Finally, A Show About Angry Asians

Netflix’s ‘Beef’ shatters so much of what we, as Asian Americans, were taught about holding in our rage.
"Beef" cast members Ali Wong as Amy, and Joseph Lee as George.
"Beef" cast members Ali Wong as Amy, and Joseph Lee as George.

Anger is almost always part feeling and part performance. Unlike sadness or joy, though, it’s very difficult to experience anger silently. That’s probably why, as a shy Asian kid in Texas, I never allowed myself to feel it. I simply didn’t know how to manifest that emotion outwardly, especially since I was taught that anger was a sign of emotional weakness.

As an adult, I’ve more than made up for the anger I didn’t allow my younger self to feel, so much so that people send me emails to point out how “angry” my writing sometimes sounds. And they’re right. I am angry — angry about what I was taught to believe about my worth as a queer Asian Latino person growing up in America. I’m also angry about the fact that I feel I have to make it right for others like me.

That’s why “Beef,” a new Netflix series by Lee Sung Jin that features an almost all-Asian cast, including Ali Wong and Steven Yeun, resonates so much. The show, which dropped on April 6, is a complex dramedy that, as Vulture eloquently put it, throws “us straight into the trenches of modern American malaise.” But to me, the most glorious and simple pleasure of watching “Beef” was that I got to see a bunch of angry Asian people on TV.

“Beef” begins with a seemingly routine road rage incident: A frustrated guy in a pickup truck (Yeun as Danny Cho) backs out of a parking space and almost hits a passing car driven by another stressed-out person (Wong as Amy Lau). There is honking and yelling and a middle finger. Cho decides to drive after Lau and the two end up chasing each other through suburbia. Lau floors her car and drives full speed toward Cho before stopping abruptly. He flinches. We laugh. The ensuing 10 episodes, hilarious and heartfelt, look into their complicated lives and unveil the ethos behind a petty argument that refuses to end.

As you keep watching “Beef,” it’s obvious that the conflict between Cho and Lau, like many real-life instances of road rage, is not really about driving, but about the pent-up fury that comes from living deeply unsatisfying lives — and how that fury eventually finds an outlet. That slow-burning wrath has become a part of the American canon. It births Karens and neighborhood vigilantes and the type of people who pick fights with strangers to make their lives interesting enough to live.

It reminds me of how America has fabricated lifestyles that are as difficult as they are boring; how a wealthy suburbanite with a gorgeous house can be just as unhappy as a broke tradesperson trying to make ends meet. What we are all really missing, as Americans, appears to be meaningful human connection.

To me, one of the characters in “Beef” who understands what the other characters are missing — the importance of connection, that is — is Paul Cho, who is played by Young Mazino. Paul is Danny’s directionless brother who, throughout most of the series, cares less about the family business than he does about pursuing a crush that is bound to end horribly. He’s one of the only characters who primarily acts out of feelings of love and not rage.

When I asked Mazino what it was like to portray an Asian male character with such strong emotions, it wasn’t lost on him how different this was from most depictions of our community on TV. In many Asian households, we’re taught that expressing strong emotions is a bad thing. In many ways, it’s a survival mechanism — for one, Americans are already hesitant about us, so why make ourselves more difficult?

On a cultural level, though, there’s also a sense that if we get too caught up in our own emotions, regardless of whether they stem from love or rage, we’re bound to set ourselves back. I remember how my mom would interrupt any hints of my anger whenever they arose. If I complained about something, she’d tell me to ignore it and just move on. Dwelling on emotions was useless. Being angry, she’d tell me, hurt no one except myself. I suspect that part of her admonition came from her worry that speaking out would make me a target. The smaller we made ourselves, the fewer problems we would have.

That’s what makes seeing Mazino’s various emotions on screen so refreshing.

“It’s invigorating to suddenly have a character I can play that is so multifaceted and three-dimensional and fully flawed, but also endearing in some ways,” Mazino tells me.

Before he went to acting school in New York, he had built his identity around being stereotyped, caricatured and emasculated. But, Mazino says, the training he got taught him how to undo those ideas so that he could build himself into any character. While in school, he was asked to write down the actors he wanted to emulate. He wrote Steven Yeun’s name. Mazino says he was inspired by Yuen’s “courage to walk into a void where there wasn’t much representation for people like him.”

It appears that “Beef” created its own community within an Asian cast while also underscoring the importance of human connection on screen. Being a racial minority in any country can be a deeply lonely experience, but sometimes we forget that loneliness is a product of wanting to assimilate into a larger culture that doesn’t serve our interests. Growing up, I saw other Asian Americans as competition, not as community, which only perpetuated my own sense of isolation. When we understand that the people who share our identities are not threats to us, we can unite to become something so big that the culture has no choice but to notice.

I have no doubt in my mind that we’ll be talking about “Beef” for months to come because it is a show about how jaded and lonely we can get in the repetitive throes of capitalism. To be honest, I’m tired of seeing Asian people only thrive in Western media. It’s dishonest and flattening, and ignores the complexity of our emotions, and I don’t think it’s going to move us forward. We also live in a time when Asians have often been on the receiving end of others’ rage and violence, which finally awakened many of us to stand up, take to the streets and demand better. See, we can get mad, too.

I’m glad we got to have “Crazy Rich Asians,” but I’m infinitely more excited about seeing crazy broke Asians and crazy tired Asians. Thanks to “Beef,” we have crazy angry Asians now. Perhaps anger is what we needed to find our way to each other all along.

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