“What is my story? Hm? What is story of me, Mr. Kim? My whole life is this store. Everybody know this store, they know me. This store is my story.”
Appa, talking to his daughter Janet, in Kim’s Convenience
Actor and writer Ins Choi first created his play, Kim’s Convenience, for the 2011 edition of the Toronto Fringe Festival, and the play (remounted by Soulpepper Theatre in 2012) became a huge hit, leading to a national tour and, more recently, to the adaptation for CBC Television as a weekly sit-com – the first Canadian television show to have a lead cast made up entirely of Asian actors. But after its successful run in theatres, and before it was picked up by the CBC, House of Anansi Press published the play in 2012 (it has recently been re-issued with a cover featuring Paul Sun-Hyung Lee on the set of the show).
Choi’s play dropped us into the world of Korean immigrants Appa and Umma (played on stage as well as in the television adaptation by Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Jean Yoon, respectively) and the variety store they run in the Regent Park neighbourhood of downtown Toronto. It neatly encapsulated the immigrant experience – Appa, educated, was a teacher in Korea, but his halting English meant he couldn’t work as one in Canada; Umma, raising her children and involved in her church. It gave us a glimpse into the entrepreneurial spirit that exists in immigrant communities, as well as to the challenges faced by the children of immigrants (here represented by the Kim’s children, Jung and Janet), born in Canada, feeling fewer connections to their parents’ culture and wanting to explore their own interests. Jung, we learn, is estranged from his family, and hasn’t spoken to his father in sixteen years. He works at a rental car place, and has a newborn son that the family hasn’t seen. Janet, despite her father’s continued encouragement for her to take over running the store, wants to be a photographer instead.
In the play, fifty-nine year-old Appa, who has worked much of his adult life in his store, receives a lucrative offer from some condominium developers who are snapping up properties in the neighbourhood. Appa ponders his legacy. The real estate agent who brings him the offer suggests that Mr. Kim should consider his “exit strategy” – he knows the family well enough to suggest that Appa’s options are to work in the store until he dies, or to sell up while he can and enjoy retirement – Jung, he suggests, is never going to come back to take over the store.
But it becomes apparent that what Appa would like is to create, in his words, a Kim’s Convenience dynasty, and if he can’t do it with Jung taking over the store, then perhaps he can with Janet. Much of the play involves Appa trying to convince Janet to do just that, and there’s much humour in Appa’s persistence in this endeavour, from his dogged wheedling, to his adding lessons on running the store to Janet’s daytimer.
Choi’s play was such a success, I think, not only because it was smart and well-written, but also because it reflected an immigrant experience many people, even beyond the Korean Canadian community, could connect with. How do you make a living when the skills and qualifications of your birth country aren’t recognized? How do you manage with limited English, and how does that limit your prospects in your adopted homeland? How do you retain your culture, and yet be a part of Canadian culture? How do you deal with the fact that your children feel more connected to the Canada they were born into than the culture of the country you left behind?
Admittedly, reading the script of a play isn’t for everyone – but I found it enjoyable, even if I was regretting not having had a chance to see the play performed on stage. Fans of the television show may want to check out its roots, however, and the book is also worth it for Choi’s smart, engaging and funny text. As well, Ins Choi’s introduction to the play offers insight not only into the creation of the play, but also to the Korean immigrant community in Canada, especially in the Toronto neighbourhoods that inspire his writing. Canada’s immigrant community lends a vibrancy to our lives on so many levels, perhaps starting at the local variety store we frequent. Choi’s work in its many forms invites us to think about the lives of the people behind the counter, serving us in their broken English, striving hard to make a better life for their children, and to ask ourselves: what is their story?
Just the facts
- Title: Kim’s Convenience
- Author: Ins Choi
- Publisher: House of Anansi Press
- Year published: 2012