KTown Scribe Jason Kim Is More Than Just A Pretty Face
About halfway through our conversation, Jason Kim mentions Han. This is one of those rare words that cannot be succinctly translated into English; it is a feeling, more than an idea, that unites the fragmented members of the Korean diaspora. Roughly, it is a kind of collective suffering that lingers at the edges of the Korean condition, commonly as repressed memory or unknown history. Koreans who survived war and colonization know Han. Koreans born in the U.S. whose parents are silent about their lives pre-immigration know Han. Korean adoptees know Han. It is the connective tissue that sews together a people for whom shared trauma connects and disconnects with equal magnitude. And it makes for excellent storytelling.
For Jason, Han is not sad, or sobering, or depressing—it’s exhilarating. The writer, producer, and playwright is no stranger to balancing darkness with comedy: He has written and appeared on Girls; he produces Barry, HBO’s comically macabre series starring Bill Hader as a hitman-turned-comedian; and he wrote the award-winning K-POP: The Musical, which cut and pasted the glossy rigor of South Korean entertainment to off-Broadway stages. Now, he’s co-writing a new show for HBO called KTOWN, a dark comedy about a Korean American family at the center of Los Angeles’ most dynamic and diverse neighborhood. In this moment of unprecedented representation of Asian Americans on screen, Jason can have his cake and eat it—all while sprinkling it with some stories about fucked-up Asians who are as flawed and fractured as the histories they come from.
How long has KTOWN been germinating? Have you had to fight for it to exist?
Yes and no. I feel really lucky because the landscape has changed in television dramatically in the last year. I first started talking about doing a show with Greta [Lee] about a year and a half ago, and then we started pitching it in the middle of 2018. Just in that short time, in the 6-7 month span where we had been talking about the show, the commercial landscape changed because of shows like Fresh Off the Boat and movies like Crazy Rich Asians. Before, I used to feel like there wasn’t space for faces like mine, and now I’m beginning to think that there might be, and to trust more that people can relate. So it does feel very different.
BS: It’s like the floodgates opened and suddenly, if you look, we’re here.
JK: The thing that’s been so rewarding, at least as a viewer, is that we’ve always been here. Did you see Burning?
BS: That’s on my list.
JK: That movie is incredible, and Steven Yeun is brilliant in it.
BS: He’s a leading man.
JK: He is a leading man. He is an incredible actor. He’s a kind person. He’s sexy. And Sandra Oh has been doing amazing work for the last 20-25 years. There are people before her and Steven who have been making films, writing books, and starring in TV shows that have been around. Now, it feels like the light is shining on them in the way they deserve, and it makes me want to cry. I love them so much, they’re doing such incredible art––they always have been—and now they’re finally being seen. It feels like such a joy.
BS: When Sandra Oh said, “Umma, Appa, saranghaeyo,” [“Mom, Dad, I love you”] during her Golden Globes acceptance speech, I was like, “What?!”
JK: I know. I couldn’t stop crying.
BS: It’s so hard to articulate how those moments of recognition feel when they happen for the first time in your life. Especially when you’ve reached a certain age where you’re so used to living otherwise without them.
JK: Yeah. I’m so used to white-washing myself, I’m so used to code switching, and I’m so used to hiding. Now that the terrain is shifting, it’s both creating a lot of joy but a lot of questions. What does it feel like to take the light and speak up?
BS: There’s a parallel with being queer and Asian. I hear this a lot within queer communities: the idea of constantly coming out. When people are in their early adulthood, there’s this re—
JK: There’s a rebirth.
BS: There’s a rebirth! Like you’re going through your second puberty. You’re going through a delayed adolescence, and you’re having these moments of maturation that most non-queer people do a little earlier. There’s a similar experience with Asian Americans. In the last couple of years, we’ve had this collective awakening to how we grew up and how we perform on and off with people. There’s so much radical rebirth and transformation in this moment.
JK: Yes! You have to butterfly as a gay person and you also have to butterfly as an Asian.
BS: And when you do both, you’re like mega-evolving, you’re...
JK: And then you’re Madame Butterfly [laughs].
BS: Oh my god.
JK: Please, no. No, thank you. But you’re so right. The thing that has been so interesting for me is that I didn’t know that dealing with my Asian American-ness was necessary. I always grew up knowing that I had to deal with my queerness because it made me so different. For whatever reason, maybe because I grew up in the Midwest or because I immigrated when I had just begun puberty, I sort of forgot that I was Asian until I hit my late teens and moved to New York. Then I was like, “Wait a minute. This is very much a part of my identity.” It’s really strange and fucked up that I had to repress it for a long time. Examining it now feels almost too late, but it’s something that I’ve been looking at for the last decade or more. There is a necessary birth that has to happen as an Asian American, and the thing that is so great about people like Steven and Sandra and Margaret Cho [is that], for some reason, I think Asian Americans lack a kind of centralization and leadership and outspokenness. That’s something that I craved growing up, and that’s something that other communities have. The Latinx community has voices and the African American community has voices, but for Asian Americans, especially when I was young, those voices were lacking. I can’t even imagine the burden of the spotlight and how they must feel. But we need our own Lena Waithe, and we need our own Oprah Winfrey.
BS: Hello! I’m looking at our Lena Waithe right now.
JK: But we need those people, you know? And now I understand why. You need someone to say, “Hey listen, maybe you shouldn’t play that role.” You need someone to say, “Hey listen, why don’t you talk to an Asian American community before you make these choices.” And at the same time, empower our communities to rally and keep making interesting work and keep excelling. Because there’s Asian American leadership everywhere, they’re just quiet.
BS: This is a tangential thought that I just had while you were talking. Mitski’s latest album is called “Be the Cowboy,” and she’s garnered a following because her songwriting is very introspective. She’s a very solitary person and this album was her being like, “Own your badass-ness.” Before, I was just interpreting it as her being a more soft-spoken woman, but now I feel like it’s also about being Asian. We need Asian cowboys. We need gung-ho Asian leaders.
JK: Asian people are so transcendent in their “soft-spokenness.” My mother––I wouldn’t call her soft-spoken––but she is. When she’s withholding, she’s doing it for a reason.
JK: It’s incredibly tactful, but she has a whole tornado of emotions and feelings and thoughts. She is one of the most powerful people I’ve ever encountered. That is not a model that’s visible or translatable to a lot of America, but there’s incredible value in that. We just need to be listened to more.
BS: We’ve been talking about these very visible actors and actresses, but can you peel back the curtain about being an Asian American writer and producer? What do you see behind the scenes?
JK: It’s an interesting feeling to walk into a room and feel the need to justify your existence. It’s a gift and a burden. It used to bother me tremendously when I was younger because I didn’t realize that that was what was happening. And now that I’m so hyperconscious of it, it feels almost like a privilege to be able to say to these incredible creators, “Maybe you should look at this from a different angle.” I honestly stay awake at night thinking, “Oh my god, did I say the wrong thing? Does the burden of representation fall on me, as the queer person, as the Asian person, as the whatever person?” But it’s really necessary, and once people get a taste of it, they tend to realize how important it is. The grip has loosened both from the industry to allow different voices in, but also from myself.
BS: Do you feel like you don’t have as much of that pressure with KTOWN? Do you feel you don’t have to explain yourself anymore, and you can tell these stories the way you want to tell them?
JK: Oh god. KTOWN is the most pressure I’ve ever felt about anything [laughs].
BS: I’m sure! That’s the thing about the scarcity of representative media––the standard for quality is sky-high, and everyone is looking at you. There’s also pressure to tell every single story about this community, the Korean diaspora. How do you fit the diaspora into one show?
JK: The answer is you can’t. You try to be as truthful as possible, but I do certainly feel that pressure. Greta and I at one point made a list of all the themes that we’re excited to tackle, everything from Han to samjang [Korean pepper paste].
BS: Oh my god, so Korean! I love that!
JK: We were so excited by all of these different themes, but you can’t fit them all into one episode. You can maybe fit them into 6 years of television, but not in a 30-minute episode that introduces a show. We’ve had to internalize the pressure but also let it go. That’s been the hardest part of the process.
BS: Well, you have 10 episodes to funnel the Korean war, the trauma on multiple generations and its diaspora, and generations of displaced Korean Americans, so go for it.
JK: Exactly! The thing that I’m genuinely so excited about, actually, is that Crazy Rich Asians was wonderful but I think we need darker narratives in Asian America. I’m so excited to see good people behaving badly. Burning is brilliant. Have you seen Mother?
BS: I have a long time ago. So dark. [Ed. note: Mother is about a woman who goes to great lengths to protect her autistic son after he is accused of murder. It’s on Netflix.]
JK: That’s one of my favorite films of all time. It’s so much about good people trying to do right who end up doing the wrong things, who behave badly. Complicated choices, violent choices, are all inherent in our culture and the stories we’ve been telling for years. And I want to be able to show that aspect.
BS: One thing that I’ve noticed with how we celebrate new shows and movies and plays that center voices from marginalized communities is when people celebrate them simply because they center those people, rather than because they’re actually good.
BS: How do you navigate wanting your work to speak for itself rather than, “You should support this because I’m XYZ”?
JK: I try to be as excellent as I can. Gay people and Asian people have been making art that is tremendous for a long, long, long time, and I hope to follow in that tradition. I sometimes spend a lot of time feeling like I’m in their shadows, but I also find it such a blessing because it’s an incredible path to follow. Even reading Korean literature lately has been so rewarding, learning about the history that I didn’t know about, and talking to my grandmother and my parents about their history. What’s so apparent to me is that Korean people, to borrow from Joan Didion, really told stories to survive. It’s in our DNA. And that’s why Korean cinema’s so exciting; that’s why Korean television is so strange and exciting; that’s why Korean literature is profound. I want to follow their lead as much as possible and let the work speak for itself.
BS: Are your personal experiences reflected in the characters?
JK: It’s the most personal thing I’ve ever done. Which is why it’s both exciting and terrifying. Here is all of my dirty laundry, out for the world to see. But it feels good. It’s been very therapeutic and terrifying, and I think when a project feels terrifying, it’s a good sign.
BS: Definitely. Please tell me there are some queer and trans Koreans on this show.
JK: Of course there will be.
BS: Thank god. K-Towns are fascinating because they are these very insular microcosms of Korean American society. There are H-Marts and megachurches and spas and everything. But that, of course, is not every Korean American’s experience. Even though you’re focusing on the biggest K-Town in the U.S., do you show the Korean American experience of growing up somewhere like Missouri?
JK: K-Town in L.A. is so interesting because it has an intersection of all different kinds of Korean people, but also, the hipsters are there, there’s a huge Mexican American presence, a huge African American presence, and a Hawaiian American presence. It’s become this incredible melting pot. We want to investigate what happens when those cultures collide and mix and gel together. Last year, I lived there for a good chunk of the year because it feels like the closest thing in America to being seen, feeling comfortable, and not having to explain myself. I can get old kimchi so that I can make kimchi-jjigae without having to explain it.
BS: L.A. is the only place that I’ve had someone white-splain kimchi to me.
JK: YES! [laughs]
BS: The West Coast is home to a lot more generations of Asians because they’ve been there from the early twentieth century. How does that intergenerational mix play into the show or your writing?
JK: It plays profoundly into the show. And that’s something I felt so deeply in my personal life. My dad had me in his forties, so the age gap is pretty vast. I am really interested to see what happens when those different modes of thinking, different political systems, different ethical systems, and ways of being and behaving mix together. When I was young, I used to think I was so different from my parents. I’m so liberal, I’m queer, I’m a forward-thinking, intellectual artist. Now, I’m like, “Oh shit, I’m just like them.”
BS: There’s always that return to form. As we’re growing up, we want to express how much we diverge from our parents, especially because there are so many expectations with being a queer Asian American. Not just who you date, but also what you do for a living and how well you’re doing in life. You want to rebel against that and then you realize, “Wait, I’m just like my parents.”
JK: It’s kind of wild, right? The thing that feels so embedded in us is their sense of survival. We just manifest it in different ways. My grandmother––she recently passed, she lived to be a month shy of a 102––fled from the Korean war. Who knows what crazy shit she had to do in order to paddle out on a boat with a baby while pregnant? I have no idea. Did she get abused? Did she have to resort to violence? Did she have to run? What did she do? I don’t know, but I know that she raised three girls as a single mom, and she sent them all to school. That intense heat that exists within you is very real, and it’s something that I feel all the time. It’s something that I’m trying to be more in touch with. It just manifests in different ways in different generations. Every single person I’ve ever dated calls me “intense” at one point.
BS: Koreans are intense, though.
JK: I’m always saying, “What do you mean?!” “What are you talking about?!” I’m like, “That’s so racist!” But I am very intense. I’m intense in my work and I’m intense in my thinking. I’m intense in my feelings, and that’s the way I am.
BS: So channel it all into a season of TV. Hopefully more than one season.
JK: [laughing] Yeah!
BS: You were talking about how there’s so much history with Korean families and Korean communities, but there’s so much that we don’t know about. With second-generation, even 1.5-generation Koreans, there’s always those questions: “What happened to you?” “Why are we here?” “What really happened?” “What’s really going on?”
JK: A Korean’s favorite hobby is keeping secrets.
BS: Mhm. It’s the silent trauma.
JK: We could all fill reams and reams of papers with our secrets, and with the secrets that we’ve learned from our parents.
BS: So sexy.
JK: It’s very sexy! It requires a lot of therapy to unearth, but that’s definitely in the show. How we hold secrets; why we hold secrets; why we have to hold secrets to survive; why it’s sometimes healthy to unload them. It’s a very Korean thing, and I’m fascinated by it. There are so many insane family secrets that have come up in my adulthood that I hope to think I won’t be surprised anymore, but every time something spills out, I’m like, “What?”
BS: Do you worry that some of the themes of this show will be lost on non-Koreans?
JK: I don’t think so. I hope not. I think everyone who has dealt with family can look at this and realize, “Oh my gosh, my family’s the same way.” And if they’re not the same way, it’s, “Oh my gosh, how great is it to see a family that’s a little different?” Because that’s what I’ve been doing with American families my whole life. I still read American books and I watch American TV, so hopefully they can do the same.
BS: Okay, well that’s all of my questions.
JK: Do you need anything else? Do you need me to spill all my tea?
BS: Whatever you want to spill, spill it. I’m so curious.
JK: Justice for Latrice, that’s all I’m going to say.—