I learned about a great new show over winter break through my friend Milton Wu. It’s called “Kim’s Convenience”, on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), based on a play by the Korean-Canadian playwright Ins Choi. It’s about a Korean-Canadian family in Toronto that runs a convenience store. There’s “Appa” (the father), a stubborn yet warm-hearted man who takes great pride in being Korean. There’s “Umma” (the mother), a kind woman who keeps busy with the store, her kids, and church. There’s Jung, the 24-year-old son who has a sketchy past (he was kicked out from home when he was 16 for stealing from his dad), but has turned over a new leaf and is now working at a car rental. And there’s Janet, the 20-year-old art school student who still lives at home. The show also has a great supporting cast; I especially like Jung’s laid-back roommate and coworker Kimchee and Janet’s awkward classmate Gerald.
There’s some truly funny moments in this show that draw on Korean custom. For example, in one episode Jung “ddong-chims” Kimchee at work (to be fair, Kimchee was kind of asking for it). But Kimchee files a complaint of sexual harassment, and Jung has to explain to his boss what a ddong-chim is. FYI, ddong-chim (which means “poop needle”) is this thing that Korean kids do in which they put their hands together and poke each other in the butt. It’s a silly thing that kids do, and I would really hate to have to explain it at work.
But Korean culture shows up in subtle ways. In another episode, Appa visits a Hapkido studio with Janet. As he gets ready to leave, he bows to the teacher, Master Yang. Then Appa and Master Yang start doing that thing that Korean adults do, when they bow repeatedly while saying “annyoung-hee geseyo” and “annyoung-hee gasaeyo” (which means goodbye) and slowly backing away from each other. It’s a small point, but it really captures how Koreans behave.
What I also appreciate about the show is how it highlights the diversity of Toronto, especially with the customers in the store. In the same Hapkido episode, Appa talks to a customer who is a big fan of Taekwondo, another Korean martial art. The customer is a young man from Africa. I don’t know enough about African accents to guess where he came from, but I appreciate the fact that the writers understood that yes, people from Africa can also be fans of Korean martial arts. In fact, in the entire 13-episode season, I never saw a single Korean customer in the store.
However, I also appreciate that the writers avoided stereotypical tropes. In another episode, Janet starts dating Alex, a black man who is friends with Jung. You might think that the episode would be about how Appa and Umma don’t like that Janet is dating a black man, but nope. The central conflict is about Jung feeling weird about his sister dating his friend, a situation that everyone can understand.
For another example: In that same episode, Janet’s friend tells her that she should be more affectionate with Alex, since he is very affectionate with her. So later, when they are hanging out, Janet makes a point to kiss and hug Alex a lot. But then Janet says that she isn’t really comfortable with this level of affection. Now, Alex could have said “Oh, are you more reserved because you’re Asian?”, and then have Janet respond with the typical “I’m not acting this way just because I’m Asian!” approach. But the writers don’t go there. Instead, when Janet says that this level of affection “is nice, it just isn’t me”, Alex says “I never asked you to be anyone other than yourself”, and the whole “culture clash” storyline gets bypassed.
I also appreciate that the writers did not shy away from placing church in the show. For many Koreans, church plays an important role as both a spiritual and social hub, and the Kim family is no different, especially Umma. The show doesn’t make a point on whether religion is a good or a bad thing. Church is just a reality for the family. The church is also a surprising source of humor, especially with the rivalry and gossip between Umma and Mrs. Park.
“Kim’s Convenience” is a clever, funny, and heartfelt show about family, dreams, and independence. I wholeheartedly recommend it. The one issue is that the show is only available on Canada, and can’t be watched online outside of that country. So you’ll either need a VPN or another way to see the show. If you want to watch, let me know and I can help you out.