Kim’s Convenience From a Critical Race Perspective6 min read

43 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

43 comments

43 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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Mina 26 August, 2018 - 10:23 pm

As a Korean American, I found the dad’s accent to be an extreme, and created a caricature of Korean immigrants. I don’t know any Korean who has lived outside of Korea long enough for their children to be without accent and to be adults, while interacting with English-speaking society on a daily basis to have as an unbelievable accent as the dad. I know many Korean parents and/or adults in their 40s and up who do not have an accent so extreme as his with intonations so wildly emphasized as he does (of which, sounds a lot like what non-Asian people do when they are mocking Asian accents). And they struggled to not have that accent, so it is a little offensive that in the 21st century, a show with a Korean cast will lay it on as thick as they do.

“…throwing around Asian characters ‘acting Asian’ flippantly.”

The show does it in such a way where it’s not full=out offensive, but it gets uncomfortable. I would rather see a comedy show that shows the reality of Korean immigrants growing up in Canada – not a show that magnifies Korean cultural quirks to an extent that is caricaturing in a mocking manner. If you want a list –

The parents are hard on their daughter, and it’s true. Korean parents of their generation are more likely to be nitpicky and a little controlling. But for there to be no depth to the parents and why they are hard on them (beyond the dad once having wanted to be an artist, but gave it up) perpetuates this grotesquely simplified portrayal of Asians in general. Korean parents their age probably witnessed the aftermath of a brutal, dehumanizing massacre in South Korea, they probably were there when Korea was under their second dictatorship, and what about the aspect of them possibly having careers outside of running a convenience store in their home country and giving it up to immigrate? My uncle was a successful photographer, and now he is a chicken farmer in the U.S. My aunt was a cop, who became a restless house wife. If any of that was mentioned at all, it would justify their portrayal. In Master of None, they did a brilliant scene to show the realities of immigrant parents and what they went through. In Kim’s Convenience, they just do a very simplified running gag of the dad and mom nagging their daughter without any deeper meaning to it.

Every scene where they emphasize some Korean thing that was completely unnecessary. It’s not even funny. Like when the mom tries to make small talk while acting as matchmaker goes over how her husband can have facial hair – super common stereotype that emasculates Korean men in the west. And then the dad talks up his friend’s baby smooth skin – another stereotype that emasculates Korean men, and it’s something that Korean people don’t even talk about. Because Korean men don’t have baby smooth skin.

The ddongjjil episode was a little ridiculous. There are so many ways to mention this favorite joke that Koreans play on each other, and they show it as overblown sexual assault charges that white corporate cannot accept.

The whole series is like this. These are not the only samples. There are some things that the show is so close to doing right, but the flippantly Asian scenes overpower it.

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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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pjk 4 September, 2019 - 6:21 pm

2nd generation Korean-Canadians will have pronunciation difference from native Korean speakers. You’ll always have language interference from the dominant language of the country they grew up in.

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pjk 4 September, 2019 - 6:24 pm

And on top of that you may have dialect issues from the parents. So you may have 2 different dialects (or more if you include other relatives living with them), and the dominant language all influencing how the kid speaks.

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Andrew 27 February, 2019 - 7:28 am

You’re correct, this show is a show that is seen from the perspective of a Canadian. It does not at reflect Korean culture at all. Sure it may have some Korean words here and there, also used incorrectly, but that is it. Even their parental figures lack any understanding of Korean Culture and the fact that many immigrant parents decided not to teach their children about their own culture and the reasons why they denied their own culture. It is a show with a very singular perspective and no depth

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eric 1 October, 2019 - 9:56 pm

Dasha, do you know about colonial lag? I know a few Korean returnee families . . . culture gets trapped in time for expats, particularly for Koreans of the generation of eomma and appa. The Internet and the 24/7 cable TV culture of 1000 channels is probably less ten years or so old for Korea and less for expat Koreans. Thus it seems quite appropriate for appa particularly to be trapped in time.

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May 24 November, 2020 - 10:22 am

100% Agreed as a Korean

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Valerie Martin 9 September, 2018 - 3:46 pm

I just started watchin KC on Netflix. I am a white American woman with a Korean daughter-in-law. This show is the most offensive thing I’ve seen in a long time. The accents are ridiculous. KC is the cultural equivilent of putting white actors in blackface makeup and creating a show about an “urban family” What could the creators have been thinking? This crap is not ok.

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Proud Korean 13 September, 2018 - 7:22 pm

Ya, Im American-Korean….this is a racist a$$ show. Why couldnt they cast actual Koreans? Imagine, a white guy playing a black guy. Oh, it has been done and is called racist! F’n pathetic. Just because someone is Asian, doesnt make them all the same. All this show does is push us further from really being known, because all we own are convenience and dry cleaning stores.

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eric 1 October, 2019 - 9:51 pm

엄마 is technically romanized “Eomma” although you almost never see that. “Omma” is a fairly common way to help non-Koreans get close to the “어” vowel, “Umma” is just wrong.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanization_of_Korean

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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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Lily 24 September, 2020 - 5:50 am

I’m Canadian, born to European immigrants, and now living in the States as a naturalized citizen., so two generations of immigrants. My husband is US born Korean-American.
I started watching this and loved it because of the nostalgia of seeing Canadian things and a diversity of people which, if you watched American shows we rarely get to the extent of KC.
I know the Korean accents are a bit off the mark but I was willing to overlook them because I loved seeing so many people of color like I would if i was still living in Toronto. Some of the jokes fall flat or are cringey, but, for the most part, the show feels really relatable to me as the child of immigrants growing up in Toronto (I even had a Korean friend whose parents owned a convenience store!).
My husband watched a bit last night and got really upset calling it the equivalent of Blackface. He only saw a small portion of an interaction between Mr & Mrs Kim, but that exactly what everyone seems to have issue with. I went on a search to see what other people thought and this was the only place I saw where the racist leaning of this show has been brought up.
It’s frustrating because I think the intent is quite the opposite.
My husband brought up the point that they should have had the Kim speak in Korean and use subtitles. It’s a valid point.
As a White person who cares about racism I have to listen to his concerns as a person of color even when I don’t see the same thing he does. It’s not about my experience, it’s about his.

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Asian Born in Canada 9 October, 2020 - 11:09 pm

After reading the article and the comments, it looks like you are concentrating too much at the accent than the show itself. Janet’s parents have been living in Toronto for OVER 20 years. If you’ve lived in Britain for that long, I’m sure you would develop somewhat of a British accent. So this is really a moot point. Also, depending on family, children may call their parents in a slightly different manner than from other families. It’s called dialect. I didn’t call my grandparents the way other families called theirs. And it didn’t matter. This show is not about Appa and Umma (i.e. not about Korea). The show is about Janet and Jung, Asian Canadians, growing up in a muticultural city where they kind of fit in but also don’t fit in. While I am not Korean, I find situations that are very relatable due to the similarities of Asian hierarchy within the family structure. I can relate to not being able to speak in my parents’ mother tongue. I can relate that no matter what country of origin you are from, you’re parents love you even though it doesn’t feel like that all the time. I am only through half of season 1 so I hope there is some progress on the bits of hatred I am seeing towards Japan, though. Overall, though, I find the show to be well made and funny. The only fear I have is that I may start to talk like Appa and Umma soon because I’ve been listening to them so much.

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Asian Born in Canada 9 October, 2020 - 11:20 pm

As a quick follow-up, many comments say the show is white washed. It is not. It is through the eyes of Janet and Jung. In the mirror, they see themselves as Asians but inside they see themselves as Canadians. Ever heard of being a banana? That’s what they are. And me. Yellow on the outside but white on the inside. It is not an honourable or dishonourable thing. It just is…because we were born here.

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May 24 November, 2020 - 9:47 am

I started watching this show because my supervisor told me to. He thought I could feel less homesick by watching it and find it funny. As a fresh-off-the-boat Korean, I have found this show offensive. The accent was tolerable given that they learned English as a second language. Their broken grammar is a little far-fetched, but I understood it as a theatrical addition to making them sound funny. What bothers me is how they do not care about where they are at. One of the core elements of Korean culture is nunchi, which means an individual’s constant effort to blend in. In other words, it is a code of conduct in order not to get stares at. You may never be that anti-LGBTQ+ to the face of LGBTQ+ people even if you are. You may talk to your close friends behind their back but not in front of them. NEVER. As an immigrant, it can be really harrd to act like the father because he must ha ve developed more nunchi to avoid being outstanding and criticitized by the majority group. They have lived in Canada at least for a decade, judging from how the daughter sounds. They would have picked up the Western culture quite fast and acted like they fit in. Every Korean in this show acts like they do not have any nunchi. As the writer already mentioned, ddongjim, speaking nothing of that it’s only played by pre-K boys, is more for embarrassing the targetted person rather than hurting them. You may never do that at the workplace if you have nunchi. Even if your friend hurt you with ddongjim, you never say it out loud. This lack of understanding about Koreans’ behaviors is why I thought this show was White-washed. And the characters of this show…. are disturbing in many ways. First of all, WHO TF NAMES A PERSON KIMCHEE???????? Seriously? Would you watch a show where a White person is named Burger or Pizza???? Second, the cousin who visited Jung’s family in Canada for a while was sleeping around. It is a huge misconception of Korean women. Asian women are already sexually objectified and asked to be coy by day and sensual by night. Of course, there can be sexually active women but the depiction of this cousin only solidified the stereotype. Besides, NOBODY in Korea is dressed up like her except when they go to Comicon.

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Raw dough whitey 5 March, 2021 - 6:32 pm

I think this show is deliberately playing to stereotypes to catch a pro Korean wave that may have started due to the popularity of Sandra Oh, who is a successful Korean actor not playing a stereotype. Everyone on KC is a cringeworthy stereotype.
A lot of actors overdo their roles but I wonder why the Zappa in the show does the accent wrong when his father is his model. He should know what his own father sounds like? He must be doing this on purpose like Canadians are constantly portrayed wearing toques and ordering disgusting double-doubles at that foreign owned Tim Hortons.

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Whatever 8 February, 2021 - 6:43 pm

All I hear is it’s good, but it’s white? Do you not all realize how racist that is? Maybe you all just like white stuff? Or Mayb it’s just good tv by Asian people and since that hasn’t been done often you feel it’s white?

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ABE 8 March, 2021 - 6:37 pm

Hello from 4/21 USA, and Thank GOD who won)…..I have read a few of the critiques of KC, and being a 3rd Gen Italian, I see my Grandparents, Nonna and Nonno, and both my parents in this representation of typical ANY immigrant family. I find it tough to understand the Korean diss of the show. Rather, I would feel GREAT to have an Italian family portrayed in a fashion W/O the typical Mafioso intrigue, the gambling father, haggard, pasta making Mother. Here, we see any immigrant family spreading thru society, being 99% honest, with only a hint of a trouble past from the eldest sibling. I dare say that if the show were about my heritage, that son woulda been seen with a switchblade, with a body and cops nearby, BUT, KC has refrained from that type of stereotypical nonsense.
Come on….IT’S A SHOW…..allow the general public a chance to see how hard it is to keep a small shop going REGARDLESS of ethnicity. I personally LOVE the show, because they are ME and my family……
Come on…………….SAY IT………..the how is a HIT….because not they are Korean…. but because they are ANY immigrant family.. ……Hey, creators…………BE PROUD….

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Edward Arthur 24 March, 2021 - 2:24 pm

I was sad to hear the writers decided to not continue for a sixth season.
My wife and I are (late) middle-aged middle-class white Americans who were recently introduced to this show. We have been binge watching and are almost through all the seasons and have thoroughly enjoyed it. It has actually been a breath of fresh air in its rather bold, non politically correct, themes and dialogue. Recently here in the US there have been some anti-Asian sentiment that has either been real or perceived in the wake of the Covid crisis. I personally think that it is not as widespread as certain people are purporting it to be (but that’s another story). Critical race theory has taken hold in so many parts of this nation’s left leaning population that everything is now seen through the eyes of theory. I found your article while looking up a theory of my own and I don’t know if it’s true or not but I’m wondering if in light of an anti-Asian sentiment, along with our pervasive cancel culture, if the writers saw the writing on the wall, so to speak, and quit while they were ahead before they were “cancelled” themselves.
Just some of my own thoughts in light of what’s happening in March 2021.

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Emily S. 28 March, 2021 - 12:03 pm

Context/disclaimer: I’m not Korean; I’m white, Jewish, and from the U.S. I have been wondering why I feel like there’s something off about the portrayal of Mr. and Mrs. Kim in particular, and this article helped.

Hearing Mr. and Mrs. Kim speak only in accented English does their characters a disservice: we never experience them expressing themselves to their full capacity, and as others have noted, it’s ludicrous for them to be speaking English to each other when no one else is around. I’ve heard the argument that North American white audiences wouldn’t watch a show with a lot of subtitled Korean. That’s probably true. But that audience behavior is itself an expression of cultural dominance, and by accommodating it, Kim’s Convenience has embedded that cultural dominance into the show.

In scenes with Mr. and Mrs. Kim alone together, the show wants us to believe that we are experiencing them in their own particular world and home. But they’re speaking in a language that’s not theirs, so they’re still performing for English speakers. They’re not *really* home. When you get to take a break from speaking a second language and return to your own, a lot of things shift: your body language, your gestures, your facial expressions, your energy, your whole way of relating. I know this from traveling in countries where my command of the language was not great, and I know this from observing other people. Switching back into your own language is like taking off your shoes and changing into sweatpants when you get home. We never get to see the Kims being truly at home in their linguistic sweatpants– and the problem is that the show gives us the false impression that that IS what we’re seeing. We see Mr. and Mrs. Kim in ostensibly intimate domestic moments, yet even those moments are still being performed for a (white) English-speaking audience. That implicitly reinforces the notion that there is nothing more to these people than what can be seen through the white anglophone gaze; that their interior lives and thoughts are no more sophisticated than their command of English (more on that in a minute).

This also makes language mastery absolute instead of relative. If they were speaking Korean with English subtitles, I would be reminded that they are fluent speakers of a language I do not understand, which would shift the power dynamics by putting me in the position of outsider (like what happened for Janet when Nayoung spoke Korean at the restaurant). Since they almost never speak Korean, they and I can never be on an equal footing: relative to me, they talk funny; I, a native English speaker, talk the “right” way and retain my position of dominance. This reinforces everything I’m taught by my culture as a white American: I don’t need to learn anybody else’s language, they need to learn mine. The measure of intelligence and competence is taken in English.

On the sophistication, or lack thereof, of the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Kim: I think they’re pretty flat characters. I don’t know how much of that to ascribe to linguistic and ethnic stereotyping, and how much to ascribe to the fact that this is a sitcom. Do any of the characters reveal much complexity? I’m 3/4 of the way through the series, and so far it’s a typical sitcom-y bumbling around of egos, with nobody showing much self-awareness or insight until the last five minutes of an episode, when somebody learns some briefly humbling lesson; by the next episode, they’ll show little to no growth. Janet, Jung, Kimchee, and Shannon are age-appropriate: they’re still figuring out who they are. But why are Mr. and Mrs. Kim ALWAYS so bumbling, so silly, so transparently manipulative, so clownish? We see that they are good-hearted, but why don’t they ever get to be wise, or even particularly smart? Maybe this is just the same old goofy husband-and-wife antics we’ve seen in sitcoms since George Burns and Gracie Allen. But I can’t help thinking that there’s something infantilizing in the choice never to show them speaking in their native language, on their own terms–– that constricting their range of expression constricts their permitted range of thought, feeling, and insight.

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Emily S. 28 March, 2021 - 12:20 pm

Postscript to my comment above: I don’t mean to imply that you can’t express complexity of thought in a language you don’t speak fluently. But in my experience of cross-linguistic friendships in my life, that usually involves bumping up against the limitations of the language(s) you’re speaking. Usually when the conversation starts to get interesting, you start talking ABOUT language because you start reaching the limitations of our shared vocabulary, and you start saying things like “I don’t know if there’s a word for this in your language, but in my language it’s [X], and it means something like….”

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David Trudel 15 April, 2021 - 12:22 pm

My wife of 13 years has an “accent”. Not a day goes by that I don’t cherish and adore how she’s pronounces words slightly different than what I do. Discrimination is alive in ALL cultures. It’s even alive within cultures. Because your skinny, because your fat, because you have pimples, because you wear glasses. It only lives if you breathe life into it. Celebrate differences.

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Raj G 14 May, 2021 - 6:33 am

One element really missing from this discussion is the Canadian cultural elements depicted in the show. And I don’t mean the Canadian flags hanging in windows or the mentioning the Blue Jays. The multicultural atmosphere that exists in Toronto (I grew up there) is very different from American cities and this show does a very good job capturing it. I also find it interesting that all the condemnation of forcing the Korean parents into Asian stereotypes seems to come from a desire to force them into the author’s own stereotypes (e.g., korean immigrants should really speak like this, dress like this, act like this, etc.). Not every Korean immigrant, non-Korean immigrant, or person, act, speaks, or dresses the same way. Cultures vary from person to person, how long they’ve lived in another country, as well as the community they live in. My parents have lived in Canada for over 30 years, they both still have accents, they don’t sound like typical accents anymore. I imagine if this author heard them, they would accuse them of speaking with fake caricature racist accents.

Also forgotten is this is a 22 min sit com. Everything is exaggerated for comedic effect. The Indian and Chinese characters aren’t exactly true to life (accent or otherwise), but above everything, the characters are not depicted as one dimensional cartoons like so many other shows have done in the past. The Korean parents with accents are far from the only Korean’s or immigrants in the show. This is one of the few shows I’ve ever seen that has a wide variety of non-white characters that are one-dimensional caricatures of immigrants (Janet, Jung, Raj, Divya, etc.). They’re everyday people, despite their non-whiteness.

This critical race perspective seems to come from the very popular urge these days to label anything with any cultural elements as racist. A hammer in search of a nail. It discards the actual Korean-Canadian roots of the show, the fact that it is a sitcom, and the plethora of non-immigrant, nonwhite characters (including their treatment by white characters as regular, everyday people). Lastly, I find it ironic that the author rages against any depictions of cultural elements while publishing this piece in a magazine called “ricepaper”. I suppose it’s ok to assume Koreans use rice paper to write as well as eat? Or was that supposed to be a pun for comedic effect?

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