Lee Sung Jin’s Beef takes place in California, home of the largest population of South Korean immigrants in the U.S., as well as the highest concentration of Korean churches. For many who were raised in the Korean American church, the Netflix series’ depiction of it as a source of refuge and redemption is terrifying in its accuracy. For some of us, church is like a toxic, co-dependent ex; even though you know the relationship isn’t healthy and is sometimes fraught with endless expectations and conditions, you can’t help but want their love. That’s because Korean Americans and church need each other: financially, emotionally, and spiritually.
Lee, the show’s creator, and Steven Yeun, who plays Danny, agreed on the importance of including the church in Beef’s story because it was such a big part of both of their upbringings. Christian motifs are scattered throughout the series, from the biblical names of Daniel, his brother Paul, and their cousin Isaac, to the name of Daniel’s landscaping company, the CHOsen Ones.
Koreans often validate one another with the phrase “Gosaeng manh-i haess-eoyo,” which translates to “You’ve suffered a lot.” In Beef, Danny suffers endlessly: financially, romantically, filially, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. However, it is only in the scenes at church, and later in his life-changing, poisonous berry–induced reverie with Ali Wong’s Amy, that his suffering receives the validation he’s been in desperate need of since childhood, when he was bullied by white peers for being different.
Regardless of religious beliefs, every Korean immigrant starts life in America at the church. It’s the one place where they know they can find community and people like them in this strange and foreign world. For Korean Americans, church is more than just a place of worship. It’s a place to conduct business, market, network, socialize, and find a spouse.
Korean culture highly stigmatizes attention to mental health; as Danny says, “Western therapy doesn’t work on Eastern minds.” But church is the one place all Korean Americans know they can go where they won’t be shamed for crying, feeling, and asking for help. Research has shown that suppressed emotions return through violence toward others and the self, like how Danny’s repressed depression manifests as suicidality and road rage that escalates throughout the series. For a culture known for its “K-rage” and the concept of han, when one feels that an injustice has been done to them, resulting in intense grief, anger, and emotional outbursts, Koreans need some kind of outlet to release and let go—and for many Korean Americans, that outlet is church.
In Beef’s third episode, “I Am Inhabited by a Cry,” we see Danny return to church, in a scene that feels all too familiar. Celestial sunlight seeps through the blinds illuminating the church band as the gentle sounds of the guitar, the keyboard, and the words “Jesus is calling” harmoniously fill the space around him. He is immediately surrounded by fellow Koreans, their bodies swaying to the music, hands up in the air and pointing to the heavens, and eyes closed in a trance, as tears stream down their faces. Almost every Korean American has been here before, in a room full of Christians where race doesn’t matter because, at church, we’re all one under God. Upon watching this scene, an immediate visceral sensation elicits memories that, for some of us, we’ve tried hard to forget. However, we see Danny transition from looking awkward and out of place to fully letting go and releasing all the tension and emotions he’s been trying desperately to contain as his tears turn into full-on sobs while the band sings, “Are you hurting and broken within?” This cathartic moment becomes spiritual for all of us. “I really felt something today,” Danny says. “I actually felt God’s presence,” signifying that he finally felt as if he wasn’t all alone anymore—and we felt that, too.
Nonetheless, as welcoming as Korean churches can be, they can also be harmful and traumatic. Unlike the more regulated mental health field, churches have the dangerous potential to exploit the emotionally vulnerable. (See another recent Netflix show, In the Name of God: A Holy Betrayal, a documentary about Korean cult leaders.) Later in the same episode, when Danny concocts a scheme to scam the church for his construction business, his lack of remorse is understandable and feels almost justified, despite his “nice guy” persona.
However, Danny’s relationship with the church isn’t so black-and-white. In the sixth episode, “We Draw a Magic Circle,” we witness Danny’s growing discomfort as he watches his cousin Isaac desecrate the church service, overenthusiastically yelling “Hallelujah!” and making a scene while singing praise songs. Danny doesn’t have a problem scamming from church; he does have a problem with disrespecting God.
Beef’s seventh episode begins with Danny as the new leader of the church band, singing a modernized version of “Amazing Grace.” We see a dejected Edwin, the former leader of the church band and Danny’s rival, sulking in the back of the pews, his status in the congregation diminished as the rest of the crowd, including Edwin’s wife and Danny’s ex-girlfriend, cheers Danny on as if he’s a rock star. Danny, now a successful businessman who has built his parents a new house, is loved, adored, and approved of in the eyes of God and the church. People, including Paul, look up to him. He shows no remorse or guilt that his success came at the price of Isaac ending up back in jail, and despite the immorality of his actions, he’s outwardly become the ultimate man of God. When Paul makes fun of Edwin and Veronica’s deteriorating marriage, Danny piously says, “That’s not how we react to a brother and sister going through a tough time. We pray for them.”
On the other hand, we see that Edwin has completely fallen from grace. Now the depressed and lonely one, he later approaches Danny in his apartment office and tells him he’s not afraid to get his “hands dirty,” insinuating that he knows that Danny’s success must be through illegal activity. Edwin’s willingness to compromise his values and ethics in an ungodly way to regain his status and worth is another example of hypocrisy in the church and the very human need for recognition and social connection.
The church scenes in Beef illustrate how, for Korean Americans, Christianity is a means to gain acceptance and belonging; these basic needs often go unmet for immigrant families like Danny’s who are struggling to assimilate and make ends meet. The Korean American church represents a smaller, more contained version of the struggle to be seen and to feel worthy. It’s a lot easier to outsource this validation to a benevolent God than to find it within, especially if you grew up as a minority, constantly othered and confronted with racism, with low self-esteem, and with an absence of emotional nurturing that has prevented you from developing intrinsic self-worth. For a respite from a collectivist culture that glorifies suffering, Korean Americans have turned to the church as a safe haven to gain affirmation for their hardships, a confidence boost, and salvation in a world that struggles to see us for who we really are.
Nevertheless, even at Danny’s highest, he asks Amy, the woman who appears as if she’s got it all, if she’s happy, because he just wants to know if he has to get to where she is in order to finally be at peace. Amy’s answer—“Everything fades. Nothing lasts. We’re just a snake eating its own tail”—implies that all of the accolades and external validation in the world can never actually fill the emptiness inside. As they say, money can’t buy happiness. Many of those who have left the church have found their own source of internal validation and self-worth, and their lives aren’t so contingent on others’ approval. It’s not that Danny has failed the church or the church has failed him—it’s more that suffering is a part of living. Once you accept this, which both Danny and Amy seem to in what they believe are their final moments, the easier it becomes to cope with life.