Kim’s Convenience From a Critical Race Perspective6 min read

27 November, 2016 22 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 tenent 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

22 comments

22 comments

Aaron Chan 1 December, 2016 - 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 - 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 - 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 - 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 - 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 - 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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filmbeats 27 March, 2017 - 7:34 pm

I think it would help you better understand the reason for the accent if you listened to some interviews of Paul Sun-Hyung Lee. He’s talked about his Korean accent on numerous occasions and how he initially had a mental block and couldn’t do it until he read Ins’ play and then his dad’s voice managed to come out of his mouth. It’s unfair to imply that he did no research. He’s also talked about how he has had to change and adjust the accent over time while performing the play and for the TV show too. He’s received both positive and negative feedback about it but with accents you will never be able to please everybody. He admits that it isn’t a completely authentic accent but that’s at the cost of also needing to be understood by the majority of people (not just white folks). The reality of accents (Asian or otherwise) is that if you do “too authentic” an accent then you risk the majority of your audience not understanding you so compromise is necessary. I personally did not have a negative impression of Paul’s accent initially; it sounded completely believable to me, way better than say Constance Wu’s accent on FOB. The show has other Asian characters who do speak English without any accent so I don’t see Appa & Umma’s accents as piling onto past negative stereotypes or perpetuating them. The problem is not the accent but whether the character himself/herself is portrayed as a fully realized one and KC does succeed at that.

I do feel comedy in general is not the strongest part of the show but it has its moments. I don’t agree that the show is “…throwing around Asian characters ‘acting Asian’ flippantly.” This article doesn’t really give many concrete examples of this. I find the parents, the adult children and their interactions totally believable even if I have not experienced some of them firsthand. I don’t really remember any jokes that were really making fun of anybody’s “Asian-ness.” The Ddongchim episode to me was the first really funny episode. How this could be seen as a “reduction of Korean culture” is beyond me. I just watched it and got a laugh out of it like I would say enjoy a crude cartoon ep with poop jokes. It’s not the type of episode where I expect or need some nuanced portrayal of the Korean Canadian experience. There are other episodes for that. I’d argue some of the more serious or emotional moments are actually handled with a lot of nuance and sincerity, Appa & Janet in particular. Some bits are exaggerated and Kimchee is downright annoying most of the time but that’s a consequence of sitcom TV on a network. Criticizing his overreaction to a ddongchim sounds really nitpicky. This isn’t an HBO series with hour long episodes. In fact, I do feel the 22 min format does severely limit a deeper exploration into some topics and the episode with Janet & her cousin is a prime example of this. This show goes above and beyond anything we’ve previously seen in regards to portraying well developed Asian and Asian Canadian characters. I really don’t sense any danger of the show turning its characters into caricatures at least based on Season 1.

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May 10 April, 2020 - 12:30 am

I don’t think you’re understanding the point which makes me question your intentions.
I noticed it almost immediately when watching the show that the fathers accent is no where near a Korea -English accent . It more relates to an accent of the stereotypical 80’s Asian exchange student. I do have friends from Korea and I have been to Korea, and one of the many distinctive characteristics of their accents comes from a rolling of their tongues and an almost nasally expression.
The reason why it’s a means for offense is because of the previously mentioned lack of research; whether there was any at all, it doesn’t change the feeling that there wasn’t any. I’m honestly disappointed because you have taken the time to write such a long response, but still haven’t recognized the reason for concern. In other words, what the fuck is your real problem?

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Marvin 13 January, 2017 - 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 - 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 - 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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Tony 19 October, 2017 - 4:03 am

I don’t like any entertainment that stereotypes minorities. Whether it was J.J. in Goodtimes, Jack McFarlane as a mincy gay ( I am gay and do not act like that) or now K.C. with the Asian accent that we all can laugh at (God forbid a white person put on an accent like that to make fun). It gives permission for whites to laugh at not with J.J., Jack and Hyung.

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Thomas 28 November, 2017 - 8:29 am

Just curious – is Fresh off the boat airing in Canada? I think anyone who has seen that show would know that K.C. has a long way to go. And I too wonder where K.C. is going beyond the cheap shots at Asian caricatures that many 2nd Gen. simply don’t fit into. If the show is here to promote tolerance, it has done it, but this is Canada, so what is new? There’s nothing wrong with supporting talent and Asian Canadian voices, but at the heart of every good TV show has to be a good story rather than just charity for the under represented. John Cho’s got the right idea right here. https://www.thedailybeast.com/john-cho-on-race-representation-and-the-most-meaningful-film-of-his-career-3

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Jane 11 July, 2018 - 8:05 pm

As a Korean-Canadian, I absolutely relate to KCz . So many of the stories resonate with me and are exactly how my childhood was. Regardless of the ‘fake’ Korean accents, its awesome to be able to see something in pop culture that reminiscent of my own life. In the past, the only time I got excited about seeing something on tv that was Korean, it was when I heard Korean being spoken on Lost. What pissed me off more than any accent on KC was the misinterpretation pf the Korean into English subtitles. So, what is more offensive?…..maybe if we had more to choose from, Id be more offended, but until another show makes me laugh and actually want to watch tv w my parents (other than Korean soap operas) how about supporting Asian Canadian content in the mainstream….

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Janet 23 July, 2018 - 4:30 pm

I am soooo late to this conversation but the show is on Netflix and my husband was excited since I am black and Korean he quickly invited me to watch an episode and I immediately felt the same issues that you raised. All I can say is that it reminds me of the blaxploitation films of the 1970’s in the African American community. We have a long way to go and this is definitely a bump start.

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Kit 1 August, 2018 - 9:59 pm

I appreciate this perspective a lot! I just want to caution against making assumptions on the social acceptability of joking about Black and Indigenous people. Your points about the commonplace stereotyping of Asian people are absolutely true, but there’s a risk in collapsing the complex histories and identities of distinct marginalized groups with comparisons like that.

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Dasha Martinez 5 August, 2018 - 6:07 pm

My major problem with this show is the inaccuracy to which the Koreans from Korea are portrayed. The person writing the show despite being Korean seems wholey out of touch with modern Korean culture, and how a Korean would interact with people while visiting a Western country. Everything from her to her makeup to her clothes is wrong. She acts like a valley girl with harajuku clothing, when a modern young Korean girl doesn’t act like this at all. In a show that is supposed to be reflecting Korean-Canadian culture, it fails to accurately portray the Korean part, and its really sad because its the only show I know representing Koreans and their experience in the Western world right now. I am not Korean, but I have friends who live in Korea, and considering this was made with Korean subtitles and everything, if Netflix wants to promote the show in the Korean market, they should at least make the Korean character actually Korean (instead of a mismash of Japanese harajuku culture) not just in terms of looks, but also mannerisms.

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Renee 8 December, 2018 - 5:32 pm

Another late response, but I don’t get the impression that this was made for the Korean market, Dasha. I’m not Korean either. However, I’ve been trying to learn it off and on for the last 20 years. The first thing I noticed was the parents weird accents, especially the dad’s. To my ears, it sounded more like it came out of the Middle East than Korea. I don’t think most English-speaking people would notice or care. I think a Korean would though. It’s also strange to listen to the kids pronounce Korean words. It rubs me wrong Every time the call their mother umma. The u has a rounder sound like Seoul, and they make it sound like a short u like a duck. But what do I know. I’m just learning and Canadian Koreans might pronounce things different. As far as the culture being authentic, I don’t know. To me the speaking just doesn’t seem authentic.

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Chris 28 January, 2020 - 6:50 pm

Sanford and son?

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Anonymous321 15 February, 2020 - 11:08 am

It’s a poor representative of us, Asians and life of immigrants in Canada. As a Korean born Canadian, it’s not surprising given Western history against foreigners… One would think KC writers would have given proper and quality representation for the show. It projects nothing but stereotypes…Barely funny. Just continues to reinforce prejudice of us that Western media has done throughout history and unfortunately remains today. What can change this and when will we see that happen for the long run??!!

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Zenzile Greene 1 May, 2020 - 8:07 am

I was just about to write a blog entry about the depiction of White People on this show when I decided to do some research on what if anything had already been written about the show from a race perspective and I’m glad I did because this article makes very relevant points that I agree with for the most part. My husband and I started binge watching KC during the quarantine and one of the first things I asked was whether the actor who plays Kim had that accent for real. I was annoyed when I husband said no. But I still watched because as a Black woman I seek diversity on the screen not just among my own community but among all “non-white” identifying communities. And there are some good things and problematic things about KC. I think we’re in the 3rd season now and there are moments where I will feel like I’m watching a show about a White family in Korean face, like the writing is no different than what I would see on a primetime comedy written by White people, with some Korean cultural elements thrown in here and there. It’s complicated. It’s offensive. It’s a comedy and i find a lot of the writing funny while some of it falls flat. The ep where Jung and Shannon bond uncomfortably quick over the racist behavior of the guy who they go to buy sneakers for Kimchee that Jung carelessly damaged was very unrealistic and an example of how Whiteness just want to gloss over this behavior and be forgiven rather than confronted. On the other hand, I like the array of strange, diverse and eclectic personalities that come in and out of the convenience store. The centralization of the convenience store, almost as a character, works on me in a cozy and familiar way. And while I don’t know very much about Asian culture, I’m very familiar with the experience of White washing, internalization of Whiteness and the self hatred that can come with that. I think KC grapples with this weakly so far but I can’t throw the whole thing out because I also feel like there is not a whole lot to compare KC to. Crazy Rich Asians wasn’t popular because it was good in my opinion but because it was the first all Asian cast film to be made in freakin decades! Perhaps it’s unfair to expect KC to be more than a kind of light comedic fare as well as an accurate depiction of Korean Canadian life. I don’t know. I find it to be both entertaining and frustrating and offensive, with the potential to play a better role in the depiction of Asian life, but not a likelihood to do so. But I’m Black. I’m used to these types of White consumable culture reductions in all forms of media. I don’t think KC is the worst but it’s certainly not the best example of a show that authentically expresses Korean life. Not being Korean though, I have to check in with that community for validation around this. I’ve heard mixed responses and I think much of that unfortunately and unsurprising has to do with varied relationships and proximity to Whiteness, and the ways in which POCs and other groups still struggle to see themselves outside of the White gaze and the need to please and aspire to Whiteness to be thought of as valuable and relevant.

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Hhhhhhhhh 8 May, 2020 - 4:17 am

I’ve started watching this show with my wife and have been wondering about some of the questions you’ve posed here. This show definitely uses Asian stereotypes – but on the flip side, if it didn’t, then we would just be complaining it’s extremely white washed. I think everything ultimately boils down to this: how do you represent Asian culture without stereotypes? And what constitutes harmful stereotypes vs. what constitutes “accurate representation”? If everyone spoke perfect english, people would complain it’s whitewashed. If it was in Korean with subtitles, it simply wouldn’t be attractive to the masses – even Korean Canadians who don’t speak Korean. Umma and Appa could be a doctor and an accountant – but would that be the best representation of a second-ish generation Asian immigrant family? The point is that it’s easy to criticize the stereotypically Asian things is the show as stereotyping Asian. The thing is, if you flip them and remove those stereotypes, you could write the entire article above but about how Korean culture is whitewashed on Canadian media. So which is better, and how do we walk that line to portray Korean Canadians in an accurate, relatable way? I don’t know the answer but it’s a difficult question for sure. And while I think we should be critical of these things, at the end of the day, I think the writers are aware of these issues and have done their best to walk their own path between the two problem areas. Personally I think the show does an excellent job, my only major issue would be that Umma and Appa should speak Korean to each other, at least in private. Small sections of subtitles would be fine, and they could definitely find comedic uses for them switching into speaking Korean in different situations.

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