‘Beef’ nails the complex reality of Asian American family life—and it’s groundbreaking

Most depictions of AAPI families aren’t widely seen, but the popularity of ‘Beef’ has changed that in such an amazing way.

By Jane Kim. Posted January 26, 2024.

(Note: An earlier version of this review appeared in Motherly.com on May 24, 2023). Updated Introduction: If you haven’t seen “Beef,” as Lizzo succinctly put it, it’s about damn time. If you have, watch it again so it’s fresh in your mind before Season 2 (fingers crossed). ”Beef” cleaned up at the Critics Choice, Golden Globes and the Emmys, snagging top honors like Best Limited Series and Best Leading Actor and Actress in a Limited Series.

Cast members (left to right): Young Mazino, Steven Yuen, Ali Wong, and Joseph Lee.

Lee Sun Jin, “Beef’s” creator, told the New York Times that the show is about “how hard it is to be alive.” My parents spoke about this immigrant mentality regularly to my sister and me – addressing their earlier days in South Korea and adapting it to everyday life in North Carolina. It could have been a bumper sticker on our base model Toyota Camry. At the time, it fell on indifferent ears, but as I entered adulthood and experienced my own discontent and challenges, the stories and lessons came flooding back.

As an Asian American, seeing Asian faces, cultures, and experiences in media matters deeply. Representation matters. Media can be the bridge between the unknown and the relatable; the safe and the scary. Netflix is surely taking note with “Beef’s” multiple wins during the recent awards season, and that’s reassurance that we will be seeing more shows with Asian leads and POVs.

Many Asian American stories—including mine—can best be understood from a multigenerational lens. Second-generation Asian Americans often find themselves in a challenging space. A duality exists: an awareness and deep gratitude for the life we’ve been given – and how to lead that life and make your immigrant parents proud – against the desire to fully live life on your own terms.  “Beef’s” story is unique in that it validates all generations, and humanizes them, flying in the face of Hollywood’s long history of depicting Asians as unidimensional.

For me, growing up as a kid who loved to write, there weren’t enough examples to refute my parents’ belief that I could make a career out of writing. “Tell me some Asian people that have made it as a writer,” they’d ask. Understandably, there’s comfort and opportunity in the word “some.” “One” can be a stroke of luck – “some” celebrates something realistic, something you can strive towards, a crowd. I’m happy – and relieved – to see one turn into some from my transition from childhood to adulthood. There’s now a marked path for younger generations of Asian-American creatives. It’s sure to be a lot less lonely.

“Beef”, a series on Netflix starring Ali Wong and Steven Yeun, artfully portrays the affluent and working class, young and old, immigrant and native-born, all struggling with internal conflict and dissatisfaction. As an AAPI mom, this series is just what the Asian American community needs to celebrate Asian Pacific American (APA) Heritage Month. For me, it’s poignant that my son can watch Asian Americans portrayed as real people and not exaggerated versions of Asian stereotypes.

The cast of “Beef” is a potluck of Asian ethnicities, as satisfying as your favorite sweet and sour dish. But the value the show offers runs much deeper than geography. “Beef” celebrates the diversity of Asian culture by having us not only empathize, but also, identify with the main characters’ vulnerabilities and flaws. I was unprepared for the feeling of validation as an Asian American mother and relief that I wasn’t the only person grappling with the conflict and dissatisfaction I felt in so many areas of my life: as a working mother, as the daughter of immigrants, as an Asian American, and as a human.

In the opening scene, after a particularly nerve-wracking time at a big box store trying to return hibachi grills, Yeun’s character, Danny, backs out of his parking spot and almost hits Amy (played by Wong) who abruptly lays on an extended, uninterrupted horn. To Yeun’s surprise, she then flips him off. Now enraged, a reckless chase ensues, and their lives are permanently intertwined in a riveting cat-and-mouse game of revenge.

Ali Wong (Amy Lau) and Steven Yuen (Danny Cho).

Throughout the series, we see Amy buckling under the stress of being a working mom, begging for a break from the pressure and monotony of her life. In a conversation with her husband, his solution is more gratitude journaling. Like Amy, for many working moms the impact of the pandemic was particularly ugly. Women dropped out of the workforce in record numbers to shoulder the demands of caregiving at home. According to Motherly’s 2023 State of Motherhood report, 58% of moms report they are primarily responsible for the duties of running a household and caring for children, up 2% over 2022. Further, according to the Pew Research Center, even when the woman is the sole breadwinner, men and women spend the same amount of time on household chores and caregiving. The pandemic shined a light on what America has known, but failed to adequately address for too long: women have been expected to shoulder the majority of caregiving and family responsibilities.

It’s no wonder so many women raged, either silently or publicly, and “Beef” finally told us it was OK to have these feelings (but not without heavy consequences).

As an Asian American mother, I loved seeing the APA cultural references. The hibachi grills, packaged ramen made into a meal with an addition of an egg, the music worship service in the basement of a Korean church, the dutiful pressure of making your parents proud. It served as vindication for all the times I felt like an outsider growing up in North Carolina, and all the times my non-Asian friends cringed and said, “Eww, what’s that?”

For me, the heart of “Beef” is about wanting to be seen and understood as humans and uniting viewers with the universal truth that we are all struggling with complicated circumstances and various pressures. I appreciated Amy’s hallucinogenic dialogue with Danny about her daughter, June. Amy shares that the birth of June didn’t complete her as she had expected. In fact, the name June derives from a Roman goddess who is considered the protector of marriage and childbirth and represents beauty in all forms. In today’s society, it takes courage for mothers especially to admit your child doesn’t complete you.

Andie Ju (Esther) in “Beef.” Photo by Andrew Cooper/Netflix.

By the end of the show, it’s clear our life’s journey is ours and ours alone. You have one life, so live it. Along our journey, we may be fortunate enough to connect with someone who understands our struggles and accepts them without having a road map to fix them.

The critical acclaim of “Beef” has also arrived with its own controversy with the resurfacing of David Choe’s 2014 comments about sexually assaulting a masseuse. Unfortunately, his words have overshadowed the show’s success. In fact, it sums up the dreadfully ironic reality of one of “Beef’s” messages: there’s no escaping your actions; you will ultimately face accountability. Choe is facing that now.

“Beef” is a show about the human experience with beautifully layered nostalgic cultural references honoring the APA experience that really made me think about the pressures we face as Asian Americans, especially the feelings of rage, our identities, our families and the choices we make that become our reality. As an Asian-American mother, it was impossible to not self-reflect when watching “Beef”, and for that reason alone, it’s worth the watch.

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Author’s Bio: Jane Kim is a morning reader who is admittedly envious of her son’s hair. Her work has been featured in GreatSchools.org/, Motherly, and Her View from Home. She writes a weekly newsletter about her experiences parenting a neurodivergent child and other stuff. She lives with her partner, son and clingy papastzu in the Philadelphia suburbs. To learn more about her work and get in touch: https://janekim.my.canva.site/ Find her on Instagram @the.4.elles

2 Comments

  1. Ravi Chandra on January 27, 2024 at 12:15 am

    The series hit a sweet and anguished spot for me too – thanks for the write-up! Here’s my take from last year – before Choe’s comments resurfaced …. I don’t think I knew about that controversy originally – my bad.

    Netflix’s “Beef” Spotlights Squalor of Our Hidden Inner Life | Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-pacific-heart/202304/netflixs-beef-spotlights-squalor-of-our-hidden-inner-life

    • Jane Kim on February 2, 2024 at 1:01 pm

      Ravi, enjoyed your perspective — thanks for sharing!

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