Kim’s Convenience From a Critical Race Perspective

27 November, 2016 9 comments

The appearance of the highly anticipated new CBC television show, Kim’s Convenience (KC), has received critical acclaim for being authentic, funny, and ground-breaking since airing in October this year. It is the first of its kind featuring an ethnically diverse cast centered around the lives of a Korean Canadian immigrant family under the direction of two writers in which one is a first-generation Korean Canadian writer. In the show, the parents run a convenience store in Toronto and together they have an estranged son and a daughter who aspires to be a photographer. The show seeks to open up the discussion on sensitive topics that are often met with silence and discomfort in Canadian discourse such as ‘race,’ racism, and immigration.

While the show features many moments of clarity and humour, it is unclear as to which direction the writers of the show are trying to take. A key tenant in race scholarship is that racial judgements are not only based on skin colour, but also on how a person conforms to behaviours stereotypically associated with a particular race. According to this perspective, the cost of “acting Asian” is high.

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The incessant and sometimes inaccurate use of “umma” (mother in Korean) and “appa” (father in Korean) seems unnecessary; and the Korean parents do not have proper Korean English accents, even though the father is a Korean Canadian actor. The point is not to criticize the acting but to ask why these actors are being forced to put on an accent they do not have and struggle to imitate.

What follows is that the accents must then be drawn from, or at least to an extent, come from the imagination. The way the parents are stems from how the show thinks its actors should act and sound in order to be racially palatable to its target audience. The show is done through the white gaze, meaning the Kim family appears to be told by white people for white people. Here, “white people” does not refer to a biological notion of race but a cultural currency in which people have accepted the idea of a post-racial society where whiteness is believed to be irrelevant and racism gone. It also refers to minorities who have internalized the white gaze.

Accents may seem funny at first glance. But accents are connected to larger issues of systemic oppression that carries serious material and psychological consequences. A quick literature review in Asian North American historiography reveals the significance of the foreignization of Asians onto which thick accents are placed. While there are a handful of Asians who do not speak good English, fixing Asians to this archetype reinforces the mythological construction of Asians as outsiders. This affects all Asians because accent discrimination does not distinguish an accent-free Asian from an accent-holding Asian.

KC’s sense of humour appeals to the perceived otherness of Asians, and at times, acts out caricatures of the Asian Canadian. Jokes are inflated and placed out of context. For instance, the episode on ddongjjim can be interpreted as a reduction of Korean culture. Out of all the insight Korean literature, culture, history, and technology have to offer, KC’s chosen cultural import is something akin to that of a wedgie. Perhaps apart from those with exceptional poking skills, a ddongjjim would not result in the kind of agonizing pain Kimchee’s depicted. This is not the kind of cultural clash that immigrants are concerned with.

In this way, the show gives into and appropriates the white gaze in their portrayal of Asians, running into the danger of oversimplifying the Asian Canadian narrative and further entrenching the perception that Asians come from a strange and distant place. In the attempt to get out a laugh, the show exaggerates the immigrant experience that is beyond recognition, missing out on an opportunity to discuss the complexity of people with dual backgrounds. When one watches the show with such a lens, the show takes on a new meaning that the producers of the show never intended it to do. In their efforts to increase diversity, they may have unknowingly traded a notable all-Asian cast for a questionable depiction of a Korean Canadian family.

At the heart of this dilemma is that Asian racism is not perceived as a legitimate form of discrimination. Thus the question at hand is: why it is socially acceptable to make fun of Asians? The most common response when somebody expresses the wrongdoing of an Asian joke is dismissal. The person is told to calm down and sometimes challenged to reflect on his/her own privilege.

shutterstock_239400406Imagine a show on a black American family drawing on similar parallels to KC. It might include a father in jail, a mother who is a meth addict, and a son who is studying theoretical physics at MIT with a roommate called “fried chicken” or “watermelon,” or how about “kool-aid.” Why is it offensive to make fun of black people but socially acceptable to poke fun at Asians for being immigrants? Racist jokes towards blacks are off limits, and rightfully so, because people acknowledge that racism has and continues to be central to black lives. Nobody finds slavery and lynching humorous. The same goes for indigenous peoples. Would anyone dare to make a joke about dispossession and residential schools?

But this generosity does not extend to the Asian community. There appears to be an assumption that racism against Asians is either insignificant, isolated, personal, or occurrences from long ago. Claims that racism towards Asians exist are rejected and delegitimized on the grounds that Asians have more education and financial security than the average white person and that they should be content because they have it better than blacks or indigenous peoples. However, this argument is debased from a historical understanding of the past and conflates immigration with slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, dispossession, and residential schools into a single narrative.

Let’s consider one more thing. The first black Americans to appear on television were required to wear black paint and cater to the whims of how whites imagined blacks to be: submissive, jolly, dancing and singing with exaggerated large protruding lips. They played the role of the happy server, the criminal, and the grateful slave. We see this imagination still playing out in the everyday lives of black people. In an interview with PEOPLE magazine, Michelle Obama recalled how President Obama wore a tuxedo to a black-tie dinner event and somebody asked him to fetch coffee – during his presidency.

Thus, throwing around Asian characters “acting Asian” flippantly will likely have serious ramifications. The characters on KC fail to capture the complexity of immigrant lives and the delicate process that the children have to navigate in juggling their mixed Canadian and Asian backgrounds. As a result, the show walks a dangerous line between offering a sophisticated portrayal of Asians and caricaturizations of them. Inasmuch as caricatures can amuse, it can also destroy lives. The price of “acting Asian” will produce undesirable outcomes if left unchecked. The show is still in its infancy and as the plot unfolds, it should reveal a much more nuanced story line. Nevertheless, the simple fact that Asians acquired space in mainstream media and was given the go ahead to include Korean terms centered on an immigrant family is an unprecedented accomplishment. However it is worth asking, to what extent is the show truly authentic, funny, and original?


Featured Image via Shutterstock

9 comments

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9 comments

Aaron Chan 1 December, 2016 at 11:03 am

Very interesting and insightful read. I’ve been meaning to watch Kim’s Convenience but haven’t gotten around to it just yet, and was wondering about the depictions of Asian Canadians. A lot of what you touched on reminds me of something Margaret Cho said about her show in the ’90s. While it was groundbreaking to have a cast of Asian Americans, she noted that the producers and the directors of the show tried to make the fictional family more Asian (they made the family use chopsticks when Cho thought it was unnecessary). She said it was as if they were scared audiences weren’t going to think they were Asian enough, and consequently, the Asian American family turned into “the white person’s idea of what an Asian family looks like”, which I thought was a great point. And I think KC also has the dubious task of trying to find the right audience — if the characters aren’t Korean enough, will it anger Asian Canadians for seeming white-washed? If the family is more Canadian, will white viewers be put off? These are issues that Cho’s show dealt with at the time, and that I think KC also has to struggle with. It’s not an easy task to solve, especially when this problem involves other issues, like lack of (diverse) Asian images/roles in media. I believe that until we get more Asian faces and stories out there, the idea of what Asian people will continue to be confined to stereotypes and immigrants.

Anyway, thanks for the read!

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ricepaper.staff, Leila L. 10 January, 2017 at 3:28 am

Hi Aaron, thank you for sharing your thoughts! I think you bring up an excellent point about how KC is struggling with similar issues Cho encountered decades ago. I suppose in my idealistic frame of mind, I expected that we have moved on from some of the first phases of Asian representation in western media. It is a very tricky position to be in trying to balance a point of view that is critical of Asian stereotypes but also face the reality that the show, to an extent, wants to cater to the general audience. Now that I have had more time to think about this show in a broader framework, I’m trying to understand KC more as a cultural artifact – one that captures the current state of racial discourse in Canada. KC also becomes infinitely more interesting when placed against the analysis of racial melancholia. I think many Asians and Asian Canadian/Americans have gotten into the habit of dismissing their experience with racism. We tend to trivialize the discrimination we face and this is also a phenomenon that occurs on the political, socio, legal structure as well. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece, Aaron! I loved reading your comment as well.

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SW 8 December, 2016 at 11:53 pm

Not sure what the show is like but Kim’s Convenience was originally a play. The Arts Club featured it a few years back now. From what I understood, the director and playwright Ins Choi is Korean Canadian and he wrote based on his own lived experiences. Ins played the son in the show. The play was authentic and I didn’t feel as though the premise or the characters were “acting Asian”. I took it at face value that this is the perspective of the director/playwright of his true experiences. My family does fulfill some Asian stereotypes in real life. If they were to ever be depicted on screen or on stage, to not include some of that behaviour and manner of speech would be a false portrayal of my family. It’s challenging to say whether the television show for KC has become unbalanced and sold out on authenticity for the sake of pressure by media or by a discriminatory and unjust society.

Ultimately, I will defend Kim’s Convenience’s original idea – the play was amazing. Ins did an incredible, honest and thoughtful job. It was a meaningful contribution to discussion on the immigrant experience and struggle of a hybrid cultural identity. Perhaps there’s still opportunity for him to redeem the television show which has fallen so far away from the tree.

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ricepaper.staff, Leila L. 10 January, 2017 at 4:22 am

Hi SW, thank you for contextualizing the background of KC through its original play. I have heard that it received positive reviews! Unfortunately, I did not watch the play and so my analysis comes purely from the tv show. As you point out, I think we are in the midst of figuring out what it means to “act Asian.” Even when I use the term in the article, I cannot clearly define what it is. In fact, I’m not sure anyone can. This is precisely what makes research into this line of inquiry fascinating but this is also where my criticism of KC finds its grounding. The show’s depiction of Asians does not depart from how Asians have been and continues to be racialized. It also does not touch on the difficult and painful aspects of immigration – the hardships that emanate from such experiences but also the humour the comes from them. I think the show could have aimed for a much more complicated and layered Korean Canadian immigrant experience. The show’s portrayal of the Kim family can make some Asians feel uncomfortable because it enters into an unrecognizable realm of the immigrant experience that they feel does not define them.

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Lisa 12 January, 2017 at 10:49 am

No offence, but I think you’re exaggerating things and making a problem where there is none. I’m not saying that the show is totally “pure” and unproblematic – the pilot episode was very uncomfortable to watch because of the clunky gay jokes, but otherwise? Idk, you’re saying like having an accent is some horrible thing. My grandma and grandpa, the first generation of immigrants in my family, had accents, my aunts and parents didn’t, and they also don’t speak their parents’ mother tongue. Same is with Jung and Janet. There was a great episode with Janet and her cousin, when she confronted her non-Asian friends who implied that she wasn’t a “real” Korean because she couldn’t speak the language well and never been to Korea. Also, what’s with the “white gaze” thing? The show is based on a play of the same name, Ins Choi wrote it based off of his own life experience. He is one of the creators/producers of the show, and is also the main writer. The actors who play Umma and Appa are Korean (and they’ve played these roles on stage), so is Andrea Bang (Janet), afaik. The only member of the family who isn’t Korean is Simu Liu, who is Chinese. But again, his character is the one Ins Choi played on stage, it’s a very personal role to him, so if ethnicity of the actor was the most important requirement for him, I guess he would’ve insisted on casting an actor of Korean descent? I don’t know… this is a muddled subject. But again, where do you see a white gaze here? Where do you see caricatures? There are plenty of interviews with actors and Ins Choi, for example these two: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hOgygDO5YkE and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rn8QyZljqc4

I understand where you are coming from, but if we won’t support our own Diaspora creators, who else is going to? Have you seen the racist comments on CBC site, where white people rallying to cancel the show? How many of those racists are being insulted that CBC would “spend their money” on this show?

Also, I’m not sure it’s a good thing to compare Asian experiences and those of African Americans. It’s not an oppression Olympics. It comes off anti-black, even if there was no such intention.

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Leila Lee 13 January, 2017 at 12:16 am

Hi Lisa, the show has enjoyed incredible success and there is a reason for that. The show clearly resonates with many people, and that is a great thing! The show certainly departs from standard television and that is encouraging. Having an accent is certainly not a horrible thing. The point I was trying to make regarding the dad’s accent was that isn’t it funny that you would think as a Korean Canadian he would not have had to do research on an accent that is so accessible to him. Yet if a 2nd generation Korean Canadian struggles to imitate his parents’ accent, then where does that leave everyone else? This is particularly ironic because so much of the stereotype of the Asian is built around an accent holding immigrant that many 2nd generation Asians have at one point received a compliment by a non-Asian regarding their “perfect” English. But the good news is, CBC has decided to pick up another season of KC!

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Marvin 13 January, 2017 at 12:05 am

The author of this article is the reason why we, Asian Diasora, can’t have nice things. Instead of supporting our own creators we’d rather throw them under the bus. For what? To promote ourselves at their expense? Well done.

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Jean 4 March, 2017 at 8:54 pm

Let’s put it this way, I found watching Kim’s Convienence easier to watch than Fresh Off the Boat, the American sitcom on ABC network. At least I didn’t cringe as much. I found FOB’s pacing and so called humour even more over the top and exaggerated.

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Leila Lee 17 March, 2017 at 3:55 am

Hi Jean, I’ve heard about that show. Mainly negative things such as the points you mentioned. But I can imagine what the show might be like and so I’ve been avoiding FOB in order to save myself from getting angry. There were many parts in KC where I felt it captured “an asian moment” and it was funny. But as you say, I also found myself cringing here and there!

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