Asian Americans are no longer pop culture side-kicks — they're defining the mainstream (2023)

Netflix’s “Beef” dives deep into the psyches of two people who happen to be Asian American as they’re entangled in a universal experience — road rage. But what the show doesn’t do is spend time with heavy-handed explanations about the cultural nuances of identity.

And it’s because Asian American and Pacific Islander creators have reached a point where they don’t necessarily feel they have to, critics say. Starring an all-Asian cast, “Beef” is an example of how Asian Americans are seeing pieces of themselves and their families comfortably integrated into on-screen stories like never before.

A proliferation of movies and television shows in recent years has made it clear Asian Americans are no longer chasing the opportunity to merely be included. Instead, diaspora storytellers are increasingly defining mainstream culture while creating their own spaces on their own terms — without feeling the need to contextualize their stories for the masses.

While “Beef” revolves around the accessible feelings of anger, grief and resentment, the storyline still includes pieces of the Asian American experience, like Danny’s (Steven Yeun) emotional experience during a service at a Korean evangelical church.

Asian Americans are no longer pop culture side-kicks — they're defining the mainstream (1)

“But the way it was handled was an example of how ‘Beef’ didn’t feel the need to contextualize or over-explain itself for viewers outside the Asian American community,” said Seo-Young Chu, an associate professor of English at Queens College in Queens, New York.

She said “Beef” provides a deeply complex story about traumatic events that can lead people to spiral — a story not often told in this way for Asian American communities.

“I appreciated its textured, layered, lively portrayal of complex Asian American characters whose inner lives rhymed with my own,” she said in an email. “As an Asian American person who struggles with anger, stress, resentment, indebtedness, generational trauma, suicidal ideation and the pressure to smile graciously even while tolerating mistreatment, I found ‘Beef’ powerfully resonant. It seemed to represent parts of me that had never been represented before.”

‘Beef’ didn’t feel the need to contextualize or over-explain itself for viewers outside the Asian American community,” said Seo-Young Chu, an associate professor of English at Queens College in Queens, New York.

‘Beef’ didn’t feel the need to contextualize or over-explain itself for viewers outside the Asian American community."

Seo-Young Chu, Associate professor

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There are, of course, limitations to representation, and she points to the fact that her excitement about the show changed after clips revealing “Beef” actor David Choe’s self-proclaimed “rapey behavior” resurfaced.

“With art, the stakes are always high. When I learned that David Choe had bragged about being a ‘successful rapist,’ I felt violently betrayed,” Chu said.“I feel more solidarity with survivors who were harmed by his words than with the show’s fans and supporters.”

Although Choe’s past comments overshadowed the show’s acclaim, Chu, like other Asian Americans, said the actual storyline and characters still resonated.

AAPI creators aren’t explaining themselves to mainstream audiences, but attract them anyway

From “Everything Everywhere All at Once” to “Ms. Marvel” to this year’s “Joy Ride,” recent Asian American films have increasingly tackled the diaspora experience. Films made for mainstream audiences are no longer shying away from putting the cultural nuances of diaspora characters on full display.

For Kevin Lihuan Lee, a film production master’s student at Columbia University, growing up watching movies that gave nuance to white characters while relegating people of color to stereotypical or one-dimensional roles taught him to view white experiences as a universal default.

Asian Americans are no longer pop culture side-kicks — they're defining the mainstream (2)

Then, “Crazy Rich Asians” released in 2018 with an all-Asian cast. Soon afterward came “The Farewell,” then “Shang-Chi,” then “Turning Red.” That’s when Lee began catching all the subtle details in the films that, for the first time, made him catch glimpses of himself and his own family.

“Turning Red,” for example, captures such a common mother-daughter conflict — of a child’s feeling caged in after she develops interests that don’t align with what her parent believes is best, Lee said. The way Mei tries so hard to keep the peace with Ming, even if it means bottling up her emotions, is instantly relatable to Lee. It reminds him of the way many Asian Americans tend to internalize their feelings for the sake of keeping family happy.

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“And then ‘Everything Everywhere’ came out, and it just socked me in the face,” he said. “Even the subtleties of the characters’ speaking Mandarin one second and then Cantonese another second and then English another second and they hop back and forth in between their words. That’s how I speak at home with my parents.”

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Canadian filmmaker Domee Shi, who directed “Turning Red” and the Disney Pixar short “Bao,” drew much of her storytelling inspiration from her own childhood and background. But to truly get Mei’s world right required enlisting a team capable of both researching and informing the film with their own lived experiences.

"We’re going to have to continue to support these types of stories, because it could so easily slip backwards at any moment."

Domee Shi, “Turning Red” director

Shi said she often swapped stories with “Turning Red” co-writer Julia Cho, whose Korean American upbringing shared many similarities with her Chinese Canadian one.

“We just talked about our own experiences and what embarrassed us and what did we wish we did back then. And if we were to speak to our moms as tweens, what would we say and what would we want to hear from them?” Shi said. “It was important for me to make sure that we had a lot of people in the room that could speak to the main character’s background.”

Throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, Shi said, Hollywood’s approach to race was often to adopt a colorblind attitude, so stories about people of color were usually not culturally specific. Now, however, she’s seeing more of an interest in exploring characters’ diverse backgrounds and incorporating rather than neglecting what makes them unique.

“You’re seeing studios’ finally opening their minds to what universal stories could look like and who gets to tell them,” Shi said. “But I think it’s an ongoing process, and we’re going to have to continue to support these types of stories, because it could so easily slip backwards at any moment.”

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Progress for South Asian Americans

The debut of “Ms. Marvel,” featuring Marvel’s first Pakistani superhero, was a monumental victory for the South Asian diaspora, critics have said. For the first time, Marvel, a multibillion-dollar movie franchise, invested in a story that showcased the South Asian American female experience.

The show follows Kamala Khan, who is obsessed with the Avengers and is imbued with superpowers that come from a bangle passed down from her great-grandmother.

Harleen Singh, an associate professor of South Asian literature and women’s studies at Brandeis University, said she was impressed that the show used phrases in Urdu or a blend of Urdu and English in conversations, a common experience for the South Asian diaspora. In the first episode, Kamala’s mom tells her, “Come on, Kamala. Chalo,” which means, “Let’s go.”

Asian Americans are no longer pop culture side-kicks — they're defining the mainstream (3)

“I think it adds accuracy to how people of color and how immigrants lead multiple lives and use multiple linguistic registers,” she said. “It’s fun and interesting but also adds a richer repository of words and phrases and representations you can draw from.”

She also said she appreciated the show’s decision not to over-explain the cultural and historical events in the series to viewers. In the series, the 1947 Partition, where millions of South Asian families were forced to cross over the newly formed India-Pakistan border, was integral to explaining how Kamala’s great-grandmother was endowed with her own powers during childhood as her family migrated to Pakistan.

“To actually put the Partition in there as a backstory was a real move of excellence. … There wasn’t this pedantic framing of what happened or what the British did,” she said. “It was almost like a call saying: ‘You should know about this, folks, and if you don’t, here’s a little tidbit. Now, go find out more.’”

Global success imported to the U.S.

Outside of the recent boom in diaspora media, recent years have also been marked by spectacular success from films and TV shows set in Asia, from “Parasite” to “RRR” to “Alice in Borderland.” Netflix last month committed $2.5 billion to South Korean film and TV production over the next four years — after shows such as “Squid Game” and “The Glory” shot to the top of the streaming service’s chart rankings.

Hannah Michell, a lecturer in Asian American film at the University of California, Berkeley, said that although many Asian Americans appreciated the way those films and T.V. series granted renewed visibility to Asian faces, such media doesn’t speak to diaspora experiences. Still, she said, such international works nonetheless helped catalyze more positive reception of Asian American works on a large scale.

“Unfortunately in Hollywood, it is a numbers game. To have a film like ‘Parasite’ win so many awards just shows that there is a market and proves that Asians can sell in terms of media,” Michell said. “So, from an industry perspective, it doesn’t feel as high-risk as it did before.”

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Going beyond the typical exotification of Pacific Islanders, but room for more progress

While Asian diaspora communities are witnessing massive progress in seeing their own stories told accurately on the big screen, Hollywood has made much slower strides when it comes to capturing Pacific Islander perspectives in mainstream film and television.

After the news last month on who the cast and crew will be for the live-action “Lilo & Stitch,” fans had mixed feelings about the casting for Native Hawaiian roles. Some weren’t happy that a biracial, light-skinned actor will play Nani, Lilo’s older sister, who in the original movie was drawn with darker skin, black hair and ethnic features. “Nani is Indigenous Hawaiian with strong features and dark skin, this casting is blatant colorism,” one person tweeted.

For many Pacific Islanders, Disney’s release of “Moana” in 2016 remains monumental, according to Samoan visual anthropologist Dionne Fonoti.

“Locally in Samoa, the excitement around seeing that film, I think, was very much about the thrill of seeing elements of your culture represented in a very familiar way,” Fonoti said.

Some viewers have criticized the movie’s attempt to depict Polynesia as a whole without giving Moana a specific ethnicity or culture.

Fonoti said a lot of the initial skepticism around “Moana” comes from the recognition that Pacific Islanders have been featured in films since film was invented, but only so Western filmmakers and audiences can exoticize them.

But Fonoti said that since “Moana,” she’s seeing a gradual shift in Pacific Islanders’ taking on more positions of power in storytelling through cinema.

“You see the deliberateness of it now, which I don’t think we were seeing in the past, so I definitely think it’s evolved,” Fonoti said.


What is the Asian American movement fighting for? ›

The movement created community service programs, art, poetry, music, and other creative works; offered a new sense of self-determination and Asian American unity; and raised the political and racial consciousness of Asian Americans.

What did the Asian Americans contribute to the United States culture? ›

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have played vital roles in shaping the nation—from building the Transcontinental Railroad to advocating for labor law changes to fighting in multiple wars. They made these contributions while also facing persistent discrimination and violence throughout U.S. history.

What were the main goals of the Asian American movement? ›

One of the greatest aims of the Asian American Movement has been to reclaim a sense of the history of Asians in America and determine a culture that is neither Asian nor specifically American.

What influenced the Asian American movement? ›

The Asian American movement that promoted this new identity– which initially united Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino Americans, and then expanded to include Koreans, Southeast and South Asians, and Pacific Islanders– was driven largely by student activists radicalized by anti-Vietnam war and black power movements.

What is the most significant contribution of Asians to the world? ›

Asia is home to the world's earliest civilizations. Its indigenous cultures pioneered many practices that have been integral to societies for centuries, such as agriculture, city planning, and religion. The social and political geography of the continent continues to inform and influence the rest of the world.

What cultures have contributed to the culture of the United States? ›

A member of the core Anglosphere, it is primarily of Western and European origin, particularly British and German, yet its influences include the cultures of Asian American, African American, Latin American, and Native American peoples and their cultures.

What is unique about Asians? ›

In almost all cases Asians have straight, black hair and dark eyes. They also tend to have less body hair, less facial hair, flatter faces, smaller noses, wider cheekbones, and "shovel-shaped" incisor teeth (slightly scooped out shape of back side of the front teeth).

What is Asians known for? ›

The continent of Asia is blessed with fertile lands in China and India and excels in agricultural production of food grains and rice. Asian people are known all over the world for their strong cultural values and intelligent minds. This continent has given birth to many famous scientists, celebrities and politicians.

How does Asia influence the world? ›

Asia's rise to global significance is apparent in major macroeconomic indicators including GDP and consumption. In 2000, Asia accounted for 32 percent of global GDP in terms of purchasing power parity. This share increased to 42 percent in 2017 and is on course for a share of about 52 percent by 2040.

Why is American culture so popular? ›

After World War II, the rise of the consumer economy and an “American lifestyle” gave American popular culture a global impact. A constant stream of American TV shows, films, songs, and computer games have spread American words and expressions. American English and culture provide a common channel of communication.

What are the impact of culture to us? ›

In addition to its intrinsic value, culture provides important social and economic benefits. With improved learning and health, increased tolerance, and opportunities to come together with others, culture enhances our quality of life and increases overall well-being for both individuals and communities.

What is American culture known for? ›

American culture is highly individualistic , whereby people are expected to be self-reliant and independent. There is a strong belief in equal opportunity and meritocracy – that reward is based on a person's abilities rather than their wealth or social position.

What are the cultural influences of Asia? ›

Apart from the unifying influence of Confucianism, Taoism, Chinese characters and numerous other Chinese cultural influences, East Asian national customs, architecture, literature, cuisines, traditional music, performing arts and crafts also have developed from many independent and local concepts, they have grown and ...

How has East Asia influenced Western culture? ›

Speaking of entertainment, another important Asian influence on Western culture has been in the media. How many video games, toys, movies, and pay-per-view events have you seen featuring martial artists? Karate, taekwondo, and so many other martial arts hail from Asia.

What are 5 interesting facts about Asia? ›

10 surprising facts about Asia
  • Singapore has a building inspired by a Star Wars robot. ...
  • There are over 1,600 temples in Kyoto, Japan. ...
  • Hong Kong means 'fragrant harbor' ...
  • China produces 45 billion pairs of chopsticks each year. ...
  • South Korea has a separate Valentine's Day for single people.

What is the most westernized country in Asia? ›

The visitor to Metro Manila commonly sees the Philippines as the most westernized of Asian countries and in many ways, it is. But there is also a rich underlay of Malay culture beneath the patina of Spanish and American heritage.

What countries are westernized in Asia? ›

Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan: Although they are geographically located in East Asia, the three countries have westernized themselves since the Meiji Era (in the Empire of Japan, including Korea and Taiwan), have democratic forms of government (although both South Korea and Nationalist China were formerly anti- ...

Why is East Asia so advanced? ›

Rapid modernisation, and a focus on high technology, have allowed East Asia to register rapid economic growth. The region is home to some of the world's most affluent nations and sees high standards of living.


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