Andrew Phung and Andrea Bang from Kim’s Convenience
When Korean-born, Toronto-raised playwright and actor Ins Choi first created Kim’s Convenience, which he premiered as a play in 2011 and later adapted into a TV show that’s now a Netflix hit, he did so specifically to conjure landscapes and characters that were central to his life but absent from the stage and media narratives around him. And there was a more practical reason, too. "I wrote it so that I could have a job, so I could get paid, so there would be a vehicle for me," he said in a 2013 interview. "Because no one else is writing a vehicle for me."
The show, produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Company, breaks new ground largely because of that intentional intertwining of story, representation, and platform. It has the generational angst common to narratives about immigrant families, but the action is refracted through a particular Korean-Canadian lens by a creator who lived the experience. The convenience store, the Korean church, and a certain kind of parental pressure and love and disapproval — recognizable archetypes represented by a cast who know and have shared some of these experiences, too. Kim’s Convenience is a sitcom, but it manages to transcend the genre by going deeper, more authentically, into those cultural touchstones.
That’s exactly what motivated Woojin Kim, an Ed.M. candidate in learning and teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, to bring Kim’s cast members — as well as an actor from another contemporary path-breaker, ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat — to HGSE for a panel discussion about the power of media representation and new visibility for formerly marginalized narratives.
Kim wanted the event — called Reimagine "Asian" and featuring Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Simu Liu, Andrea Bang, and Andrew Phung from Kim's and Hudson Yang from Fresh Off the Boat — to highlight the importance of media and popular culture in how young people develop their identities. He also hoped to celebrate the importance of narrative — and the new power that Asian creators are finding. As a diversity and inclusion intern at HGSE who studies (and teaches) media representation, he wanted to bring these actors onto a stage where Harvard’s institutional power and platform could underscore the vibrancy and excitement of these new creators and their narratives.
The conversation drew overflow crowds to Askwith Hall last night, with the help of a small army of volunteers from the sponsoring organizations: The HGSE Office of Student Affairs, the Harvard Asia Center, the HGSE Pan-Asian Coalition for Education, and the Harvard Pan-Asian Graduate Student Alliance.
From left, Andrew Phung, Andrea Bang, Simu Liu, and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee
Kim’s Convenience was at the vanguard of a current wave of movies, TV shows, music, and other entertainments made by creators who are intentionally bringing their own stories and aspirations to wider audiences. The films Black Panther, Get Out, and Crazy Rich Asians are on the crest of that wave, but Kim also cites podcasts like “They Call Us Bruce” and the meme-driven Facebook group Subtle Asian Traits as key new avenues of self-expression among Asian-identifying creators.
After years of misrepresentation, stereotype, or just erasure, “we’re now seeing the emergence of directors and creators who are intentional and thoughtful about the casting choices they’re making,” Kim says. “They are covering a very wide gamut. These creatives can express their full and true stories, crafting more authentic, diverse narratives.”
In an interview recorded before the panel discussion, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who plays Appa, the patriarch on Kim's, spoke of feeling "very isolated when I was younger, because I never saw my family represented on any of the screens or any media growing up. I wanted so hard just to fit in and to assimilate that I actively sort of pushed away my own heritage, because it was never seen. And when you don't see yourself reflected on the screens, you're very subtlely taught that your stories don't matter, or that you're an outsider," he said. "So nowadays, for Asian kids to see themselves and their families reflected up on the screens is a big deal. It normalizes what their families are. Really, at the end of the day, it shows that they're not alone, that these are common stories."
Authentic Portrayals — and Identity Building
As an educator in Houston, Kim saw how important it was for young people to feel validated in who they are. He’s read the research that shows not only the positive effects of having a teacher who looks like you, but also the significance of media on identity formation.
“Just having that be present in the classroom and in the world around you — having people around to show you, I could do this. I could be a teacher, I could be a scientist, I could be in politics, I could be an artist — just having those faces of individuals who have gone before is so meaningful and powerful,” he says. Citing the influence of a movie like Hidden Figures, or of the recognition given to snowboarder Chloe Kim during the 2018 Winter Olympics, Kim says, “You can see the circle of students become more empowered.” For Asian students, in particular, diverse media narratives help to say, “We’re more than just what society has pegged us as, as whiz kids or nerdy math and science geniuses.”
For him, Kim’s Convenience is “unapologetically the Korean experience – I identify a lot with what the family goes through, whether they are at home, whether they are taking off their shoes, whether they are going to church. It’s very authentic and very real; it’s like, yeah, that’s my experience,” says Kim.
But he likes that it’s “also debunking some myths. I have friends who are more similar to Simu Liu’s character [Jung, the son on Kim’s], a character who has a history of being a ‘bad boy,’ who led a life that was different than the stereotype. To see that on screen — to see that hey not every person is this successful “model minority” — brings to light that there are other issues that need addressing. It widens the lens for what can be portrayed.”
Combatting Stereotype in Schools and Society
When he was a teacher, Kim says, “I had students who identified with a lot of the stereotypical math-science interest and the drive to get good grades.” Some of those students, in a survey he conducted, spoke of feeling pressured not to pursue their STEM interests, and not to seem “too Asian” in the way they portrayed themselves. “But I also had students who felt very ‘other’— as Asian Americans who didn’t fall into that,” he says.
“It was important that I could to empathize, just to say, ‘I see you, and you matter.’”
Kim has created sample lesson plans for teachers who want to bring contemporary representations of Asian American identities in literature and popular culture into the classroom. In the first two lessons he’s piloted, he developed one curriculum centered on the film and Kevin Kwan book Crazy Rich Asians, and another that uses the lyrics of the Filipino-American rapper NAK as a lens on second-generation Asian American identity.
Woojin Kim, Ed.M. candidate in learning and teaching, at this year's Alumni of Color Conference
Kim has also worked to build and broaden a sense of belonging for Asian-identifying members of the Harvard community. He founded a university-wide interest group called the Harvard Pan-Asian Graduate Student Alliance, which connects students and alumni from all of Harvard’s 12 graduate schools. Operating under the umbrella of the Provost’s office, the group will strengthen bonds and networking opportunities for Harvard alumni and current students, and it will also position graduate students to serve as mentors to Harvard College students.
“I’m hopeful that this group will carry over to future years. I believe it will. There has not been a group like this on campus before.” And, clearly, now is the time.
*note: this article has been updated to reflect new details of the event.