As TV shows and films begin to reflect a wider, more diverse audience, it’s also opened the door for a tricky topic: an actor’s use of an accent. It can be off-putting to audiences unfamiliar with the accent—and it can be downright racist-feeling to the communities themselves, especially when the creator doesn’t have roots in the community, and the accent feels like a comical costume. (In the Chuck Lorre show Two Broke Girls, for example, the joke around restaurant owner Han Lee tends to be laughing at, not with, the thickly accented character.)
For Asians, the accent is a particularly prickly subject. For people of colour who want to assimilate, it can be inherently embarrassing to hear something they’re trying to escape; for people of colour fiercely proud and protective of their culture, an inauthentic accent can enrage, as it did for some viewers of Fresh Off the Boat; for actors of colour, it can be limiting, as explored on Aziz Ansari’s Netflix show Master of None, and it can be difficult to be caught in between the first two groups. In general, it can leave people on tenterhooks that any accented Asian character could be another Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles, whose stilted tongue and social buffoonery represented an incredible setback for Asian representation.
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, 44, plays the storeowner family patriarch Appa in the pioneering new CBC sitcom Kim’s Convenience, and he’s been personally grappling with the politics and the practicalities of doing an accent his entire career. Here, Lee explains why Appa leans into his accent, where it comes from—and why, done right, it’s okay.
“It’s who Appa is—not the accent, but that’s his makeup. He’s an immigrant, English is his second language, and he had to learn English at a very late stage of his life, so he’s going to have vestiges of his original voice, his mother tongue. That also informs who he is. His frustration is not being able to articulate how he feels, or any points he tries to make in an argument. It’s a singularly frustrating thing.
“I remember in Winnipeg, someone very helpfully in a talkback said, ‘You know, if you just spoke more slowly and clearly, everybody could understand you. Because I missed every third word that came out of your mouth.’ A lot of people in the audience rolled their eyes and went, ‘Oh my God,’ but I responded. I said: I’m sorry you felt that way, but can you imagine what it’s like for this man, a trained teacher in his home country, a very well-respected position—he’s an intelligent man, he doesn’t sound intelligent maybe to you because English is his second language, but his brain is still there. Can you imagine his struggles, day in, day out, that people aren’t able to understand him? As frustrated as you were because you couldn’t understand him, he’s even more frustrated because you can’t understand him.
“For me, I can get touchy about the accent. For the longest time, I couldn’t do a Korean accent. It was just the way I was raised—I didn’t want to be Korean. I wanted to be Canadian. I didn’t want kimbap at school, all I wanted was sandwiches, or soups, but none of this Korean stuff. When you’re a kid and you’re really trying to fit in, you push away everything that reminds you of your family because your family is different. That kind of extended itself as I got older; then, as an Asian actor, I was asked to utilize these accents. That’s fine: I can do Cantonese, and Mandarin, I can do passable Japanese, I can do some Filipino, Vietnamese—but not Korean. Korean for me was a roadblock. I remember I was doing this one episode of Mayday, and I was playing the role of Captain Park, the Korean Airlines pilot who crashes his plane into the side of this mountain. When I auditioned for the role, no accent was required. So I can do all the pilot lingo, I love it—I book the role. Then, on set, the director says, ‘We want the Korean accent, to give it some flavour.’ I said, ‘I don’t know if I can do it.’ ‘But you’re Korean.’ So I tried it and I was so bad that they ended up giving all my lines to the copilot. That was embarrassing—so embarrassing. It was terrible.
“When I read for Kim’s Convenience for the first time ever the words struck me so much and the writing was so incredibly articulate. And he has the rhythms. As soon as I started reading it—and I’ve told this story a million times, everyone’s sick of it—it was like a key being turned in my head, a door being opened, and my dad’s voice just started coming out. So I use my dad’s accent—that’s my dad’s voice that I use on stage. But a lot of the time it’s a modified accent, because if I went full Korean accent people wouldn’t be able to understand a lot of what I’m saying. So there are times where I’ll cheat, I’ll pull back, and it’s not 100 per cent consistent, and I realize that. That’s one of these horrible decisions you have to make as an actor. Is it really going to affect who this character is if you’re not letter-perfect on the accent, or is it more important to get the story points across? Over the years it’s morphed into this whole Appa speak I have. But sometimes the accent isn’t 100 per cent there.
“I get feedback, and I’m sensitive to it—I hear people go, ‘That doesn’t sound Korean, who is this guy! He’s not Korean, he should be ashamed, he sounds terrible, how come they can’t get accents right?’ That bothers me. I care about the character so much. I am Korean. And you know what, and pardon my French, but f–k you, that’s my dad’s voice. So if you don’t like it, go f–k yourself, because that’s how my dad sounds. But on the other side, I hear a lot of people saying that it sounds like their dad. I’ve had Korean families whose fathers have passed away, they’re in tears, and they say, ‘You sound just like our Appa did.’ They hadn’t heard his voice in years. And it’s incredibly moving.
“The accent—the accent isn’t the joke. It’s part of who he is, but it isn’t the joke. Yes, we’re in the entertainment field, and we will mine some of that because it is situational humour. You will get a point where we’ll say, ‘Here’s where some fun can be made, playing with the accent, and his inability and people mishearing what he says.’ But at the same time, that’s not all it is. So for people to summarily dismiss it as, ‘Well, it’s just a voice, he should be ashamed,’ well, they’re not really looking. They’re taking so many things out of context, and it’s a lazy way of criticizing somebody because it’s the most obvious and easiest thing to pick on. That’s why when you’re looking for directors and people to work on Kim’s Convenience, we wanted to make sure they knew where the source of the true humour was. Appa is not just a voice. He’s not a stereotype. A stereotype is the end of a character. Appa is an archetype—they take his mould, they use that as a basis, and they build that up into a three-dimensional character. You have his hopes, his fears, his foibles and his strengths, and that’s what I love about him. He’s a character.
“But it’s funny, though—the majority of people who are screaming racism about the accent online are white. And it’s like: what’s racist about it? They won’t say—but is it because you’re seeing Asians on the screen? Oh, no? Well, then it must be because he sounds different. Well, guess what: Asian people have accents. The accent isn’t about a joke, it’s part of who that character is, but it doesn’t make it intrinsically racist. If you’re uncomfortable with that baggage, then you need to examine it yourself and see where it comes from.”