Editor’s Note: This feature is part of CNN Style’s series Hyphenated, which explores the complex issue of identity among minorities in the United States.
Netflix’s comedy-drama “Beef” begins with a fight in a parking lot and never really slows down as it weaves a tale of manic revenge between two strangers. However, the show’s detour into the workings of a Korean American church have struck a particularly powerful chord with viewers.
In an early episode of the 10-episode series, Danny, played by Steven Yeun, visits a church. A series of events in an escalating traffic-related beef with Amy (Ali Wong) have brought him here. He nearly set Amy’s car on fire in a previous scene, pulling back only when he saw her daughter sitting inside. It wasn’t exactly a holy moment.
As soon as he crosses the threshold, he and the audience are transported into a visceral moment of Evangelical church worship. There’s hands aloft in prayer. There’s a band singing a wrenching song about forgiveness. The soft sunlight illuminates sturdy wood pews, limning swaying worshipers in white gold.
Overwhelmed, without saying a word, Danny breaks down in tears.
Without spoiling too much, it’s not the last time Danny visits, and the church becomes another character in the show.
Some viewers say the details of the church scenes, down to the exact rendition of “Amazing Grace” Yeun sings in one episode (inspired by contemporary Christian mega-artist Chris Tomlin), reflect a deep understanding of a very specific type of Korean American experience: that of an immigrant church, often evangelical, Protestant or both; and all of its joys and sorrows.
“For Asian American Christians and Exvangelicals, Beef is so culturally accurate that it was triggering/cringey to watch,” author and sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen wrote on Twitter.
Steven Yeun, who rose to fame playing Glenn on “The Walking Dead” and received an Academy Award nomination for his performance in 2020’s drama “Minari,” had a lot to do with these decisions. The actor’s Korean church played a highly influential role in his early life. In a 2021 GQ interview, Yeun described participating and singing during services into his adulthood – including Tomlin’s version of “Amazing Grace” that he would eventually hand select for the scene in “Beef.”
“(He) felt like the most realized version of himself at his Korean church, where he didn’t have to code-switch,” GQ’s Chris Gayomali wrote at the time. “In his youth group, everyone could just move through their little contained world in the fullness of who they were.”
CNN has reached out to Steven Yeun for further comment.
Lee Sung Jin, the creator of “Beef,” told Variety that both his and Yeun’s church experiences were woven through the scenes.
“(We) tried to do a very Korean church, happy version of ‘Amazing Grace.’ That felt very nostalgic as well, because that’s something that my praise band growing up would have done.”
Yeun and Lee told the Los Angeles Times they also reminisced about strumming and singing secular songs after church. “Next thing you know, we have to put Incubus’ ‘Drive’ in the show, because he and I used to sing that after church,” Lee said.
While faith communities play a critical role in the lives of countless immigrant groups, Korean Americans have a unique relationship with Christianity. Historically, it began overseas: South Korea has prevalent ties to Christianity, owing in part to the fact European and American missionaries had better luck ingratiating themselves to people in Japanese-controlled Korea as opposed to other areas in Asia that already chafed under European influence.
Continuing or beginning a church practice in the US gave Korean immigrants, like so many others, a place of community that helped preserve their cultural identity. Paradoxically, it also gave subsequent generations of Korean Americans a place to explore their identity beyond ethnicity.
“One attractive feature about Asian American evangelicalism is that the focus is more on deemphasizing racial minority status and emphasizing more the primary identity as Christians,” Ester Chung-Kim, an associate professor of religious studies at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, said during a 2021 SOLA Conference. “So this also explains some of the sociological benefits of joining ethnic-specific churches.”
The numbers also reflect the pattern: A 2012 Pew Research study revealed that though Korean Americans made up about 10% of the Asian American population, they accounted for about one-third of all Asian American evangelical Protestants.
However, the full impact of scenes like those in “Beef” can only truly resonate with people who have lived a similar experience. Some Korean Americans describe the scenes as equal parts nostalgic and a little triggering.
“Growing up, I always felt alienated from the Korean American community because I didn’t attend church,” Stephanie K. Kim wrote on Twitter. “Watching Beef is like reliving that alienation.”
“If you grew up in the Korean church … Netflix’s BEEF will make you laugh & cry. They got it so right,” wrote another Twitter user.
“Beef’s” creators say they specifically didn’t want to market the show as an Asian American-led work.
“Yes, these characters happen to be Asian American, but there’s so much more to them than just that,” Lee told Variety.
Similarly, the scenes at Danny’s church are so much more than they seem: It’s a church. It’s a Korean church. For those who recognize it, it’s a place fondly remembered or better forgotten. It’s a place that speaks to a cultural history and, just as importantly, countless individual ones.
Top image: Steven Yeun as Danny in Netflix’s “Beef.”