Netflix’s chaotic comedy-drama «Beef» has dominated social media discussions since its release Thursday, but there’s one narrative in particular that Asian-Americans can’t stop talking about.
Featuring a predominantly Asian-American cast but not obsessing over race, the show centers several storylines around a Korean-American church in Orange County, California. For some viewers who have lived through similar realities, it authentically captures the sense of belonging, societal pressures, and uncomfortable dynamics inextricably linked to the church.
“I’ve never seen anyone portray him so perfectly,” said Michelle Park, a Korean American from suburban Philadelphia who grew up in the Korean church.
The 10-episode series follows high-strung and struggling contractor Danny, played by Steven Yeun, and successful but dissatisfied business owner Amy, played by Ali Wong, after a spiraling road rage encounter that went wrong. The two become obsessed with destroying each other; meanwhile, their own lives are collapsing around them.
The Korean-American church becomes a major plot point in the third episode when Danny turns to the institution when he narrowly decides not to set Amy’s parked car on fire after seeing her daughter, Junie, sitting in the backseat.
Minjung Noh, an assistant professor of transnational Christianity and gender studies at Drew University in New Jersey and an anthropologist who focuses on Korean diaspora churches in the US.
“Steven Yeun, in episode three, cried in church. He has been through a lot and the church relieves him, but later he will use the church’s resources for his own benefit. He is holy, but at the same time, he will earn money from the church. That is somewhat contradictory. It is also quite true for many Korean American churches in the US and also in Korea,” Noh said. “That sacred and secular dynamic played out at the same time, I thought that was cool.”
A clean Danny sneaks into the back of the service and, surrounded by other second-generation Korean immigrants, bows his head and sobs as worship team leader Edwin, played by Justin Min, leads the band live through of a soft and ambient rendition of “Oh Come to the Altar.” The pastor, played by Eddie Shin, puts his arm around Danny’s shoulder and asks God to «please be with my brother.»
Jane Hong, an associate professor of history at Occidental College, explained why the scenes could be a flashpoint for some.
“I think these scenes are being triggered because many Korean-Americans, especially second-generation English-speaking youth, have been affected by the Korean immigrant church and the church culture in general,” he said. “For many Korean-Americans, the Korean church and Korean culture can sometimes become inseparable. Korean immigrant churches could also be spaces of non-belonging and, in some cases, religious trauma, broadly speaking. Not surprisingly, scenes like these can easily trigger negative emotions associated with these past injuries.»
Helen Jin Kim, an assistant professor of American religious history at Emory University, added that the emotional intensity of the scene speaks in part to the compelling dynamics of the Korean American church. The institutions have traditionally served not only as theological spaces but also as valuable community networks, particularly for immigrants and the second generation navigating life in the US, Ella Kim said. Behind faith, the experts said, is an underlying cultural understanding and shared experience of being Korean in the United States.
Kim noted that while there is still a stigma against seeking help for mental health in the Asian-American community, people often turn to church to break free, much like Danny, who is revealed to be suicidal in the earlier episodes. and has lost control of his own anger, he does.
And while showing raw emotion is considered un-masculine, adoration is the rare environment in which tears and vulnerability are accepted and welcomed, particularly among Asian men, said Nadia Kim, a professor of sociology and Asian and Asian American studies. at Loyola Marymount University. .
“It’s a very familiar scene to watch. Asian-American men feel like they can express their sad side,” said Nadia Kim, who is Korean-American. «It allows for more of a multiplicity of expression of emotions, beyond anger.»
But, Helen Jin Kim added, that doesn’t mean masculinity standards aren’t upheld in other areas of the church outside of worship. She cited a scene later when Danny joins a church intramural basketball game and feels a wild need to show dominance over him.
«There’s the Asian-American male vulnerability, but then there’s all this hypermasculinity,» he said. “By outdoing the prayer team leader…you are simply reinforcing those gender stereotypes and hyper-competition among Asian-American men.”
Noh also pointed out the prevailing gender disparities found in the churches depicted on screen.
“I have been following the Korean American dynamic in the popular media, and also in [South] Korean movies, but ‘Beef’ was exceptional,” he said. “There is a lot of misogyny and patriarchy in the Korean church, and also in the Korean community. You go to church to meet women,” and women are often not in leadership, but in supporting roles, she said.
Noh said he ate the entire series in one sitting, but found the church scenes jarring: Korean churches being the subject of his research, he couldn’t help but analyze them, rather than just enjoying the spectacle.
“I don’t go to church anymore. But I know the dynamic and I see it,” said Noh, who grew up in Korea attending a Presbyterian church. She said many of her students are pastors, many from South Korea and California. “They are Korean or Korean-American in my class, and I see similar things happening, the hierarchy in church leaders. That’s pretty accurate on ‘Beef.’
Park said the series also delves into the concept of keeping up appearances at church. In another scene that follows Danny’s emotional breakdown during the service, Edwin questions his well-being. Danny denies any disorder in his life, despite his emotional decline, suicidal tendencies and fixation on the road rage incident, and blames his tears for losing himself in worship.
“He has this experience, this emotional release, this spiritual connection, and then right after, the couple, this seemingly ‘perfect’ heterosexual family, with a child on the way, are looking into him like, ‘Are you really okay? ‘” Helen Jin Kim said. «He feels the need to justify the fact that ‘I’m fine,’ but he can’t tell them the whole truth.»
Park said the scene was all too familiar, adding that the stressors of immigration, the need to achieve the American dream and the gossip-laden environment would lead many parents to compare lifestyles or adults to portray a certain optimistic image of their own lives in places like church.
“It’s ironic because a church is a place where everyone is supposed to build each other up, loving and welcoming each other,” he said. “However, I think what I saw in the Korean church is that sometimes it wasn’t always like that. I like trauma, especially when you’re young and parents are like talking or gossiping.»