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Leon Kaye headshot

'Kim’s Convenience' Another Painful Lesson in Why Listening to Employees Absolutely Matters

By Leon Kaye
Kim’s Convenience

Among the many gems that are easy to binge watch on Netflix, Kim’s Convenience is a fun series to distract oneself from reality. Since 2016, the sitcom that had taken place in Toronto’s Moss Park neighborhood (shown above) has given an oft-lighthearted, sometimes heavy portrayal of a Korean-Canadian family finding their way through work and life.

Kim’s Convenience at first succeeded telling the immigrant family’s story

For anyone who is Korean, or has lived in South Korea for an extensive period of time, the series had for the most part given a realistic experience about some Koreans’ experience: the tensions between the immigrant parents and the first-generation children; the misunderstandings that can occur between various cultures; and the frustrations of fitting in and coping with assumptions people can make about you based on your heritage.

Is Kim’s Convenience 100 percent accurate? Of course not: Not all Koreans are obsessed with saving face (kibun); the melodramatic arguments punctuated by a long emphasis of the last vowel in a sentence can be a bit much; and the immigrant experience for Koreans – or any ethnicity, for that matter – is hardly formulaic. The shopkeeper subplot surely grates on some people’s nerves, too.

But overall, Kim’s Convenience had been a fun watch, with its fair share of physical comedy, misadventures, well-deserved side-eyes and little life lessons. And in the end, the Kim family members are ones who love each other and are endearing, from haughty “Appa” to sensitive “Umma” to wannabe badass Kimchee and the superficial and judgmental Mrs. Park. Viewers for the most part have enjoyed the series, at least according to Rotten Tomatoes, and north of the border the series has cleaned up with its fair share of awards – including those won by the actor playing Kimchee, Andrew Phung.

And then change occurred, one far worse

But season five of Kim’s Convenience has gone off the rails, and over the past several days the show’s stars have made it clear how the collective gut punches have affected them. Adding even more to the indignities, the series was cancelled after its fifth season because the showrunners of Kim’s Convenience decided to end the series – and they, not CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) or Neflix, own the show’s intellectual property.

Most searing in her criticism and heartache is Jean Yoon, who played the family’s matriarch on Kim’s Convenience. In a series of tweets last week, she summed up, in one episode’s proposed subplots, how the show went awry:

“Pastor Nina comes to the story to pick up Mrs. Kim for a Zumba class. Mrs. Kim is wearing NUDE shorts, and Pastor Nina is [too] embarrassed to tell her she looks naked from the waist down. Mr. Kim enters, and the joke is that if you're married you can say anything.”

“No one, esp. Mrs. Kim, would be unaware that a garment makes her look naked. Unless she is suddenly cognitively impaired. or STUPID. Stripping someone naked is the first act before public humiliation or rape. So what was so funny about that? At my request, Mr. Choi [the show’s creator] cut he scene.”

“THAT scene would have aired hours after 8 people, 6 Asian women, were shot in Atlanta, GA in a hate crime spree that shocked the nation. THIS IS WHY IT MATTERS. If an Asian actor says, 'Hey this isn't cool,' then maybe should just fix it, and say THANK YOU.”

So, how could have this incident, along with several others that Ms. Yoon described as “overtly racist” and “so extremely culturally inaccurate,” occurred?

According to some of the show’s cast, the show’s white producers dismissed any input from the stars of Kim’s Convenience. The same was true of the show’s writer’s room. According to another star of the show, Simu Lu (and star of an upcoming Marvel film), the tension between the Korean-Canadian cast and the writers and producers resulted in more friction after the fourth season, especially as the show’s creator, Ins Choi, left the show.

“…We were a cast of Asian Canadians who had a plethora of lived experiences to draw from and offer to writers,” Lu wrote in a Facebook post. “But we were often told of the next seasons' plans mere days before we were set to start shooting... there was deliberately not a lot of leeway given to us.”

Meanwhile, the show’s cast members for years apparently worked for far lower pay than the cast of fellow Canadian sitcom Schitt’s Creek – even though at times, Kim’s Convenience scored higher ratings in Canada than the Emmy Award-winning show.

“Our writer's room lacked both East Asian and female representation, and also lacked a pipeline to introduce diverse talents,” Lu continued. “Many of us in the cast were trained screenwriters with thoughts and ideas that only grew more seasoned with time. But those doors were never opened to us in any meaningful way.”

Kylie Cheung of Slate summed up the crisis that engulfed Kim’s Convenience – and one that can sum up far too many workplace cultures: “Representation isn't just about what we see onscreen - it must also include what takes place off-screen, and who occupies seats of decision-making power,” Cheung wrote last week.

Having a seat at the table isn’t the same as being welcomed into the room

And therein lies a simple, yet oft-overlooked lesson for anyone in a business setting. While it’s fine to commit to a more diverse workforce, celebrate Pride or honor Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, what is done is less important than how you approach such an event. It’s not enough to offer a seat at the table (or one in a cubicle): You need to extend a seat in the room where your organization is making those important decisions.

The bottom line is that whether you are rolling out a new product or design, embarking on a new recruitment policy, or acknowledging a community’s contribution to our way of life, someone with that background needs to be in that room. At a minimum, he or she can tell you whether you are on the right track – or about to ensnare your company in an embarrassing social media saga that will make the company appear clueless, or even worse, bigoted or racist.

By the way, as if the cast members of Kim’s Convenience have not felt insulted enough, mull over this face-palming factoid: The show’s one white character who played “Shannon” will soon have her own spinoff show – as of press time, none of the series’ leading cast members has been made such an offer.

Image credit: OldYorkGuy/Wiki Commons

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye