Netflix Has Made Kim’s Convenience a Word-of-Mouth Sensation

But what’s lost when you translate Korean immigrant life into sitcom tropes?

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as Appa in Kim's Convenience. 
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as Appa in Kim’s Convenience. Stephen Scott/CBC

In the last couple of years, the desire by women and various minority groups to see themselves on screen in their full humanity has coalesced into a demanded right. But this worthy boosterism seldom asks why or how we identify with some characters and not others. I related deeply to Crazy Rich Asians, but I understood deep in my bones the complaints of a friend, a fellow Korean American, who felt the movie gave validation to not Asian America but the rising Sinosphere. Identification can be unpredictable—a reality that confronted me relentlessly as I watched Kim’s Convenience, a CBC sitcom about a Korean Canadian family that’s become a word-of-mouth phenomenon among Asian Americans since its arrival on Netflix.

Created by playwright Ins Choi and veteran TV scribe Kevin White, the two seasons on Netflix (with a third to debut north of the border next year and a fourth already greenlit) strongly resemble ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat in their broadness, unexpected poignancy, and not-always-successful efforts to maintain the tricky balance between cultural specificity and mainstream accessibility. Kim’s Convenience takes its name from the Toronto shop run by Appa (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) and Umma (Jean Yoon)—the words for dad and mom in Korean, as well as what Korean husbands and wives customarily call each other instead of their first names.*

Cranky and self-important (though not without his softer moments), Appa is a familiar figure to Korean immigrants and sitcom fans alike: The buffoonish, chest-thumping patriarch whose chronic inability to admit when he’s in the wrong often leads to easily avoidable negative consequences. Umma is less of a stock character, though not entirely without TV precedents: a nicer, more inviting presence with a judgmental, subversive hardness underneath the smiling exterior. Living with these two heads of the Kim family and helping them run the store is their daughter, Janet (Andrea Bang), a college student who has inherited her father’s stubbornness and chafes under her parents’ social conservatism and occasional neglect. Most of the show’s B-plots revolve around the Kims’ grown son Jung (Simu Liu), who has been estranged from his father for the past decade and in turn rarely sees his mother and sister.

To watch Kim’s Convenience as a Korean American is to witness the immigrant culture in which I grew up strained through the cookie-cutter mold of the family sitcom genre. Some elements come through smoothly and retain their recognizability. The show has no shortage of cultural details that feel true to life. The children’s names alone—older sibling Jung and younger sibling Janet—suggest the family’s growing assimilation in the years that separate them. Janet’s gentle mockery of her parents’ accents feels as grounded as her mother’s petty entanglements in church drama. Growing up, I never imagined that I’d watch an English-language sitcom about a Korean family, let alone an episode centered on ddong chim, an utterly un-Western schoolyard game where boys prank one another by thrusting their index fingers into one another’s buttholes over the pants. (I don’t blame you if you don’t get why this is a thing, but I used to find this hilarious.) In the show, Jung struggles to explain to his boss and love interest Shannon (Nicole Power) why the insertion of his fingers between the asscheeks of his colleague and best friend Kimchee (Andrew Phung) isn’t sexual harassment—a feat of cross-cultural interpretation that’s as much for the sake of the audience as Shannon.

And yet Kim’s Convenience is undeniably a North American translation of Korean immigrant culture. Sometimes quite literally. Its easy legibility seems to demand that Lee and Yoon perform in a foreign-yet-completely-understandable accent that sounds like Korean-accented English but resembles no manner of speaking I (or any Korean Americans in my acquaintance) have heard before. In their scenes together, Umma and Appa speak in broken English rather than in Korean—an artifice that never ceases to remind me that the show is just as much for non-Koreans as it is for “us.” The program also displays little interest in depicting the exhausting drudgery of running a convenience store for untold hours every single day of the week. Appa and Umma are proud of never having closed the store early for the past 20 years. They might be the most cheerful, well-adjusted people who work 80 hours a week that you ever meet.

The conversion of Korean diasporic experiences into sitcom tropes certainly isn’t all bad. Indeed, the show’s most successful storyline is actually a product of that transmutation. The simmering tension between Appa and Jung—and the promised resolution between father and son—replaces the will-they-or-won’t-they romances of past sitcoms while borrowing their rhythms and dissonances. The characters’ mutual resentments feel culturally grounded, as fathers threatening to disown their children is something of a (seldom realized) Korean child-rearing tradition. Each of the two seasons has ended with a melancholy near-miss between the two men, emphasizing the gaping wound in the middle of this otherwise normal family.
Plenty of plots revolve around the customers or the Kims’ wacky acquaintances, but the storylines that stick are the ones based on the emotional fallout of Jung’s exile from the family: the rare marital strife between Appa and Umma, the latter’s secret struggles to make Jung still feel like part of the family, Janet’s small efforts to reconcile her father with her brother, and her frustration at being constantly overlooked in favor of a sibling whose absence seems to matter more to her parents than her presence ever could.

Asian American entertainment is still enough of a novelty that often we don’t sit back and enjoy each product so much as put its authenticity on trial: “Does this feel Korean? Yes? No? If not quite, is it passably so?” Based on personal conversations, I don’t seem to be alone in watching Kim’s Convenience (or any other Asian-American movie or show) with a running tally in my head of which aspects feel real and which don’t. It’s only when the drama manages to overcome this instinct—such as when Jung feels he can relax and openly express affection to a post-surgery Appa, whom the son knows is unlikely to remember their heart-to-heart the morning after—that questions of identification fall away to make room for the sheer pleasure of it.

Correction, Sept. 13, 2018: This article originally misstated that Appa and Umma were unnamed. Their names, used rarely, are Sang-il and Yong-mi.