The stereotype is nearly inescapable: Asian parents are withholding and cold. Sometimes it surfaces in earnest; on r/AsianParentStories, redditors lament having parents who never say, “I love you” or “I’m proud of you.” At other times it’s a cheap laugh, as in the viral tweet that reads: “Sex is great but have you ever heard your parents say good job im proud of you in an asian household.”
Even in beloved recent films about Asian families, the trope persists. Michelle Yeoh played a cold mother twice over in 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians and 2022’s Everything Everywhere All at Once. In the latter film, she redeems herself through an extended, loving monologue to her daughter, but even that one begins with the line, “You are getting fat,” and excludes the words, “I love you.” In 2022, Turning Red, an animated film about a Chinese Canadian family, featured a similar climax, in which the preteen protagonist’s mom finally says, “I’m sorry.” Online, fans joked that, “for Asians,” that was “the most unrealistic part.”
So it’s a relief that Beef, A24’s new Netflix series from creator Lee Sung Jin, which features a mostly Asian American cast, has little patience for this trope.
Beef revolves around the escalating feud between successful business owner Amy Lau (Ali Wong) and struggling contractor Danny Cho (Steven Yeun). What starts as a parking lot spat turns into a road rage–fueled car chase, which turns into Danny pissing on Amy’s bathroom floor, which turns into Amy vandalizing Danny’s car, and so on. Over 10 40-minute episodes, their revenge plots become increasingly erratic, ensnaring both of their families in the chaos.
The respective parents of Amy and Danny feature minimally in Beef. The show is more concerned with the families that they preside over: Amy is the breadwinner for her husband George Nakai (Joseph Lee) and their daughter June (Remy Holt), while Danny takes care of his younger brother Paul (Young Mazino) and shady cousin Isaac (David Choe). This is fairly novel in and of itself. Most recent Asian American entertainment, including the aforementioned movies and 2019’s The Farewell and the ABC series Fresh Off the Boat, has focused on how the children of immigrants misunderstand their parents. Beef features those children all grown up, caring for families of their own.
It’s harder than they realized; Amy and Danny fuck up a lot. But it gives them a new and more complicated perspective on their own parents, which Beef depicts in deft strokes. When Danny finally brings his parents back to the US from Korea, where they retreated after Isaac bankrupted the family business, they share a tender scene in the parking lot. Danny’s parents draw him into a group hug, saying in Korean, then in English, “We are proud of you, Danny. Thank you so much.” It’s the heartwarming reunion he’s been craving for so long, but Beef immediately undercuts it. By the time Danny pulls up to the house he built for his parents, it’s already gone, destroyed in a fire. What is a tidy resolution in past works of Asian American art — a sincere expression of gratitude from the immigrant parents — is mere misdirection in Beef. The show scoffs at the idea that a nice moment between parent and child is a sufficient ending to a story; life is messier than that.
But Amy has an even thornier relationship with her parents, one buried under layers of irony. When she and George attend couples therapy, Amy pretends to be a model patient in order to get things over with as soon as possible. She performs the role of the traumatized American kid with emotionally stunted Asian parents, explaining to her therapist that her Chinese, Midwestern dad “held a lot in,” and her Vietnamese refugee mother thought “talking about your feelings was the same thing as complaining.” She concludes, “It’s hard to admit, but I think growing up with my parents taught me to repress all my feelings.”
Although she’s ironically presenting this admission as an emotional breakthrough, she does genuinely believe that her parents traumatized her. In a later episode, Beef gestures at just how corrosive this internalized narrative is. When Amy visits her parents at home for the first time in two years, she snarks that she wouldn’t want them to ruin her daughter as they did with her. Frustrated, her dad (Kelvin Han Yee) tells her, “You act like we’re so evil. What did we ever do, huh?” It’s such a direct rebuke that it dismantles Amy’s theory that her dad can’t communicate. Even if Amy can’t see it, viewers can: She has bought into the narrative that Asian parents are inherently repressed because it’s easier to blame her parents for her mental illness than take responsibility for her choices.
The show scoffs at the idea that a nice moment between parent and child is a sufficient ending to a story; life is messier than that.
Soon Amy’s dad excuses himself from the dinner table. By way of goodbye, he delivers that apparently elusive praise, sighing: “We’re proud for all of your success, OK?” But, again, it’s not a revelatory moment the way it is in Turning Red or Everything Everywhere. It’s not a climactic, unprecedented compliment that changes the way Amy and her father relate to each other — in fact, by the weary tone in which he says it, it sounds like he’s said so plenty of times before. Clearly, their relationship involves more complex, mutually inflicted hurt than can be attributed to a lack of parental affirmation.
Beef is so good that it’s almost a disservice to write about it through the lens of Asian American stereotypes. It is an excellent psychological thriller, full stop: brilliantly written, edited, and acted. It is a funny, erotic, horrifying portrait of two people locked in a manic-depressive spiral of mutually assured destruction, which is an epic achievement on its own.
But part of what makes Beef so impressive is how confidently it moves beyond even the most widely accepted tropes of Asian parenthood. It doesn’t operate under the illusion that Asian American children are the beleaguered victims of their immigrant parents’ poor communication styles. Instead, it exposes how those children make their own bad choices, driven by their own pride, stubbornness, and repression. Beef offers its characters no easy outs; it makes them suffer the consequences of their chaotic actions. ●