In The Mix

Here's Your Change

Kim’s Convenience bucks cultural and political divides.

Robin Roberts
  • From left: Simu Liu, Jean Yoon, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Andrea Bang, Andrew Phung and Nicole Power

    CBC

In this era of ever-widening cultural and political divisions, what can a little Canadian comedy do to bridge, and even close, those gaps?

Plenty, it turns out — even if that's not necessarily the series' intent.

Kim's Convenience, which airs on the CBC and streams on Netflix, chronicles the misadventures of a Korean immigrant family: Appa ("father" in Korean), played by Paul Sun-Hyung Lee; Umma ("mother"), played by Jean Yoon; and their two Canadian-born kids, Jung (Simu Liu) and Janet (Andrea Bang).

The flip-side of Crazy Rich Asians, the Kims run a small convenience store in a multi-ethnic Toronto neighborhood, where each day a veritable United Nations of faces swings through their chimed door to pick up a loaf of bread or a nugget of gossip.

This casual cultural mix, rarely acknowledged and refreshingly secondary to to story, reminds us of how life really is, or ought to be. But showrunners Ins Choi, upon whose 2011 play the series is based, and Kevin White (Corner Gas, Schitt's Creek), all but shrug when asked about the responsibility of representing this world authentically.

"I think our responsibility is to write good, funny, true stories that go from scene to scene in a somewhat logical way and are grounded in some kind of realism," Choi says. He draws many storylines from his own parents, who immigrated from South Korea in 1975, when he was a baby.

"These are people, first and foremost. They're not Asian or Korean. They're humans. And like all humans, they're faulty; they have moments of greatness and moments of failure. We're just trying to mine their humanity."

That humanity is obviously cross-cultural and cross-generational, but it's less about adapting to a new country and more about clicking in a community, whether it's workplace, friendships or family — particularly when that family straddles two cultures.

There can be "tension in an immigrant community between generations, because immigrant cultures tend to live in a time capsule in terms of their values," says Choi, who's also a theater actor. "They want to hold on to something that's great about their heritage, but in doing so perhaps they cling to the values that they moved away from."

As for depicting any racial or political tensions, White and Choi are judicious. "If the story lends itself a clash of cultures or ideas, or ways of raising your family or running your store — and it's funny — those are the ones that make it to screen," White says. "We write the funniest stories and the ones that reveal the most character or deepen relationships the most."

"We've tried [political storylines] and they just don't gel as a funny story. It's fun to skirt [issues] carefully, say things without saying them. We haven't been censored, and we've explored everything we've wanted to."

In a time when casting exclusively Asian leads is still a novelty, Choi says, "I think the show just being on the air is a political statement in itself."


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, issue No. 7, 2019