“Everything Everywhere All at Once” and Asian American generational divides

by Jeffrey Loewe

“Everything Everywhere All at Once” is a film about Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), a Chinese American immigrant who owns a laundromat and is trying to make ends meet while navigating relationships with her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) and daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu). Upon the visit of an alternate version of her husband Waymond who enlists her in the battle against Jobu Tupaki, an all-powerful force bent on wreaking havoc across the multiverse, Evelyn’s reality and relationships are thrown into disarray as she must grapple with these revelations. Despite all the film’s interdimensional jumping, surrealism and discussions of nihilism, at its core, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is a family drama that is a reflection of the turbulences of a second-generation Asian American upbringing that emerges from miscommunications between Asian American immigrants and their children.

Throughout the film, we see Evelyn trying to show Joy that she cares, though she finds difficulty in communicating this effectively, sometimes resulting in hurt. As Joy leaves her mother’s laundromat to be with her girlfriend Becky, the camera pans to Evelyn struggling to find words to communicate caring to an estranged Joy until she finally tells her daughter she is getting fat. Though the bluntness of the remark initially made me chuckle, having received no shortage of similarly-phrased comments from various family members that I need to eat more, I believe this scene also speaks to the reality of Asian American parents’ attempts to show affection through attempts at betterment.

Jobu Tupaki, the perceived villain of the film, is the product of an alternate universe version of Evelyn who pushed her universe’s Joy to explore parallel universes until her exhausted consciousness fractured across multiple planes of existence, allowing Joy to achieve the ultimate form of reclaimed control in the mastery of the multiverse. This version of Evelyn is an extreme example of the “Tiger Mom,” a stereotype of Asian parents who perceive they are helping their children through demands of excellence to the point of neglect. At this point, I experienced dissonance with the narrative, having grown up with immigrant parents who prioritized my happiness and well-being above other factors rather than aligning with the stereotype. Nonetheless, though my and probably many other Asian Americans’ parents never resembled this version of Evelyn, Jobu Tupaki and other story threads together tell a story of how urging improvement on perceived deficiencies is seen as affectionate among circles of Asian American parents, though it may come across aloof and insensitive at times to their children.

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Beyond languages of love, when Evelyn introduces Becky as a “good friend” to Joy’s grandfather Gong Gong, she hurts Joy because Joy’s desire to feel accepted and her mother’s trodding over her relationship becomes a rejection of her identity. Rooted in a desire to appease Gong Gong, Evelyn’s actions align with a different perception of normative sexuality that is shaped by her upbringing, which ultimately leads to Joy feeling a sense of alienation because of her mother’s expressed views. Having wanted to get a tattoo since high school for its artistry and ability to communicate personal identity, I was reminded during this scene of different moments when my mom had remarked that tattoos were unsightly or associated with criminality, making me feel as if I was not being accepted though I knew that wasn’t her intention.

Though Evelyn falls short in her attempts to connect with Joy at various points in the movie, the film shows how the lack of understanding is bidirectional. In a glimpse of another universe where Evelyn chose to remain in China rather than immigrate to the U.S. with Waymond, Evelyn becomes enthralled with the reality in which she became a kung fu master and fabulously wealthy actress, having avoided the economic hardships associated with immigration to the United States. Then, in foregoing visits to the laundromat or leaving early from the Chinese New Year party at the laundromat to avoid more unpleasant interactions with her mother, Joy also demonstrates a lack of recognition of her parent’s sacrifices as they took a leap to make a new life in the U.S.

When Evelyn attempts to reconcile with Jobu, though Jobu questions the possibility of staying with her mother due to the pain that Evelyn had caused, Evelyn remarks that no matter the myriad of lives she could lead, the only one she would choose to lead is one with Jobu. With the recognition of her mother’s love for her, though not necessarily overlooking the pain caused by their strained relationship, Jobu chooses to embrace Evelyn, opening a new chapter in their relationship. Watching Joy’s and Evelyn’s last conversation, I couldn’t help but feel acutely aware that my parents would hold the same sentiment, in that they would change little about their choices though they also began in a similar position of precarity when they entered the U.S.

Though my mom has expressed regret for exposing me to conditions of poverty when I was a child, I know that my parents have had to make tremendous self-sacrifices to build a life in the U.S., not unlike Evelyn’s family. Consequently, though “Everything Everywhere All at Once” shows glimpses of some of the gaps in understanding that exist between first- and second-generation Asian Americans, what it offers greater still is an opportunity to reflect on the undercurrent of love that still guides many Asian American immigrants’ decision to immigrate to and live in the United States.

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