean in season 2 than there was in season 1. In season 3 there’s even more. The goal is that eventually we can have a full out scene in Korean… and I honestly think that’s going to happen.”

He also emphasizes the unfortunate reality in the industry of storytelling having to be bankable to gain that platform. He explains, “It’s not until—and this is a very jaded way of looking at it but I think it’s kind of true—not until studios can start monetizing it does it become something they actively look for, and I think that’s a shame.”  He emphasizes that times are changing with the rise of diverse casting this year with audiences making the choice to support movies featuring POC like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, over ones that are whitewashed like Gods of Egypt. He advises, “until people start speaking with their wallets, studios won’t move, they don’t move.”

Like the 가게, it is a business.
Like the 가게, it is oppressive and it is all we have, but we make it work.
Somehow, we make it ours.

If we want to reclaim our narratives in entertainment, it isn’t going to happen overnight or with a single show. It is important to critique, but also to celebrate. I trust that there are writers and audiences for the stories we want, and that these stories are countless. If we want something unpalatable for the masses but strikes linguistic, cultural familiarity for immigrants split between two tongues, Kim’s Convenience, the first show of many, can lead us there.

Elise Yoon is a writer and community organizer. She is interested in the power of poetry to disrupt spaces and reclaim identities. When not working with LooseLeaf, she is a youth and family counsellor and organizes with the Toronto Youth Food Policy Council.


*Featured Photo by CBC (Courtesy of Andy Vanderkayy)