Being different is to embrace the diversity we encounter; to absorb it into one’s everyday life with a sense of optimism, adventure and to abandon preconceived notions.
Hell, we learned that from Star Trek. Am I right?
But, if you need a refresher course, then the CBC’s smash hit comedy show, Kim’s Convenience, will show you how it’s done.
I’ve been fortunate to talk with Paul Sun Hyung Lee about his role on this show before. But if you’re not familiar with it, its premise is a comedic look at a Toronto Korean convenience store owner and his family as they deal with the challenges of life. While it may not sound particularly daring, if you think about the premise carefully, there’s a substantial level of bravery required to address this aspect of everyday life that is our culture that we take for granted.
I’m not just talking about the immigration aspect of our culture, however. Though with the negative rhetoric in the media we hear about refugee crises and caravans of people hoping for a better life, this is an important and divisive topic that needs to be addressed. But I’m talking about the by-product of that immigration experience that has contributed to a vibrant and diverse type of shared lifestyle in Toronto that should make it the envy of the rest of the world.
Jean Yoon, who plays Umma (and Captain Yao in The Expanse), had this to say about the show:
“Our show is almost radical in its assertion that we live here and this is our point of view. With the hostility about immigrants and refugees, like when Donald Trump talks about the caravans and whatever, what’s great about our show, especially from Paul’s character’s perspective, is that we see a critique of mainstream Canadian culture that is accepted and is a tremendous well of comedy.”
Humour is a way of accepting differences. Another feature of our lives that we often forget is that laughter is a universal trait of all cultures and can be a meeting point for different perspectives. It makes any experience, any encounter authentic and acceptable. Andrew Phung (Kimchee) had this to add:
“We’re all immigrants. This is indigenous land and we’re all settlers. My biggest takeaway though is that when I was watching shows, growing up, you watch these characters’ lives and you don’t get a real sense of they’re being hard-working people. You never saw the hard work. That’s what connects this show to the audience: the characters in this show, they’re hard-working people with their own struggles and that’s the Canadian experience and what makes it real.”
Being different is a real part of what we take for granted as being Canadian. It’s perfectly normal to have our hockey games commented on in Punjabi or to have jerk chicken served with poutine. I can walk down a street in our city and have a choice of food served to me from at least five different cultures. When I travel the world, I meet people who have relatives from all around the Greater Toronto Area.
It’s the Canadian daring in being different that makes us acceptable to the rest of the world and something that Canadians underestimate about themselves.
Kim’s Convenience doesn’t lock itself into the typical immigrant mentality. There is a vast range of character types on the show that not only adds to the authenticity of the viewing experience but also introduces the audience to the real people we accept in the world.
“There’s the family, but there’s also customers and in Season Two, the Syrian refugee family that we’re able to meet. We get to bring nuances to this show that touch on the real world that other shows don’t get the opportunity to show.” Jean points out.
Even other “immigrant” shows can’t bring this type of realism to bear. The secret behind Kim’s Convenience ability to stand out is not just its authenticity but how much this show applies to everyone watching it, regardless of their own cultural backgrounds. Simu Liu, who plays Jung on the show, had this insight to offer:
“I really love that there is something in this show for everyone. Personally speaking, I’m 29 years old – I’m about the age that my parents were when they had me. Watching this show … the show retains a lot of the DNA from the play that Jean and Paul were a part of. I remember watching the play for the first time, I was bawling my eyes out, because I was watching my parents on stage, talking to me. It made me very emotional. And I would hope that people watching the show, whether you’re the children’s generation or the parents’ generation that these conflicts the characters resolve on screen would allow both the parents and children to come to a greater understanding of each other.”
Another universal constant in people’s lives is family. We can all relate to each other about our relationships to our family members. Everyone is a son or daughter or cousin; and the audience can view the show’s characters through these perspectives, and in doing so, their differences become something real and that we can understand.
We learn to overcome difference in our family units. Sibling rivalry or inter-generational conflicts are often first encounters in conflict. In the end, we often agree to disagree but we accept those people we live with because they are our family. These are our first lessons in resolving conflict and at the heart of these lessons is tolerance and the willingness to embrace the existence of these differences.
“It’s tough enough for people of different generations to understand each other. When you throw in a language barrier, it’s difficult to have a functional relationship in a household. I remember growing up, I held a lot of resentment for my parents,” Simu continued to point out. “Like Janet (Andrea Bang) in the show; they [my parents] didn’t understand why I wanted to hang out with certain friends, do the things I wanted to do, but at the bottom of it, there was the recognition that your parents sacrificed greatly for you. So, you know, that’s something that the show can help with, in attacking these issues and bringing them to light.”
The other thing that makes Kim’s Convenience brave is the way in which it tackles issues that would be considered sensitive. The whole idea of a “gay discount” that was featured in the first season refreshingly brings to the television screen the notion of acknowledging differences without stigma or prejudice.
“Yeah, the ‘gay discount’ episode. You know, the writers aren’t afraid,” Andrew Phung observed. “I mean, when I read this, I was like ‘whoa… that’s a gutsy move’. But they want to go there; they aren’t afraid to tell the story and they want to touch on points that are happening in our culture. I don’t like to compare to other shows, and every show has its own voice, but the voice in our show is unapologetic. And, Ins Choi, Kevin White and Garry Campbell really wanted to reflect the authentic experiences of this family and these characters …”
“… In THIS city, and in THIS country, and yeah, the specificity is really important because a lot of times, writers and artists try to aspire to the universal and think that means stripping things away, but the universal is present in the very, very specific and in the individual things you know,” Jean Yoon interjected. “Stick with the details because the universal has to deal with the experience. The heart, the friendship, the love – the misunderstandings, the human interaction and I think that I’m so proud that our show is so Toronto. This is the Toronto that I know and I’m really proud of that.”
Diversity is everything. Diversity is bravery and what makes this show stand out is the desire to celebrate the struggle of everyday life, to embrace the differences we all encounter in that everyday life and manage to stand out with a bold identity that acknowledges others with acceptance, tolerance and respect. It’s because of those differences that we see Kim’s Convenience as authentic, and not, as Jean puts it “some kind of plastic model of a show.”
I like to think that the neighbourhood convenience store is the unsung hero in our neighbourhoods. That’s the same with this show. Like the convenience store that sill have bread, milk or aspirin when you need it, there’s laughter, tears, anger, frustration and yeah, we even see intolerance in this show. But it’s real. It’s the type of thing that we need to see so that we can all understand each other and not because we are Asian but because we are: rebellious sons, struggling business owners; someone with a crush, a gay neighbour, or just a person trying to make a living.
We need these people in our lives because they are different and they teach us bravery just by interacting with them, trying to do what we think is the right thing to do, and accepting other people’s points of view.
I didn’t have anything to do with the creation of this show but I feel like this show is a brave and integral part of Canadian culture.
I’m proud of Kim’s Convenience, because its differences are about showing us how much we have in common, and something that brings us all together in this day and age is certainly something worthy of pride.
Season Three begins Tuesday, Jan. 8 on CBC.
Make sure you tune in.