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Awards shine spotlight on Asian representation in Hollywood

Awards shine spotlight on Asian representation in Hollywood

Asian-made film and TV productions – and their creators and actors – have been collecting major awards and nominations of late, a welcome signal that Asian American representation has been making positive strides in mainstream media. 

And while this representation is essential for Asians and non-Asians alike, as the Korean mom of two American kids, I have found a surprising effect: Shows like “Beef” are helping me connect to my own kids’ experience as second-generation immigrants, living between two cultures. 

“Beef,” a Netflix limited series, easily became my favorite show of 2023. It has achieved multiple awards, including Academy Awards and Emmys. Notably, Ali Wong made history as the first Asian actress to win a lead acting Emmy. The series was not only written and directed by Asian Americans but also featured a predominantly Asian American cast. 

More importantly, the show revolves around the struggles of Asian immigrants – particularly the second generation.

I moved from Korea to the U.S. in 2007 and my two kids were born and have spent their entire lives in the U.S. As they’ve grown up, I’ve developed a greater interest in the second generations of immigrants. This interest eventually led my research toward diaspora and diaspora identity. 

However, I have always tried to approach the issue from the immigrant’s perspective rather than that of the second generation. I didn’t recognize this until I watched “Beef.” 

“Beef” vividly portrays the struggle of the second generation of immigrants. The show delves into not only practical aspects of life, such as financial challenges, but also the emotional struggles experienced by the second generation in the U.S. on multiple levels. 

For instance, the first generation believes they have been caring for their children just like any other parents would. Conversely, the second generation often feels a responsibility to advocate for and defend their parents, who may still not be as acquainted with the language and culture as they are. They are hardly able to experience being children solely supported by their parents in one direction. 

After watching the show, I discussed it with my son, Ayden. He appeared to empathize with the struggles depicted in the show and shared his own writing about some of his second-generation experiences with me. I was surprised to learn that he has been grappling with the challenge of balancing between two different cultures, as he had never mentioned it to me before.

“I have rarely had the chance to learn the intricate cultures and beliefs of my homeland. Consequently, I struggle to connect with native Koreans. Having become accustomed to American manners and norms, I find myself in situations where I am expected to follow Korean traditions, but doing so goes against what I believe to be right. 

“Living in America has also limited my opportunities to learn and use my native language, making it more challenging to express my thoughts to family than I would like. There are occasions when I find myself unable to articulate my thoughts accurately, resulting in unintentional miscommunication or even saying something inadvertently hurtful, especially when broaching sensitive topics.”  

I recall several awkward moments when my kids behaved very differently from what Koreans expected. For example, my son, who was around 8 years old at that time, shook hands with a friend of my dad in Korea, instead of bowing. Bowing is a gesture that signifies respect toward the elderly, so nobody anticipated a young boy’s handshake. Everyone in the scene froze – and my son still remembers the embarrassing moment even years later. 

Looking back, my kids have been grappling with the challenge of fitting into both the Korean community and the U.S. mainstream. Indeed, Ayden recently had an unpleasant experience due to the cultural differences between the two cultures. 

“I have been participating in a taekwondo team for over a year, and one of my coaches strictly adhered to Korean traditions and values. He set rules for the team that may appear overly controlling to most American teens, prompting me to express my concerns in a letter. However, as I cannot fluently write in Korean and the coach struggles to read English fluently, I wrote my letter in English. He used Google Translate to interpret it – a tool that has been noted for its occasional challenges in providing reliable translations. 

“Apparently, it generated a translation different from my intended message. I never learned the exact interpretation my coach received, but it supposedly transformed my constructive suggestions into perceived insults. My coach, unaware that my intention was to offer suggestions rather than insults, became angry with me. The resulting tension, combined with the cultural divide, led me to leave the team with a sour taste in my mouth. 

Upon recognizing the misunderstanding between the coach and Ayden, my family attempted to address the issue. Unfortunately, by the time we intervened, it had already escalated, leading to Ayden’s decision to leave the team. 

Ayden wrote: “Pop culture has been shedding light on the struggles of immigrant families in recent times, and I am grateful that people finally can see how immigrants deal with more than just monetary struggle.” 

I wholeheartedly welcome the emergence of TV shows like “Beef,” “American born Chinese,” and movies like “Past Lives” and “Joy Rides.” They contribute to increased Asian representation in the media, encouraging the majority of the U.S. to reconsider Asian minority communities. This, in turn, allows Asian Americans to find solace in the representation. They finally can see the struggles they have experienced reflected in the media – AND LEARN, TOO.

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