Why "Gilmore Girls'" Lane Kim Is Important
I never saw myself in Lorelai or Rory Gilmore, but Lane Kim's story still resonates with me. I spoke with actor Keiko Agena, who played Lane, and Helen Pai, the woman who inspired the character, about why Lane still matters.
As with many things I’ve come to love, Gilmore Girls fell into my life after an older, much cooler cousin told me to tune in. At the time, I wasn’t even 10 years old, and I didn't know most of the show's deluge of pop culture references, nor did I know that the next few years of my life would resemble not Lorelai’s (Lauren Graham), not even Rory’s (Alexis Bledel), but that of her rebellious, rock 'n' roll–obsessed best friend Lane Kim (Keiko Agena).
It wasn’t until I re-binge-watched the show on Netflix in late 2014 over pints of Ben & Jerry's while I was jobless that I finally had the realization that Lane’s upbringing was in fact my own. How she changed from her conservative clothes into band tees right before school? Yup, did that. How she concocted elaborate lies to her mom in order to hang out with boys? Story of my life. When it comes down to it, Lane’s complicated relationship with her mother hits closest to home for me.
Throughout the first few seasons of Gilmore Girls, viewers watched Lane lead a double life. To her mom, she was a devout, docile daughter who never dared disobey her mama. But to everyone else in Stars Hollow (and to fans watching), Lane was a girl with a mind of her own from the start. She rebelled against her mother, secretly forming a band with three dudes and listening to XTC and David Bowie, quite literally from behind closed doors. Her life was an embodiment of that clash between individualism and devotion to one's parents, and it's one that's all too real for Asian-Americans who grew up straddling two worlds, like me and like Helen Pai, the longtime best friend of Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and the inspiration for Lane.
"Going to Korea and not having a return date? That was true," Pai told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview of the time Mrs. Kim (Emily Kuroda) shipped Lane off to Korea without notifying her daughter of the return date. "Dave Rygalski? That's real," she added with a laugh of the name of both of her husband and one of Lane's love interests.
Just like Lane, Pai — who also co-produced Gilmore Girls — spent her teenage years leading a dual life in an Adventist household with strict parents who forbade her from indulging in anything secular. "I liked things that didn't revolve around God. I liked rock 'n' roll, and that was very sinful," she said, noting that she'd rather sit in her room and listen to music than to go church. "If I wanted to go somewhere, I would tell my mom I was going to church group ... [My parents] put their religion on me, so there was a little bit of resentment on my side."
While I was raised without God or any religious beliefs, my parents' Chinese restaurant was my church. I was expected to rise every Sunday and go without complaint — and that always resulted in an all-out screaming fest. Pai recalls having a similar "knock-down, drag-out fight" with her parents once when she was in high school, but viewers never saw a brawl between Lane and Mrs. Kim unfold on Gilmore Girls. That was something Keiko Agena pointed out during a recent interview with BuzzFeed News at a café in Studio City, California.
"Lane’s problem is that she tried so hard to avoid that [fight]. She tried to live a double life for too long because she didn’t want to have that conversation with her mom," the actor said, noting that neither Lane nor Mrs. Kim attempted to confront their differences head-on.
It wasn't until Season 4, when Lane snuck off to New York with her band to play a gig at CBGB that she got caught. That's when Mrs. Kim ransacked Lane's closet and the space beneath her floorboards, where she had stashed her albums, posters, and other contraband. Only then did the truth surface.
"They both know more than they want to admit, and they both play the game of it until they can’t anymore," Agena said. "They just can’t maintain the façade of you don’t know what I’m actually about, and then it breaks. And the thing is, neither of them wants it to break, but they can’t help it."
But there's a reason Lane didn't want that façade to crack, and it's one that many people who grew up exposed to both American culture and the expectations of their immigrant parents can relate to: As much as Lane wanted to appease her tough yet well-intentioned mother, she wanted to be her own person too.
“There was never any question, at least in my mind as the actress playing her, that she loved her mom," Agena said. "She really genuinely wanted everything to work out, and it was hard to try to find that thin space of agreement with [Mrs. Kim], but that was always the goal.”
But regardless of how much love you might feel for your parents, the freedom to be yourself is also essential, especially when you're burdened with the cultural expectation to respect your parents' wishes above all else.
"I think there's this cultural element that is sort of placed into you from the time you are conceived — and I don't think it's a bad thing. I think respecting your parents is a great thing," Pai said with a laugh. "But then you're also trying to survive in a different culture. I think balancing those two worlds can be very challenging especially when the world you're currently living in doesn't understand that."
Similar to Lane, Pai's way of coping was through rebellion.
"When you're a kid [living] under such strict rules, you kind of push the boundaries, but you don't force them down," she explained. "I never wanted to be at a point where I was going to run away from home and never be with my parents. I knew what they were doing and why they were doing it. I just didn't always agree with it. I think what it came down to is that despite our troubles, I always had a tremendous amount of respect my parents."
By the final season of Gilmore Girls, when Lane was about to give birth to a set of twins, viewers saw that she also felt the utmost respect toward her mother in a touching scene. As Lorelai made preparations for Lane's baby shower, Lane explained to her that since Mrs. Kim sacrificed everything for her, she wanted to do the same for her children. Despite their rocky past, she still loved her mother, which may not have been immediately clear to the audience in previous seasons. It certainly took me quite a few years to see that, too.
When you're young and struggling to figure out your place in the world, perspective is hard to come by, and it's easy to succumb to the naïve notion that individuality is more important than family. Now I see that just as Mrs. Kim was an integral part of Lane growing into the person she is, my own mother is just as much a part of me becoming who I am.
The last time my mom and I fought was when I moved to Los Angeles at the beginning of 2015. It was a bad fight — both of us screaming over each other, snot dripping from my nose, and swollen eyes the next morning. She kept telling me that I was making a mistake by relocating so far from our home in Pennsylvania, but here I am, 10 months later.
And we’re OK now. Over the past few months, she's learned that I will make my own mistakes and (hopefully) learn from them. She's slowly accepting the fact that she can't watch over me like she did when I was young.
But that fight was the first time I really ever stuck to my guns and didn’t cave in to doing whatever my mom thought was right — mostly because I'd already packed up all my things and moved 3,000 miles across the country. I guess you could say that was the moment I decided to run off to New York with my band.
My mom and I still have our differences. But I know that no matter how much we might struggle to understand each other, just like Lane, I'll still love my mom no matter what.