Paul Sun-Hyung Lee

From the TV Screen to the Classroom Screen

Grade 9 English Students Meet Star of Kim’s Convenience
“I never had this growing up,” said Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, the Canadian actor who plays Appa on the wildly successful Canadian TV series, Kim’s Convenience. “We didn’t study plays that reflected my family.”
This is one of the reasons that Lee responded to a tweet from Crescent School teacher Trish Cislak. Her Grade 9 English class is studying the play Kim’s Convenience, by Ins Choi. When the students wondered what social impact the play and subsequent TV series has had, Cislak posted on Twitter asking Lee to join in this discussion. To their surprise and delight, he agreed.
“It’s hero’s work,” said Lee, about the role that teachers play in shaping minds, saying that was another reason why he accepted the invitation. “Teachers make you curious about the world and encourage you to interact with those around you.”
Lee was happy to talk about the play which he helped create with Choi and the role of Appa, which he first performed on stage and later on television. “The play holds a special place in my heart,” says Lee. “It is about my dad, it told my parents’ story. I could relate to it.”
“I am not Appa, but he is my Appa, and my Hal-abeoji (grandfather). Appa is the embodiment of all the really stubborn Korean men I grew up with.” Lee recognizes that Appa is flawed, but that he also has a heart of gold and is willing to learn. “He is an homage to all these men. As an actor, it was easy for me to connect with him.”
The role of Appa was very different than roles Lee had played in the past. “I was often playing caricatures. A white writer’s idea of what an Asian person should be like.” said Lee. “(Asians) portrayed as the ’other‘, the outsider. They were often ridiculed because of the way they spoke or looked or for their customs.”
Lee reflected on accusations of racism that the show initially generated by viewers who thought that Appa’s accent was inauthentic. Lee emphasized that Appa’s accent is a proper representation of his father’s Korean Calgarian accent. “People have been pre-conditioned to think that an accent is used to ridicule,” said Lee. “We need to break through that (bias) by treating the use of voice with as much respect and authenticity as we can.”
One of the strengths of Kim’s Convenience is that it evokes the universality of family and normalizes Asian families. “They are no longer ‘the other’,” said Lee. “They might sound and look a little different, but family is family, with the same struggles that all families experience.”
Cislak is still awed by their good fortune of having Paul Sun-Hyung Lee join their class conversation. “As we study the themes of identity, othering and tribalism, we can see how strong, positive connections are important,” she says. “As the boys learn about other cultures, they can better understand, empathize and ultimately appreciate differing views.”