Beef (tv series), Korean American Representation, and Korean Koreaness Part 1

I binge watched Beef in one day. I’ve read countless reviews and commentaries. Non-Asian reviewers rave about the series without understanding or even noticing the Asian or Korean American signifiers, which are sprinkled throughout or rather embedded in the characters and their environments. Asian American pundits delight in the “If You Know, You Know” Asian American aspects with a sense “Beef is for us”. It’s not about the “white gaze”. The latest round of commentary is about the Korean American and Korean church representation.

Beef nailed the Korean American evangelical experience.


Beef also nailed Daniel Cho’s Han. Han starts with an injustice, then mingles with rage, resentment, grief, and other related feelings. Han is the collective suffering of Korean people. Daniel’s parents suffered losses in America and had to move back to Korea. Their immigrant dream was a failure. His parents have to live with his mother’s brother in Korea. They haven’t achieved financial security back in the mother land. Daniel’s parents are suffering Han. Daniel suffers Han with them. It’s not uncommon for Koreans to claim that Han is not definable. We know it when we feel it or see it.

Han and Hwa-Byung

화병, hwa-byung Anger Suppresion Syndrome, is a specifically Korean culture bound phenomonen that’s related to Han. But it’s not about cultural essentialism. Hwa-byung addresses environmental problems and may also be related to personality problems. But the problem is addressed at the individual, familial, and social levels(environment). Hwa-byung is the suppression of anger or inability to express anger as a result of unjust or unfair circumstances. 화 “hwa” means anger or fire.

화가 올라 means to get angry. More literally, a fire is growing or rising inside. This is another term that Koreans struggle to translate into English. Danny hilariously quips, “Western therapy doesn’t work on Eastern minds.” How can a Western therapist understand all of Danny’s internal and environmental layers?

There’s been much commentary about the bbq grills that Danny was trying to return before the incident with Amy, Ali Wong’s character. What hasn’t been mentioned is that suicide by burning charcoal to inhale carbon monoxide poisoning is a notable phenomon in South Korea. Accidental death from burning yeontan (large charcoal briquettes) to heat homes was also a public health hazard for decades. “This odorless and colorless gas could filter through the cracks of a damaged ondol floor and suffocate the victims while they were sleeping. Strict precautions were always taken, but gas poisoning remained a major cause of death in Korea until quite recently.” (Published in 2003). Yeontan was introduced by the Japanese in the 1920s.

Yeontan, charcoal briquettes. Once a luxury item, became fuel for poor people.

Just thirty years ago, coal cartridges were the “people’s fuel.” These days, they have been replaced by gas and oil, leaving them mostly a fading memory. But some 200,000 struggling households in South Korea still depend on them to get through the winter cold. The worse the economy, and the fiercer the chill, the more the impoverished class relies on coal cartridges to stay warm.” (Published in 2013)

화 fire is a motif for Danny. He tries to commit suicide by burning charcoal in his room. He almost sets Amy’s car on fire. His dreams go down in literal flames.

Danny Cho is a collision of Han and Hwa-Byung.

Suh Nam-Dong, one of the founders of Korean minjung liberation theology, described Han as “a feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one’s guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined.”