Kim's Convenience: The end of the dream

What a Canadian sitcom meant to me.

“My home is not a place, it is people.” — Lois McMaster Bujold

“There is no such thing as a model or ideal Canadian.” — Pierre Trudeau

For three years, during the darkest days of Trump’s presidency and the COVID pandemic, during times of social unrest and violence and mass insanity, I took refuge in a Canadian sitcom called Kim’s Convenience. If you haven’t seen it, you should watch it on Netflix. It’s a show about a family that owns a convenience store in Toronto. The parents are immigrants from Korea, their adult children Jung and Janet are trying to make their way in the world. Jung is working at a car rental, trying to recover from a stint in juvenile detention; Janet is a photography student, struggling to be independent. Pretty standard setup — what makes this show so special is less easily defined.

Kim’s Convenience filled a hole that had been left by the end of Parks and Recreation and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, which is to say, it was a fantasy of a family that’s better than my own. It’s no shame to admit that; most people’s families can’t measure up to a well-crafted fantasy. That’s why we have fantasies. It’s funny to recall that in the book Fahrenheit 451, the idea of a surrogate family on TV is presented as a dystopic element — a symbol of a bankrupt, plastic consumerist age. Sometimes, something that’s made to sound horrifying in a sci-fi book ends up being beautiful when you experience it in reality.

Mr. and Mrs. Kim (or “Appa” and “Umma” to their kids) aren’t perfect parents. But if you watched a show with perfect parents you wouldn’t believe it; what feels good to watch are parents with venial flaws you can understand and excuse, and which can be overcome in the course of the show. That’s the human arc we want; those are the parents we wish we had. And the creators of Kim’s Convenience were so incredibly good at delivering that — from Mr. Kim’s acrimonious split with his son Jung that ultimately thaws over the course of the show, to Mrs. Kim’s gradual realization that she has to let go of her kids. Underneath all that, it’s clear this is a family who loves each other, who will never abandon each other. The outer blemishes serve only to emphasize the unyielding purity at the core.

(For those who haven’t seen it, I should also mention that the show is damn funny. It takes the technique of rapid oscillation between heartwarming and cringe that Parks and Rec pioneered, and turns it up to a 10. And the actors are all startlingly good.)

But Kim’s Convenience meant more to me than simply a perfectly-imperfect surrogate family. The society the Kims exist in is one I wish I could move to.

American society has been perpetually in turmoil over racial issues since its inception, but in the past seven years our wars over identity, belonging, privilege and oppression have become especially heated and intense. For a few brief years, many Americans had allowed themselves to indulge in the fantasy that Barack Obama’s presidency meant the beginning of the end of racial injustice and division in their country, and I think that the utter collapse of that optimism is one factor feeding the rage that has erupted since 2014. It felt like a dream was snatched away.

To me, Kim’s Convenience was that dream brought to life, but much more convincingly than anything Obama’s America could have produced. To some, Kim’s Convenience was a landmark moment in Asian representation on the screen, and I respect that, because I think that’s a good and necessary thing. But the actual world of Kim’s Convenience feels like a place that has progressed far beyond the need for representation. The protagonists are minorities, and Mr. and Mrs. Kim are even immigrants, and yet they feel every bit like “sons of the soil” — as naturally at home and secure and embedded in their society as folks who can trace their local roots back fifty generations.

The society the show depicts is not a colorblind one, where racial and cultural differences are studiously ignored. Nor does it depict a melting pot, where the children of immigrants work to erase their heritage in order to blend in. They don’t have to. They live a world of diversity without division, where people’s various cultural backgrounds are worn openly — simply a part of who they are, like fingers and toes. There are certainly a few racists around — a bigot who sells Jung some shoes, Janet’s snooty art teacher who harbors insulting stereotypes — but they don’t feel like gatekeepers to a dominant mainstream that our heroes struggle to access. Instead, they are merely buffoons. The Kims themselves are the mainstream.

If this isn’t quite a racial utopia, it feels like something that’s asymptoting in that direction. Like the foibles of the Kim family itself, the racial divisions of this fantasy Toronto are utopian by the sheer fact of their ultimate inconsequentiality. To an American like me — all too eager to fetishize and idealize other cultures as alternatives to my own wounded society — Kim’s Convenience feels like the kind of story that could only take place in Canada. And indeed, the entire thing is almost certainly influenced by Canada’s longstanding self-image as a “cultural mosaic”, and by the Canadian Multiculturalism Act of 1971.

Now, I’m not so much of a fetishist to assume that this is the real Canada. It most certainly is not. Sure, our neighbor to the north never elected a Donald Trump, and its immigration policy has remained open and welcoming. But the real Canada is having a surge of anti-Asian racism. The real Canada has its own culture wars, and its own racist police brutality, and its own performative social media battles, and its own dark history of oppression. If the real Canada is more racially harmonious than the U.S., it’s by a modest margin.

Instead, the world of Kim’s Convenience was Canada’s dream of its better self. Which is a different dream than America’s. And sometimes when your own dream has been shattered, at least temporarily, it’s nice to be able to live in someone else’s, and to believe that it might still be alive and intact.

Unfortunately, the reason I’ve been talking about Kim’s Convenience in the past tense is that the show was recently cancelled; apparently the creators decided it was time to move on. I wish they had given us a final season to tie everything up, but oh well. If you watch the show, you should check out the parting statements by actors Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Simu Liu. And then go watch anything else they, or Jean Yoon, or Andrea Bang, or Andrew Phung, or Nicole Power, or Sugith Varughese, or any of the cast of the show put out.

But I believe that Kim’s Convenience will linger in people’s minds. Not because it will be acknowledged as a work of Great Art; we’re too snobbish to think of sitcoms in those terms, even when they deserve it. Instead something about the show will simply stick. When we’re dealing with our own families, perhaps we’ll think about how Janet and Appa would have worked things out. And when we’re finally working to rebuild our own society after the shattering conflicts of the last decade, perhaps the fantasy Canada of Kim’s Convenience will give us a clue about what we might want to build. Sometimes hope can’t just walk up and hit you over the head; sometimes it has to resort to a sneak attack.