From the first moment of the pilot episode of Kim’s Convenience—a Canadian network comedy created by Ins Choi, now available on Netflix—I was squirming in my seat. But it took me some time to figure out why.
Kim’s Convenience plunges the viewer into a modern variation on the family sitcom, where both the urban, diverse setting and the main character’s heavy accent take center stage. That accent seems to signify everything that’s out of place about Mr. Kim, the protagonist and patriarch of the show. He interacts with various groups of customers in his convenience store in a busy urban neighborhood in ways that are alternatingly charming and cringe-inducing.
From his attempts to capitalize on a gay-pride parade happening in his neighborhood to his overbearing ways with his daughter, Janet, Mr. Kim is the flashpoint for the viewer. Do you love him or not? Do you find him smart and gregarious or ridiculous and out-of-touch? 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. But paying attention to what makes us squirm illuminates the importance of the show. Kim’s Convenience is one in a slew of pop culture artifacts bringing accents, culture, and stereotypes—and faith—into the mainstream in ways that ask us to face squarely our discomfort with them.
Accents and Archetypes
There is a troubled history to the public reception of various Asian accents, from Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles and beyond. My sister, who watched the movie Downsizing in the theaters in Oregon, told me that the mostly white audience laughed every time actress Hong Chau spoke in her Vietnamese accent—and not because she was saying something humorous. Her accent has inspired pushback, with some actually insisting it is racist and a caricature. When asked by journalists about her portrayal of Ngoc, Chau asked them: What exactly is it about my accent that bothers you? When they couldn’t respond, Chau wondered aloud whether the accent only became a problem because she had a starring role, instead of being a background player.
Similarly, in interviews, Kim’s Convenience star Paul Sun-Hyung Lee talks about the decision to speak with an accent—how he himself chose to channel the voice of his father. “The accent isn’t the joke. It’s part of who [the character] is, but it isn’t the joke.” For him, Mr. Kim is an archetype of a Korean immigrant making his way in Canada, instead of a stereotype being mined for laughs.
His show and others like it are trying to show an accent not as a symbol of status or worth or intelligence or superiority but a lived reality for many. To represent in real and complex and intentionally hilarious ways the experiences and realities of Asian communities, which can and will shift dominant culture perspectives.
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Source: Christianity Today