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.
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.
Imagine 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?
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