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.
The show, which features a predominantly Asian American cast but doesn’t fixate on race, centers several storylines around a Korean American church in Orange County, California. For some viewers who've lived similar realities, it authentically captures the sense of belonging, social pressures and uncomfortable dynamics inextricably linked to the church.
“I’ve never seen anybody portray it so perfectly,” said Michelle Park, a Korean American from the Philadelphia suburbs who was raised in the Korean church.
The 10-episode series follows high-strung, struggling contractor Danny, played by Steven Yeun, and successful-yet-unfulfilled business owner Amy, portrayed by Ali Wong, after a spiraling encounter of road rage gone awry. The two become fixated on destroying one another; all the while, 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 against setting Amy’s parked car ablaze after seeing her daughter, Junie, sitting in the back seat.
Minjung Noh, an assistant professor of transnational Christianity and gender studies at Drew University in New Jersey and an anthropologist who focuses on diasporic Korean churches in the U.S., noted the duality of how the church is portrayed as both sacred refuge and a means to an immoral end.
“Steven Yeun, in episode three, cried at church. He’s been through so much and the church gives him relief, but he will utilize the church’s resources to his own benefit later. It’s sacred, but at the same time, he will make money off of the church. That is kind of contradicting. It’s also quite true of many Korean American churches in the U.S. and also in Korea,” Noh said. “That sacred and secular dynamic depicted at the same time, I thought that was genius.”
A cleaned-up Danny sneaks into the back of the service and, surrounded by fellow second-generation Korean immigrants, bows his head and sobs as praise team leader Edwin, played by Justin Min, leads the live band through a soft, ambient rendition of “O Come to the Altar.” The pastor, portrayed by Eddie Shin, rests his arm on Danny’s shoulder, asking God to “please be with my brother.”
Jane Hong, an Occidental College associate history professor, explained why the scenes might be hitting a nerve for some.
“I think these scenes are triggering because so many Korean Americans — especially younger, English-speaking second-generation folks — have been hurt by the Korean immigrant church and church culture in general,” she said. “For many Korean Americans, Korean church and Korean culture could become inseparable at times. Korean immigrant churches could also be spaces of unbelonging and in some cases, religious trauma, broadly defined. Not surprisingly, scenes like these can easily trigger negative emotions associated with these past hurts.”
Helen Jin Kim, assistant professor of American religious history at Emory University, added that the emotional intensity of the scene in part speaks to the weighty dynamics of the Korean American church. The institutions have traditionally served as not only theological spaces but also valuable communal networks, particularly for immigrants and the second generation navigating life in the U.S., Kim said. Behind faith, experts said, there’s an underlying cultural understanding and shared experience of being Korean in America.
Kim pointed out that while there’s still a stigma against seeking mental health help in the Asian American community, oftentimes people will turn to the church instead for release — just as Danny, who’s revealed to be suicidal in the earlier episodes and has lost control of his own rage, does.
And though showing raw emotion is seen as non-masculine, worship 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 see. Asian American men feel like they can express the sorrowful side of themselves,” Nadia Kim, who’s Korean American, said. “It does allow for more of a multiplicity of expression of emotions, beyond just anger.”
But, Helen Jin Kim added, that doesn’t mean that masculinity standards aren’t upheld in other areas of the church outside of worship. She cited a scene later on when Danny joins a game of church intramural basketball and savagely feels the need to prove his dominance.
“There’s Asian American masculine vulnerability, but then there’s all this hypermasculinity,” she said. “By one-upping the prayer team leader … he’s just kind of reinforcing those gender stereotypes and hypercompetition among Asian American men.”
Noh also pointed to prevalent gender disparities found in churches that were represented on-screen.
“I have been following Korean American dynamics in popular media, and also in [South] Korean films, but ‘Beef’ was exceptional,” she said. “There’s huge misogyny and patriarchy in the Korean church, and also the Korean community. You go to church to meet women,” and the women often aren’t in leadership, but rather supporting roles, she said.
Noh said she binged the entire series in one sitting but found the church scenes jarring: With Korean churches being the subject of her research, she couldn’t help but analyze them, instead of simply enjoying the show.
“I don’t go to church anymore. But I know the dynamics and I see them,” said Noh, who grew up in Korea attending Presbyterian church. She said that many of her students are pastors, many from South Korea and California. “They’re Korean or Korean Americans in my class, and I see the similar things happening, the hierarchy in the church leaders. That’s quite accurate in ‘Beef.’”
Park said the series also delves into the concept of keeping up appearances at church. In another scene following Danny’s emotional breakdown during worship, Edwin asks about his well-being. Danny denies any messiness in his life, despite his emotional decline, suicidal tendencies and fixation on the road rage incident, blaming his tears on being lost in the worship.
“He has this experience, this emotional release, this spiritual connection, and then right after, the couple, this apparently ‘perfect’ heterosexual family, with one kid on the way, they’re probing him like, ‘Are you actually well?’” Helen Jin Kim said. “He feels the need to justify the fact that ‘I’m OK,’ but he can’t tell them the full truth.”
Park said the scene felt all too familiar, adding that the stressors of immigration, the need to achieve the American dream, and the gossip-heavy environment would lead many parents to compare lifestyles or adults to portray a certain rosy image of their own lives in places like church.
“It’s ironic because a church is a place where everyone’s supposed to be building each other up, loving, welcoming,” she said. “I think what I saw in the Korean church, though, is that sometimes it wasn’t always like that. Like the trauma especially when you’re young and parents are like talking or gossiping.”