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November 22, 2016

Oxtail Soup, Immigrant Narratives, and Why I Love Kim’s Convenience


Bo Kim / Medium

Kim’s Convenience is my favorite show on television. For the uninitiated, Kim’s Convenience is a Canadian sitcom based off Ins Choi’s play of the same name. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Andrea Bang are standouts in a stellar cast playing an immigrant Korean-Canadian family running a convenience store in downtown Toronto.

I get a little anxious when describing Kim’s Convenience because it’s easy to imagine how my love for this show could seem overdetermined. I am a Korean-American immigrant. My last name is literally in the title of the show. Even my pathetic Korean is good enough to understand all of the hilarious Korean vocal tics and unsubtitled asides peppered throughout the dialogue. Admittedly, the fictional Kim family’s lives deviate in important ways from my own experiences. My mom works as a professor, parental disagreements about the values of my studies were nonexistent, and, unlike 71% of Korean Americans, I was not raised Christian. But really, given the dearth (or death) of Asian characters in popular media, it’s not altogether that surprising that I would relate so much to this show.

I don’t mean to diminish the significance and importance of Kim’s Convenienceas amplifier for the oft-muted voice of the “Asian [North] American,”[1] even if this voice speaks metaphorically and literally with a Korean-Canadian accent. Living in a country where Asian American political concerns and stories are rarely mentioned (Jesse Waters’ gut-twistingly insensitive “comedy” “sketch” aside), I can hopefully be forgiven for embracing Asian immigrant narratives in Canadian form. But given how rooted Kim’s Convenience is in the universal contours of the immigrant experience, perhaps the ease of my cross-border cultural exchange is itself significant.

But much of Kim’s Convenience can be appreciated by non-immigrants as well. The jokes are smart and timely. The dialogue and relationships are charmingly sweet without being artificially saccharine. And the cast is phenomenal — Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, the only actor to play the boisterous Appa (“father” in Korean) during the theatrical run, deservedly receives the most critical praise for his performance on the show. But Andrea Bang has infused Janet, the relatable art-student daughter, with an expressive range and biting sense of humor that is rapidly solidifying the character’s status as perhaps the key emotional center of the show. Rounding off the main characters are the fantastic Jean Yoon’s Umma (“mother”) and Simu Liu’s Jung, the estranged son.

One of my favorite scenes in Kim’s Convenience starts with Jung coming over to the store to fix a leaking ceiling for Janet. [2] After reminiscing over a bittersweet memory of Jung being punished for locking Janet in a freezer, Jung starts to leave. Janet, wanting to delay his departure, offers to reheat some home-cooked kkorigomtang (oxtail soup) and yakbap, (rice steamed with nuts and fruits). Maybe the writers picked these foods at random, but it’s worth noting how famously labor-intensive kkorigomtang is to make — a quick search turns up a 5.5-hour recipe. The time required means that quality versions of soups like kkorigomtang are hard to find, especially when you’re accustomed to your mom’s version. That Jung will eagerly eat something prohibitively difficult for him to make at home is a small detail that goes easily unnoticed by most watchers. But there’s a second layer of comprehension, a knowing nod to the special place that comforting soups and a mother’s cooking have for countless people, Korean or otherwise.

And while Kim’s Convenience can stand on its own merits as a sitcom, it’s this additional layer of depth that drives my near-obsession with this show. Asian Americans often call for characters like The Walking Dead’s Korean-American Glenn Rhee (RIP), whose “ethnicity didn’t matter at all to his manhood or his relationships with others.”[3] I certainly sympathize with this need for complex Asian characters not defined by their ethnic identity. But as a Korean immigrant living in the current political climate, it is soul-affirming to see a Canadian sitcom so proudly and uncompromisingly exposing its Korean-ness as an important but singular aspect of a wonderfully rewarding show.

To return to the kkorigomtang scene, a shared meal between siblings is cut short by a would-be-robber and the subsequent appearance of Alex Jackson (Michael Xavier), a police officer, Jung’s childhood friend, and almost certainly Janet’s future love interest. On his way out, Jung offers some yakbapto Alex, who replies “I don’t know what yakbap is, but sure.” And this is perhaps the most succinct encapsulation of Kim’s Convenience’s appeal to non-Koreans — you might not understand every little thing, but that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying the experience.

Kim’s Convenience airs on CBC on Tuesdays 9/9:30 NT.