By JJ Christensen
“Kim’s Convenience” is a Canadian sitcom that ran from 2016 to 2021. It stars a diverse cast from Canada who delivered stellar performances. This is evident in the reception of the show, which got glowing reviews for most of its run and caused my mom to cry when it was announced that the fifth season would be its last.
It’s more than just a sitcom, however, and it touched my heart in a way I didn’t quite expect. It presents a beautiful, intensely accurate and intimate portrayal not just of the immigrant experience but also that of the diaspora experience. This is an experience that hits home for me, even if I don’t share an ethnicity with those on screen.
On the surface, the show revolves around a convenience store owned by the Kim family. The father “Appa” and the mother “Umma”, as well as their daughter, Janet, run the store in downtown Toronto. The scope expands rapidly, however, covering Janet’s college life, her parent’s marriage, their churchgoings and their estranged brother. It captures a dynamic picture of the family’s life, both humorous and serious.
The show serves as a realistic depiction of the familial dynamic it sets up. It’s not overly gritty nor is it overly silly. It strikes a balance between the humor of the day-to-day experiences while also refusing to shy away from the true pain and conflicts that arise. From funny customer interactions and the joy of finally finishing a GED, to an attempted robbery and the marriage conflicts between Appa and Umma it covers almost every worthwhile corner.
The show was originally written as a play under the same name. Writer Ins Choi came up with the play that was shown across Canada. When it was picked up as a fully-fledged TV program, many of the actors in the original stage play reprised their roles. Ins Choi as an executive producer as well as a writer on the show, which brings a certain authorship and consistency that might not have been there if it was purely taken over by the studio.
Ins Choi has written other stage performances, specifically one called “The Subway Station of the Cross”, a one-man performance based on his experience with Toronto’s homeless population. Being from the city itself, deeply embedded and knowledgeable of its culture, the show provides a true-to-life and accurate depiction of inner city Canadian life. As an American, it’s interesting to draw the parallels that our two countries have.
The show touches on a wide range of issues that plague not just the Korean immigrant community but many other immigrant communities. Janet’s story in particular strikes me. Janet, unlike her parents, was born outside of Korea. There is a particular barrier between her and her family; for example, she doesn’t speak Korean well. She is disconnected from her homeland and when her cousin from Korea comes to visit she struggles to relate to her.
This specific element of the show is something that I relate to as well. I, too, am part of a diaspora and face similar issues when reaching back to my home country. It’s not a point of view often written on, and it touches my heart to see it properly explored.
The story of Koreans in North America is intrinsic to the background of this show, both the good and the bad. While the high profile, historical stories from this diaspora come from those fleeing the Korean War, Appa and Umma flee no such war. Even though Appa was in the Korean Army, he came to Canada to seek prosperity for his wife and children. He is a product of his country in the same way his daughter and son are a product of theirs. His religious, temperate conservatism contrasts his daughter’s Canadian and secular progressivism. Where the father might try to maintain traditions at all costs, the kids try to move past them. This is a divide that, in my experience, permeates every diaspora and immigrant family including my own.
Some people criticize the show for being too heavy at points, especially for an ostensibly comedic television program. On some level I can understand this; however, at its core, the show is meant to be a realistic depiction first. Admittedly, sometimes the heavier episodes can get a bit–much, especially if you have lived through similar events. Yet the show handles it with tact and grace as well as a good amount of comedy to balance it out.
Another criticism of the show I see is one surrounding the show’s use of accents. Most of the older characters in the show have an accent of some kind, which some say are over the top and even racist. I would counter by saying that the show is centered around an immigrant family. They have an accent because English isn’t their first language, and that’s part of the character. To call this portrayal racist might say more about the critic than the show.
Kim’s Convenience is a heart-touching and deeply accurate portrayal of the immigrant experience from all sections of it. Its comedy is based on the inherent comedy of life, and its drama is in a similar vein. It’s heartwarming, nail-biting, and all comes highly recommended from yours truly.
FEATURED IMAGE (at the top of the post): The main cast of the show lined up in a promo shot.