January 2013

Christopher Merkel

Unamerican

Kim's Convenience

At the corner of North High Street and West Norwich Avenue in Columbus, Ohio, there's a bar called The Little Bar. I've never been there. I hardly went to bars in the university district when I lived in the city, and I don't ever go when I visit, even for all of the redevelopment in the area (and maybe because of it). And anyway, The Little Bar just doesn't look like a place I'd like place go. Aside from the tent that covers the part of the parking lot that's been fenced off into a patio, it actually looks like a lot like an IHOP, probably because that's what the building originally was. But after the IHOP and before the bar, the building at North High and West Norwich was a convenience store called Lee's Market, and Lee's Market, before he sold it, belonged to a Mr. Son, the father of an erstwhile friend of mine.

I don't know if a Lee ever owned Lee's Market. For as long as it was on my personal map of Columbus (the time period that corresponded to my friendship with their son), it was owned and operated by the Sons. Mr. and Mrs. Son were first generation Korean immigrants, and as that story often goes, although Mr. Son had graduated from an elite university in Seoul, he came to North American with his wife, parents, and infant child (the older of my friend's two sisters) in hopes that he might provide his children with the best possible opportunities for their future success. I don't know if the Mr. (Ms. or Mrs.) Lee who might have owned Lee's Market before Mr. Son was Korean, but it would make sense if he or she had been, and not just because Lee is a common Korean surname, but because ownership of convenience stores, dry cleaners, nail salons, and the like -- especially in the North American inner city vacuums left behind by waves of white flight to the suburbs -- was a not uncommon part of the immigrant experience of Koreans like Mr. Son (and our hypothetical Lee).

I don't know. (Beat.) Then enter Kim's Convenience by actor and playwright Ins Choi.

I don't know if I would have decided to read Choi's play if its story hadn't so closely resembled my own experience of the Korean immigrant experience as I saw it being played on the stage of Lee's Market. But it did, so I did; and I'm happy to have found it. Kim's Convenience is about the Kims. Mr. Kim is a first generation immigrant, and he owns and operates a convenience store in a quickly gentrifying neighborhood of downtown Toronto with his wife (and the reluctant assistance of his daughter Janet). Mr. Kim hasn't seen his son Jung (who has become a father himself) in sixteen years, and when he's made a generous offer by a real estate agent for the store, he starts to wonder about both his retirement and the legacy of his personal story.

Choi's play won Best New Play at the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2011 and then went on to a sold out run at Toronto's Soulpepper Theater in 2012. There was apparently quite a buzz. As Choi recounts in his author's note, "One Korean family came [to the Fringe Festival] all the way from Parry Sound at the request of their friends, who told them to 'close the store and come see this play; it's about us.'" I felt like I got that, even if the play wasn't about me. But having read it, I can't think that the success of Kim's Convenience was only because of the keenness of its portrayal of the Korean convenience store experience (whether experienced as a Korean on the inside or from without). Nor could it just have been for its touching portrayal of a delicate family dynamic. I'm not one who laughs out loud when reading, but I did, and often, because Kim's Convenience is hilarious.

Mr. Kim surveys the street outside his store for illegally parked Japanese cars. He has Janet call the cops because his English isn't great. (And then he tells her to call them off when he comes to know that the illegally parked Japanese car outside belongs to the real estate agent who comes to the store to make him an offer: Mr. Lee, the black man with the Korean name.) He has communication trouble with his customers. ("Ginseng" is an imperialist word.) He has communication trouble with Janet, who went to OCAD to study photography instead of becoming "doctor, lawyer, big success."

Mr. Kim would like Janet to take over the store. "You don't know how to run store, I teach you." Lesson number one: "steal or no steal." "Look. Secret survival skill... Make eyes very small. Then nobody know you even looking... Okay, brown guy, that's steal. Brown girl, that's no steal. Asian guy, that's no steal. Asian girl, that's steal." Wait for it... "If you is the gay, that's no steal. Easy. The gay is never steal. If you is the lesbian, that is girl who is the gay, that's steal, one hundred percent guarantee they is steal. But two lesbian, that's no steal, cancel-out combo." The Jamaican man at the back of the store who prompts the inception of Janet's training does in fact steal, and Mr. Kim uses his hapkido to make him accept Jesus into his heart. Laugh out loud. Seriously.

But behind the "awkwardly racist" humor of Kim's Convenience also lie some of its most important social truths. The entirety of the cast of the play is either Korean or black. The four Koreans are the Kims: Mr. and Mrs., Janet and Jung. Rich, a young black man; Mr. Lee, the real estate agent; Mike, a man with the Jamaican accent; and Alex, the cop and childhood friend of Jung's are all intended to be played by the same actor. I can't speak to the effect of that choice on the play as it has been performed. But as a reader, even armed with the knowledge of that casting directive beforehand, those four characters never read just as essentialized facsimiles of each other. Rather, although the one face of the single black actor might be a symbol representative of the Kims' black neighbors at large, his four very different characters represent the manifest diversity of that community.

Mr. Kim makes racial judgments and he doesn't. "Black guy, jean jacket. That combo is steal combo... See that girl? She is black girl, fat. Fat black girl is no steal... Fat white guy, that's steal. Fat guy is black, brown shoes, that's no steal. That's cancel-out combo." Rather, Mr. Kim simply calls it as he sees it, from experience and from his heart. A dozen or so scenes after he delivers lesson number one, Mr. Kim uses his hapkido to make Alex -- who he seems to think is moving too slowly in his courtship of his daughter -- kiss Janet.

Although most of us probably have some experience with the immigrant entrepreneurial experience, what we've seen at the convenience store or at the dry cleaner or at the nail salon might not have belied the (other?) racial tensions that often characterized that trend. Asian immigrants who, for example, were able to self-capitalize their business ventures through savings associations within their own immigrant communities, often found themselves at odds with the underclassed black communities into whose neighborhoods they had moved. Earlier this year, mayor Marion Barry recanted his comments regarding the need for Asian American business owners in Washington, DC "to go," and for African Americans to take their place. Still, the sentiments that inspire comments such as his -- the origins of which are as complex as the experiences of the different immigrant communities with which we associate certain small businesses -- are shared by many within the communities they affect... while the systems that limit entrepreneurship by non-"model" minorities persist. Refreshingly, Ins Choi appears to be aware.

In Kim's Convenience, Mr. Kim and Ins Choi make racial distinctions and they don't. At the very least, the minority communities depicted in Choi's play aren't depicted as essentially at odds. And better, they aren't depicted as essentially anything. Mr. Kim has his predilections and his allegiances, but his personal Korean immigrant experience isn't his children's, and he ultimately doesn't try to make it so. (To be candid, I think that he'd accept anyone who had accepted Jesus, although ultimately, his children's happiness might even be the exception for that.) Mr. Kim may be set in certain ways, but he's not blind to the implications of the changes happening in his neighborhood and community -- nor closed to the new possibilities they present. He doesn't really want to sell. His vision, which I suspect is shared by Ins Choi, seems to be one of new minority models, ones based on both mutual understanding and mutual aid.

And now, as more and more old inner cities are transformed into new, high-cost-of-entry lifestyle communities, it might be exactly the time to insist on a proper recognition of that immigrant experience, its attainments as well as its tensions. Toward his own end, Mr. Son did sell Lee's Market to developers. I don't think I'll ever go to The Little Bar, and I doubt that any of its customers remember the convenience store it was. I don't know how Mr. Son felt about selling, or if he got the generous sum that Mr. Lee offers Mr. Kim in Kim's Convenience. His English wasn't great, and we never talked much. But I do remember that he was at work almost every day of the year, and almost always smiling whenever I happened into the store. Even though he sold, he didn't have much of a retirement, and it gives me pause whenever I happen to remember that he died before seeing his son become a doctor.