Kim’s Convenience and Bearing One Another's Burdens

Zachary Lee

Have you ever reflected on how the Kingdom of God is like a grand feast? Author Jemar Tisby has imagined this feast as “potluck style,” where “Ethiopians will bring injera, Nigerians jollof, Jamaicans goat curry, and Koreans kimchi.” After reading these words, I immediately brainstormed other Korean dishes that could be on the menu.

For the spice lovers, perhaps soondubu-jigae or tteokbokki? Then there’s always hyeonmi-cha to wash down the heat. Make no mistake: kimchi definitely needs to be on the heavenly spread, but I know that Koreans have more to offer than just this piquant side dish.

Extending this metaphor to representation in media, I always felt that Korean stories were relegated to “side dish” status. While still poignant enough to make an impact, such stories were rarely granted the dignity of being a “main course.” However, Kim’s Convenience, a Canadian sitcom that recently dropped its fifth—and, to the shock and sadness of all, final—season on Netflix, was the show that satiated my appetite for narratives that authentically spoke to the Korean story, particularly that of Korean immigrants. Set against the backdrop of the titular, family-owned convenience store, the show focuses on the lives of the Kim family: patriarch Sang-il (Paul Sun-Hyng Lee), who is called “Appa” (Korean for dad); matriarch Yong-mi (Jean Yoon), called “Umma” (Korean for mom); their son Jung (Simu Liu); and daughter Janet (Andrea Bang) as they navigate the hardships of trying to adjust and assimilate to Canadian life, while also holding on to their cultural roots.

One glorious aspect of the show comes from its nonchalant and unapologetic portrayal of Korean culture; it instructs by way of immersion rather than exposition. From Jung and his best friend and coworker Kimchee (Andrew Phung) pranking each other through ddong chim (click at your own risk) to Appa and Janet practicing and bonding over hapkido (Korean martial arts) to the copious amounts of food represented (bindaetteok and gamjatang, to name a few) the show doesn’t ever feel the need to over explain cultural elements, but merely represent them.

I always felt that Korean stories were relegated to “side dish” status.

Additionally, the show’s unflinchingly honest portrayal of the culture of its characters lays the foundation for a beautiful lesson on the importance of carrying each other’s burdens. At the start of Season 5, the Kim family has to wrestle with Umma’s diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS). Umma refuses to tell Janet of her condition and instead waits a full four months until Janet returns from Tanzania to share the news. Janet is heartbroken and enraged that she wasn’t told sooner, stating that she would have come back from Tanzania had she known. To this Umma somberly responds, “That’s why I didn’t tell you.” For the next few episodes, Janet is frustrated by her immigrant mother’s refusal to be direct, while Umma feels that the generational gap between her and Janet means her daughter doesn't have a love that can go beyond verbal confession.

It all culminates when the two attend an MS support group. Umma has told the group that Janet is actually the one with MS. While the two bicker and Janet tries to get her mother to confess the truth, she slyly and histrionically begins to speak as her mother. “It’s my pride getting in the way of me asking for help. I just wish I wasn’t so stubborn,” Janet argues, all the while glaring at her mother. “I’m an adult and I should be able to ask for help.” Umma then fires back, “Yeah . . . and I treat her like a baby” (referring of course to the way she feels babied by Janet). Something clicks as Janet sees things from her umma’s perspective. Still speaking for her mother, Janet states, “I’ve always been strong, always keep it together for the sake of others. And the last thing I want is to have them worry about me.” She looks at her mother with tearful eyes and adds, “I understand her now.”

This sequence is a beautiful reminder of Paul’s exhortation in Galatians 6:2: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Janet comes to see her mothers’ withholding of hard truths as stemming from a deep form of love, while Umma comes to realize that the loving thing for Janet would be to sincerely share her burdens. As the two begin to see each other more clearly and walk in each other's shoes, I was reminded of how empathy is truly an incarnational virtue. The God of the universe, who transcends time and space, chose to take on flesh and become human; God’s divinity did not come at the cost of relationship with us. He is one who is able to “empathize with our weaknesses,” who wept at the death of a friend, even though he was going to raise him moments later. In this way, Janet and Umma modeled a love that went beyond the confines of their own comfort or experiences and led them to sacrifice in order to better understand each other.

I would be remiss not to mention that as much as I have loved the show for its cultural representation, stars Simu Liu and Jean Yoon have shared recently that behind the scenes, they had a more difficult experience. The actors noted that there were many conflicts throughout the sitcom’s five-year run, namely stemming from a mostly white creative team that failed to allow the actors of color to offer their creative input. As much as Kim’s Convenience can and should be lauded for its on-screen representation, true representation involves more than simply having Asian actors and actresses enact white-directed stories; it means having them be in the room where creative decisions are made.

Though reading through Liu and Yoon’s accounts was heartbreaking, I still hope for what the show was in its best moments: an earnest celebration of Korean culture, as well as a champion of a sacrificial love that extends beyond words. It acts as a powerful reminder that in the new creation—where people from every tribe, tongue, and nation are present—there’s room for the Korean convenience store.

Topics: TV