The Toronto of Kim’s Convenience

Featuring Toronto as The Metropole’s Metro of the Month was the perfect excuse to sit down and devour that city’s newest cultural export: Kim’s Convenience. The CBC Television show is now on Netflix, where blog co-editors Avigail Oren and Ryan Reft got down to the work of bingeing it over the course of a week.

AO: I’ve just finished the first season of the CBC television show Kim’s Convenience, and I’ll come right out and say that I loved it. It filled a big hole that was left in my TV-watching heart after finishing Schitt’s Creek, another Canadian sitcom that centers on a family’s daily life and the community in which they live. Schitt’s Creek, however, feels like it could be set anywhere in rural North America. Kim’s Convenience is clearly set in cosmopolitan Toronto. Yet, never having been to Toronto, I don’t know that I feel more familiar with the city now than I did before. The show has mostly just reaffirmed my preconceptions of Toronto: diverse, dense, and filled with nice people. What about you? Did you pick up on distinctively Torontonian elements?

RR: I’ve been to Toronto a few times. It’s a great city, though oddly I think of it being Midwestern even though I guess it’s considered more in the East. Still, when I think about the city and reflect on my experiences there, I tend to think of its human geography more than its built environment. The show is essentially filmed in closed locations and while they do fill things in a bit with interstitial shots featuring Toronto, it would have been great to see the actors in the flow of the city.

Still, they definitely highlight the city’s diversity, which I’m guessing wasn’t too hard given that roughly half of Torontonians are foreign-born. I’ll be honest, though: I hadn’t considered the city as a destination for Koreans. When you live in the States, Los Angeles kind of sucks up all the air when it comes to Korean-American culture, as well as Northern Virginia to a far lesser extent. Also I should admit, I’ve not watched Fresh Off the Boat, so this is really the only sitcom featuring Asian (North) American actors that I know of. The show is based on a 2011 play by Ins Choi, who moved to Toronto with his family as a child.

What did you think of the show from an entertainment standpoint? I thought it was solid, though the first season starts a little slow. It didn’t really get rolling until episode five and six. I find the parent characters (Mr. Kim/Appa played by Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Mrs. Kim/Umma played by Jean Yoon) are both funnier and more compelling than their children (Jung and Janet, played by Simu Liu and Andrea Bang, respectively), but I think that’s because older people are inherently more interesting than young people just due to life experience. I also wish they gave the brother a bit more of an edge. I’m not sure I’m convinced he used to be a hoodlum.

That said, the second half of season one definitely had more than a few moments where I laughed out loud. Appa’s use of the term “sneak attack” throughout the season was funny. Appa’s love of 1980s action film stars like Tom Cruise (“You look like that guy in The Last Samurai.” “Tom Cruise?” “No the Japanese guy.”)  was pretty damn effective too. Oddly, when it’s a Korean voice speaking, Appa’s casual anti-Japanese racism sounds less menacing and more ridiculous. I’m a few episodes into season two and it certainly seems to get even funnier. Economist Noah Smith hyped it on Twitter  over the weekend.

AO: You make a good point about human geography — the show really interprets Toronto through its people rather than its built environment. The show rarely takes you beyond the eponymous convenience store (and the family home above it), Jung’s apartment, the Korean church, the Handy Car Rental where Jung works, and Janet’s art college. It’s more akin to Friends than Sex and the City, though from these references you might think I stopped watching TV 15 years ago. The most memorable deviation from these spaces is the episode where Mr. Kim agrees to play wingman to his friend Mr. Chin. Mr. Chin is trying to forge a romantic connection with his beautiful Russian hairstylist, who has invited him to join her and a friend at their favorite martini bar (which also has karaoke?). When Mrs. Kim finds out, she invites herself along too. The result is delightfully comedic, but this bar could be any bar. Sex and the City took viewers to hip NYC spots like B.E.D. and Pastis and inspired thousands of teenagers to apply to college in New York, and new college graduates to move to New York, and tourists to visit New York. I’m not sure Kim’s Convenience makes the same sales pitch for Toronto.

That said, from an entertainment standpoint, I adored every moment of the first season. The show is sweet and funny and mines the frisson between immigrant parents and their kids in a way I found relatable. The relationship between Janet and her Appa reminded me of my relationship with my Israeli Abba; both Janet and I are simultaneously charmed and frustrated by our dads’ quirky passions and dumb rules. I never really considered myself the child of an immigrant when I was growing up, but watching Janet and Appa reminded me of all the gloriously weird and specific cultural detritus that my father contributed to my childhood.

In that sense, I think this show’s human geography extends far beyond Toronto. Perhaps, then, it’s beneficial that the show is not so invested in Toronto’s built environment.

I do think, however, that it’s worth considering the geography and symbolism of the Kim family’s store. What did you make of that built environment?

RR: Episode five (“Wingman”), which you referenced, is when I felt season one really picked up. The opening scene where Mr. Chin extols the feminine virtues of his cat Ginger and her new pajamas  and Mr. Kim responds, “You should be buying pajama for woman, human woman,” is solid comedy. Plus, when Mr. Kim agrees to serve as wingman he invokes a certain, very short actor once again for effect: “I will be the Goose to your Tom Cruise.”

To your point about the Kim family store, I think it’s notable that not only do they own and operate it, but they also live above it. This just furthers the idea of the immigrant family unit as a self-contained whole. Though admittedly, the show pushes back on this by comedically demonstrating the strains that are exerted on families in such situations. I did thoroughly enjoy the “expiration date is conspiracy” theme to episode nine. I’ve always questioned expiration dates myself.

One aspect of the show I really enjoyed is the open discussion of sexuality of all types. The Kims are not afraid of sexuality and have their own (fairly open-minded) views on such, as demonstrated by  the “gay discount” from episode one or when Mr. Kim announces that “fat Asians” can’t be gay — “only skinny Asian is gay, that’s the rule” — in episode eight. Jung has sex appeal as evidenced by his boss’s affections and that his character has sex on the show. Moreover, his mom finds out, and she’s not horrified or ashamed. For Asians in North America, sexuality is often simplified to tropes about docile, sensuous women, and duplicitous, effeminate men, which is obviously not the case here. I’d add that, as you noted, the show deals admirably with the Korean immigrant experience specifically, but also more generally.

AO: I very much related to Mr. Kim’s cavalier attitude towards the expiration date. If it doesn’t smell, it’s probably fine!

You make a good point about the Kims’ sexuality. What you don’t remark upon, though, is how vocal Mr. and Mrs. Kim are about their sexual attraction to one another and their desire for each other. Without ever feeling gratuitous or awkward, they demonstrate that sex is an important part of the intimacy in their relationship. Do you think the way the show normalizes sexuality reflects Canadian, or Torontonian, cosmopolitanism?

Whether or not that’s the case, I think the show reflects the importance of trying to be welcoming, open minded, and respectful even when it is difficult. There’s a scene where two sisters in niqabs come into the store and Mr. Kim greets them by name. When another customer asks how he can tell them apart when their faces are covered, he shares his personal mnemonic for distinguishing one woman from the other. When Mr. Kim is out of earshot, however, they whisper to the customer that he only gets the names right half the time. They appreciate, however, that he tries.

There’s something idyllic about how the show handles multiculturalism. Dan Levy has said of Schitt’s Creek that he very intentionally made his character, David, identify as a pansexual and intentionally wrote a show where the character faces no adversity as a result of his queerness: “I think because we’re so accustomed to seeing queer love stories that are put in jeopardy by outside forces — it’s the sort of ‘Brokeback Mountain’ effect of, any time you see two queer people in love, there has to be some kind of consequence. So to propose a world where there is no consequence, and two people can love each other sort of wholly … in small-town America, and ultimately show that what comes from that is freedom and love and joy. It’s a form, I guess, of sort of quiet protest, saying that this is how things should be.” I see a similar way in which Kim’s Convenience recognizes prejudice — as you mention, Mr. Kim is explicit about his dislike for the Japanese — while also transcending it and demonstrating a version of the world in which people only earn your ire for being real assholes (like Janet’s professor and her son).

Do you get this sense, or am I just being naive?

RR: No, I agree. I haven’t watched Schitt’s Creek, but that comparison sounds quite apt. The professor depends on idealized or a stereotyped vision of the “other” but wraps it up in faux compassion, or a performative empathy. She’s the the version of multiculturalism that doesn’t want to put the work in unless she’s “saving someone.” She can’t even handle the most basic level of conflict. She refers to “no” as the “n-word” when disciplining her son, whereas the Kims argue all the time but work toward hashing out whatever issue is at the core because that’s how people work through things, and it’s not always a sign of trouble. I think the show’s strength in this regard is its ability to maintain a sense of humor amidst the chaos, which itself is important. After all, to your point about Schitt’s Creek, the immigrant story might be larded with hardscrabble narratives, but there are plenty of funny, humorous success stories too. One example comes during the final episode of season one, when Janet rents Mr. Kim the tricked-out SUV. “I can’t drive this, I look like a pimp,” Mr. Kim tells her. Of course, five minutes later he plays the part, smoking a cigar and wearing blinged-out sunglasses on a restaurant patio with a fellow immigrant businessman.

So, final thoughts on the show?

AO: My final thoughts? I want to visit Toronto very badly, and I recommend this show without reservations. I have also progressed into the second season and think it’s even funnier than the first. Your final thoughts?

RR: You know having been lucky enough to finally visit Vancouver this past summer, I’ve now hit all of  Canada’s big three cities: VC, Toronto, and Montreal.  Urban Canada is pretty fantastic. Each is unique in its own way and really fantastic, so I’m glad there’s a show our there that humorously conveys a sense of this to Canada’s southern neighbors.

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