Parenting is hard. None of us who are blessed with the task of raising young people really feels as though we have it “figured out.” Even though we all were once children ourselves, age and distance causes us to inevitably lose degrees of relatability to the youth entrusted not only to our care, but to our love, our family name, and so much more. Parenting takes everything from us, and then, somehow, it demands even more. It is an endeavor so daunting, so perplexing, that volumes of books exist to help people through it—books to explain how children think, how teenagers think, how to successfully launch our youths into college, and books to help parents cope once each tender stage of childhood has passed. If all there were in the world were books on raising children, there would still be a wealth of literature to choose from. Such depth of analysis exists because parenting is both hard and enriching, complex and layered in the way all worthwhile things are. And because, to state the obvious, in parenting, we are shepherding more than just human bodies to adulthood, we are raising up human souls.
As with many complex things, though, there is also a simple side to parenting. In this, parenting is like theology. Simple enough that the youngest child can grasp its most important truths, yet complex enough that a lifetime of study cannot fully plumb all its mysteries. In parenting, the simple truths are as obvious as a hug between a parent and child, the provision of a meal, the unspoken security of a child at sleep in their bed at night. This dichotomy lends itself well to reflection in art, media, and stories because it is a reality we have all lived—on one side of the equation or both. The relationship between parent and child is, perhaps, one of the most examined relationships in all of artistic history.
No matter the culture, parents will always be parents, and the fears that cling to us that we might be doing irreversible damage to our children—whom we love more than life itself—reflect back to us in the best stories about families with children.
Today, thanks to the rise of media and technology, we have many more mediums of artistic expression than people once had. And although the television sitcom would not be regarded by many as high art, I’m surprised at how often I find solace in such life struggles as parenting woes while I am enjoying a well-made half-hour comedy show. Perhaps that means my tastes are more pedestrian than I want to admit, but I think that because life is complex, and sitcoms are about basic people’s lives, they can often be deceptively profound.
One such program is the Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience. A show about a Korean-Canadian family that operates a convenience store in Toronto, Kim’s Convenience highlights the tension inherent between children and parents. This tension is exaggerated in the Kim family experience by the fact that Mr. and Mrs. Kim are first-generation immigrants to Canada, but their 20-something children, Jung and Janet, are Canadian-born. The cultural differences between “Appa” and “Umma” (Korean for “Father” and “Mother”) and their children raise stakes that are already relatable to all parents watching the show, regardless of personal background or culture. In the relationship between Appa and the Kim family’s estranged son, Jung, and in how family dynamics play out between Appa and Umma and Janet, who still—at the beginning of the show—lives at home, the Kims show themselves to be an “every family.” They are average in a way that welcomes the typical sitcom viewer to feel at home: working class, neither poor nor well-to-do, with children also going through average life stages. So when they suffer, and when they grieve, their sufferings are as hidden as most of ours. They draw us in, inviting us to unpack our own baggage, to examine our own failings, reminding us that both pain and love cross cultural and generational boundaries.
Nobody watching Kim’s Convenience would doubt that Mr. and Mrs. Kim love their children deeply, or that Jung and Janet love their Appa and Umma more than either of them lets on. But that doesn’t diminish how all members of the family cut each other down, in ways big and small, intentional and unintentional—and in ways infinitely relatable to the average viewer—throughout the course of the show. Hijinks and daily drama are the bread and butter of a sitcom, but in Kim’s Convenience, the stakes always feel a little higher. Largely reliant on her parents’ goodwill for everything from her school tuition to space to live and food to eat, twenty-year-old Janet is beholden to her parents in every way except for the fact that she is a legal adult and has agency of her own. Older brother Jung clings to his pride and independence, refusing to reconcile with Appa who kicked him out of the house—and the family business—when he was a teenager. In many ways, both Jung and Janet remain frozen in states of childhood in their parents’ eyes, despite both of them having grown to adulthood and maturing past the foibles of youth. Appa and Umma over-parent Janet as an overcorrection to mistakes made with Jung, who refuses to acknowledge his need to be part of the family. Jung reaches out regularly to Janet and Umma, but keeps Appa cut out of his life. The ever-present push and pull between members of the Kim family creates a current of tension beneath the light-hearted cultural comedy of the show.
In episode 6 of season 1, Appa and Janet’s relationship is put to the test when Janet’s photography professor visits the convenience store with her unarguably ill-behaved 5-year-old son in tow. After the boy wreaks havoc in the store to no correction from his professor mother (who doesn’t believe in the “negativity” of the word “No”), Appa steps in to discipline the child. With a quick flick to the boy’s forehead, Appa gets him to stop destroying the products on his shelves. Such a move is, apparently, a Korean custom between parents and children, but Janet’s progressive Western professor views Appa’s act as child abuse. Thus she draws the conclusion that Janet must have been raised under abusive circumstances. Janet, who had been struggling with her grades in the class, suddenly sees her grades improve as her professor believes she has been persevering through a difficult home life. And so Janet allows her professor to believe the worst of her Appa. Until Appa finds out.
Ultimately, we all want to do what is best for our children, and the fear of the judgment of the world is far less than the fear that our children will condemn us. Up to this point in the show, nothing has cut Appa deeper than the abandonment of Jung—even though he was the one who first kicked Jung out—but the realization in episode 6 that Janet has allowed her professor to believe she was raised by an abusive father shatters him to his core. He doesn’t care what the professor thinks—but does his own daughter believe he was abusive? Was he a bad Appa?
Nothing hurts worse than the censure of our own family, and no fear cuts deeper than the fear that those we love the most might have been irreparably damaged by our own actions, let alone that it might be our children we have hurt. When such things collide, the subject matter feels far too weighty for a half-hour sitcom. Yet Kim’s Convenience handles it—both in the resolution of episode 6 and throughout the rest of the show—with a deftness that communicates an even greater truth: there is grace for the hurting, for both parents and children. Love covers a multitude of sins, and the humility to ask for forgiveness casts out fear. But even in navigating forgiveness, there are no easy answers to the lingering effects of past hurts, and some relationships take time to heal.
As much as any half-hour comedy can communicate to someone that there is grace to parent imperfectly, what I have found in watching Kim’s Convenience is exactly that: a grace that extends beyond the fourth wall of television and beyond any cultural barriers. Because no matter the culture, parents will always be parents, and the fears that cling to us that we might be doing irreversible damage to our children—whom we love more than life itself—reflect back to us in the best stories about families with children. Shows like Kim’s Convenience remind us that the vast majority of families struggle through pains and sufferings that are not small or insignificant for the “averageness” of the family. As a parent and as a viewer, it is important for me to see depictions of families like this in the art I consume, whether on my television or elsewhere, because it reflects real life and the real race I have to run—the real pains I have to endure. It is a show that makes me feel not so very alone.