Beef (tv series), Korean American Representation, and Korean Koreaness Part 2

Beef isn’t a story about immigrants in America. Yet, it is the best Korean immigrant story I have ever seen on a mainstream platform.

The show’s creator, Lee Sung Jin, has said “the characters happen to be Asian”. Nobody happens to be Asian. There’s nothing accidental or incidental to the casting and characters. The brilliance of Lee’s writing is that he focuses on character.

The age you were when your family immigrated to America matters. When and where you landed matters. Where your parents came from matters. What your parents did for a living in Korea matters. Who your family was and is in Korea matter. Who you know in America matters. Immigrants do not arrive as blank slates. You make it or sink based on a lot of these factors and more.

Lee Sung Jin, the creator and showrunner of Beef, immigrated to the United States after completing 5th grade. I’m guessing his family moved around 1992. Steven Yeun immigrated to Canada as a kindergartener. I’m guessing his family came around 1990. They both entered America in the 1990s.

My family immigrated from Seoul to Los Angeles in January of 1975. My oldest brother was about 10 years old. I was 5 years old. I had completed two years of preschool. I’m about half a generation older than Lee and Yeun. Many Korean immigrants who came when my family did were part of the professional class or highly skilled in trades. They were largely people who were already doing well relative to other Koreans in Korea and generally better educated than other immigrant groups in America. By skill, luck, chance, hard work, and accidents of history many appear to have made it. Los Angeles also had a strong manufacturing economy. Korean immigrants came to dominate industries like apparel manufacturing.

Danny’s family moved to America around 1990. They specifically moved to Los Angeles two years before the LA Riots/Rebellion. Beef doesn’t mention anything about the riots that decimated Koreatown and Korean owned businesses. But he is deft at painting a portrait of a Korean family struggling in America in a specific place and time. It’s not uncommon knowledge among Koreans in Los Angeles that immigrants who came later had fewer opportunities in Korea and in America.

Danny’s Korean immigrant family is different from my Korean immigrant family. The Cho families struggles are writ large and small. It’s in the loaded dialogue that is not spelled out. The Cho family didn’t reinvent themselves from being working class in South Korea to becoming middle class in America. Their American dream became an American nightmare for many reasons. How do we talk about systemic failures and barriers to accessing the American dream, when one of our own (cousin Isaac) betrayed us?

They are things that writers can write, set designers can design, stylists can style, and directors can direct. Beef has Asian American brilliance in all those aspects and in casting. When Korean American actors are hired to play Korean American characters, they bring their own lived experience to the character. This is not type casting. This is acting. When there are half a dozen Korean American characters in a series, they all get to be something different. They play characters, not stereotypes.

The way Danny speaks halting Korean inflected with English words to his parents, is a scene I saw at H-Mart this morning. The Cho’s speak English with varying degrees of Korean American sociolect and ethnolect. This is Koreatown and Korean American enclave Korean and English. These seemingly mundane details make the characters extraordinarily believable and authentically human in a story whose main arc is outlandishly unreal, where the protaganists/antagonists commit increasingly inhumane acts of revenge.

When Isaac barked out “agassi” (young, unmarried woman) at a server at a Korean restaurant, I cringed, “Low-class trash.” I was shocked. I would never speak to a server that way. David Choe knew how to be crass and flashy in English and broken Korean.

Isaac preys on his own community and hurts his own family