The first time I heard the character Appa speak on the show Kim’s Convenience, I was jarred by the way he sounded. In the accented voice created by Korean Canadian actor Paul Sun-Young Lee, I heard something I’d never before encountered on a television show: someone who resembled my Korean immigrant dad, father-in-law, and uncles. Our 16-year-old son Jason had an even more immediate reaction the first time he watched the show: “It sounds like home!”
I still marvel at his statement, because in our house we speak perfectly unaccented English, thank you very much. (One of the untold benefits of being born in the USA, I suppose.) But as I have watched Kim’s Convenience alongside our three third-generation sons and witnessed the way they light up each and every time they see the fictional Korean Canadian family at the heart of the show, I realize that what Jason actually means is not just, “It sounds like home,” but, “This show sees us.”
Why would this be such a big deal? Some might argue that this mentality is just another reflection of a narcissistic and selfie-driven generation. But as someone who grew up watching The Brady Bunch and feeling such a disconnect between that idyllic family and my own, I can tell you that the implicit messages communicated by pop culture are real and lasting. My experience of seeing the depiction of families such as the Bradys, Keatons (Family Ties), Tanners (Full House), and yes, back then, the Cosbys, signaled to me that my own family was unhealthy at best, and abnormal at worst.Watching a show like Kim’s Convenience is a helpful exercise for anyone in the dominant culture to experience the decentering of whiteness and the elevation of stories from the margins.
I never saw anyone like me, a second-generation Korean American, on television. Unlike the families who paraded across my TV screen, mine never wore shoes in the house. We ate mysterious foods, with no easy English translation, that I never saw on television, housed in glass jars in our refrigerator with pungent odors that escaped whenever we opened the door. My parents never offered hugs or kisses to either one another or to my brother and me, such that the words “I love you” would have made me squeamish to hear from anyone in my family, much less utter myself. Even J. R. Ewing and his conniving, near-murderous clan of Dallas fame appeared way more functional than my own family, which is saying something.
But in contrast, my kids watch Kim’s Convenience and love all the ways we are reflected. They intimately know the words Appa and Umma (“Daddy” and “Mommy” in Korean), which are as ubiquitous to our immediate and extended family as the English versions. They see their grandparents reflected in the immigrant characters of Mr. and Mrs. Kim and their family heritage in the Kims’ eponymous convenience store, knowing that all their grandparents survived immigrant life in North America through the cultivation of their own small businesses. They see our faith background in the prominence of the Korean Presbyterian church that forms one of the key set locales in the show, not to mention in the number of times Jesus is referenced, by Umma in particular (as in “find the Jesus” and “praising the Jesus”). As Jason articulated, the show sounds like home, and “home” stirs deep emotions in a person’s heart and soul. Home, in an ideal world, is where you are seen and loved. In the Christian framework, this world may not be our home, but it’s reassuring when it recognizes at least once in a while that we exist.
When I was a child, I remember our family hovering around the television during the annual Miss Universe pageant because for at least that one night a year, we could be assured to see a person of Korean descent on the screen (at least until she was eliminated, which always happened early on in every pageant, as opposed to the contestant from the United States, who always managed to end up in the top 5). Unlike millions of fans around the world today who consume K-dramas by the hour, our boys have not seen Koreans dominating the small screen. I tried to get them excited to watch Fresh Off the Boat when it premiered, but they innately felt the distinction between the fictional Huangs, a Taiwanese American family living in the 80s, and their own reality as Korean North Americans in the 21st century. Our boys might look racially similar to the three sons in the show, for anyone who wants to rely on the politicized nomenclature of “Asian” to describe them. But there are limits to representation. Instead, Kim’s Convenience has given my family the experience of validation. In FoTB, I saw people who are perceived to look like me, but in Kim’s Convenience, I see people who are like me. Race is artificial. Ethnicity is real.
For non-Koreans, the show seems to offer a winsome window into a cultural context they never or rarely have encountered. At times, it provokes uncomfortable feelings as it depicts family life in a way that may be so different from their own experience. “Kim’s Convenience, for all of its charm and goodwill, has something that will no doubt offend—or at least make uncomfortable—nearly everyone on the scale from conservative to progressive,” D. L. Mayfield writes in Christianity Today.
But I wonder if the discomfort comes less from one’s location on the conservative to liberal spectrum, and more from the experience of cultural dislocation when one’s own context is so decentered from the story. The difference between Fresh Off the Boat and Kim’s Convenience is that the fictional Huang family is striving for assimilation, trying to find its way into acceptance into the white Floridian community in which it has landed. The Kim family makes no apologies for its Koreanness and radiates Korean nationalism and pride, whether through Appa’s clear campaign to make sure his customers understand Korean military achievements or through Umma’s equally clear desires for her daughter Janet to meet a “cool, Korean, Christian boy.” For me, this kind of rhetoric is normative, as I’ve heard it my entire life. But to a non-Korean ear, hearing any ethnic group centering its own identity so keenly may sound threatening. Watching a show like Kim’s Convenience is a helpful exercise for anyone in the dominant culture to experience the decentering of whiteness and the elevation of stories from the margins. And as the U.S. demographic trends indicate, those on the margins are moving toward the center.
A majority of Americans accept the cultural changes at work in our nation. According to a recent study by the Public Religion Research Institute, “nearly two-thirds (64%) of Americans say that the U.S. becoming a majority-nonwhite nation by 2045 will be a mostly positive change.” But in a bleak contrast, despite how often pastors and speakers reference the vision of Revelation 7 as being a welcome future of multiethnic harmony, the same study reveals how embedded white supremacy remains within American evangelicalism. In contrast to the attitudes of Americans as a whole, “a majority (54%) of white evangelical Protestants say that becoming a majority-nonwhite nation in the future will be mostly negative.” Apparently, the American church broadly speaking is not a welcome home for people of color, as evidenced by the number of white evangelicals who are turning a blind eye to asylum-seekers suffering at our country’s doorstep at this very moment.
But God, El Roi, is the “God who sees,” as Hagar discovers in the book of Genesis. Where others can only see my skin color, my “foreignness,” God sees all the cultural good in who He has created me to be. God intimately knows each cell, each DNA strand in my body—which I was surprised to discover is not even fully Korean, but a mixture of majority Korean ethnicity with Japanese and Chinese heritage also represented, at least according to 23andMe’s recent analysis. We are each such a unique and complex blend of so many cultural influences; why would anyone want to limit herself or himself to just being considered “Asian” or even “white”? Seeing the vast richness of one another’s respective cultural identities is so much more rewarding than relying on fear and stereotypes of one another, which is the only reason I can imagine that white evangelicals are nervous about the coming cultural changes.
Instead, Kim’s Convenience goes well beyond cultural tropes to present a more complex and reconciled reality through its fictional vision. Despite their squabbles, this immigrant family demonstrates their love for one another in tangible ways; I cannot stop tears from welling up whenever Appa and Janet share the kinds of tender moments that were absent in my relationship with my dad, who expressed his love through sacrifice, not sentiment. The Korean Christian community in the show depicts pastoral leadership in a much more multiethnic and gender-equal way than I have ever seen in any actual Korean immigrant church. And older brother Jung (Simu Liu) is presented as the eye candy of the show, and while I won’t proactively encourage our boys to aspire to be eye candy, at the same time I love they are receiving the message that to be a Korean male is not to be doomed to an emasculated and unattractive version of manhood.
“I think a show like ‘Kim’s Convenience’ is proof that representation matters, because when communities and people see themselves reflected on up on the screens, it is an inspiring and a very powerful moment for them,” said Lee (“Appa”) in accepting his award for best lead actor in the Canadian Screen Awards this March. “It means they move from the margins into the forefront. It gives them a voice. And it gives them hope.”
My hope is that a show like Kim’s Convenience can help majority culture Christians see, truly see, their brothers and sisters who may be from a different cultural context, and yet embrace them with open arms, even stepping aside to center their experiences and stories. Not as foreigners, not as visitors from the margins allowed in on occasion, but as equal and valued parts of the family. After all, one day we will all be “praising the Jesus” together in perfect harmony. And I’m pretty sure even all of us with American accents will be welcome amongst the panoply of voices in God’s diverse chorus.