I Rewrite My American Story in “Everything Everywhere All at Once”
Part 3 of Brian Lin’s essay on the portrayal of complex Asian American racial dynamics in the record-breaking box office hit
Before my first Asian American Studies class, my last semester of college, I thought my brown ass was white. Nowadays, I credit ethnic studies—from CRT to Beyoncé—for making me a person of color.
When I tell people this, they seem neither shocked by my delusion nor appalled by my POC betrayal. They seem, TBH, kind of bored, like my obsession with racial-identity development is old hat. And so I’ve come to think it’s a given: of course East Asians want to be white. The sky is blue, oppression is intersectional—what else is new?
But what if it’s not indifference? Let me slow it down this time like honey. I’ll run it back pure and unpack these very loaded American phrases: “wanting to be white” and “becoming a person of color.”
Before the US, my whole childhood set in Taiwan, I dreamt one night about an American-Born-Chinese pop star. Dressed in all white like a church girl, he was flying through the sky. I was him in the dream, though I saw him from afar. When I woke up and realized I was still myself—nose, still piggy, tummy, still flabby—I crash-landed, sinking into disappointment.
Then I moved to the suburbs of Chicago. I became the Asian boy who always finished the sheet of multiplication problems first. The school placed me in gifted math right away. In fifth grade, the two people I bullied were Angel Davila and Shonda Okazaki. I made fun of Angel for having a “girl’s name.” I terrorized Shonda. While she didn’t “look Asian” to my ten-year-old self, her last name sounded Japanese. I don’t remember what I did, only that her mom, a Susan-Sarandon type in white-working-class drag, asked the teacher for a parent meeting. I was learning it at a young age: becoming cozy with whiteness meant destroying anyone who wasn’t.
In middle school, my English standardized-test scores caught up with my math. I got my dad—I guess he was around?—to advocate for my transfer to gifted English. It worked. We wrote our own books of poetry. Returning my first piece of writing, the teacher, a white woman squarely within J. Crew’s target demographic, told me not to get ahead of myself. It was my first time hearing this idiom. I couldn’t wrap my head around what it meant. Next year, at the high school, in “honors-gifted” English (🤷🏽♂️), I turned in an essay filled with long words from the thesaurus. The teacher, my Dumbledore, questioned all this diction, told me to stick to what I knew. Since then, I’ve written every sentence to prove my competence in the English language.
The summer before college was my first time feeling literary fiction in my soul. I was reading Infinite Jest—a notoriously long novel about loneliness, familial estrangement, and the futility of finding worth in one’s achievements—written by the dangerously white-male David Foster Wallace. On the big, floral couch at home, the skirt all stained by dog piss, I set the book face down at the sight of myself on the page. What I didn’t see in that moment was how Wallace would never see me. What I wouldn’t see for the longest was the particularities of my queer Asian American life.
When Jobu Tupaki, alien superstar, saw every variation on the course of her life, everything everywhere all at once, she took it to mean nothing mattered. Nihilism is why she made the everything bagel—a weapon of mass destruction, if we take the Alphas’ word for it. And why wouldn’t we? They are the heroes, after all.
Let’s take a minute to revisit Jobu’s origin story for the bewildering everything bagel.
I started by putting all my hopes and dreams on it. Then I put all my report cards. Next came every breed of dog and wanted ads on Craigslist. Finally, the actual seasonings. With so much on it, the bagel collapsed, creating a black hole.
The juxtaposition of aspirations and grades brings up well-worn American myths. In the neat plot of model minorities, 4.0s open doors to hitherto unavailable opportunities. SATs measure intelligence, if not inherent worth. People who don’t do well in school are unfit for American life, undeserving of any more lifelines. This illogic defies harder, more honest narratives about all of the country’s isms.
My first semester of college, a month or so in at Brown, Wallace killed himself on my birthday. I took it as a sign I would be the next American genius. My second semester, I took Japanese History. I wanted to learn about myself but figured Chinese History had nothing to do with me. I didn’t think twice about a white man teaching an East Asian Studies class. I also took Intro to Ethnic Studies. I read Kimberlé Crenshaw as though intersectionality were an intellectual puzzle to solve, a concept irrelevant to my life.
I took Advanced Fiction. Another Asian American was in the class. I neither identified as such at the time nor assumed kinship with any Asian, but I remember this woman just like I remember the majority of the workshop. It was a remarkably attractive bunch, hip in precisely the ways I associate with Brown: thrift-store cardigans and cute, Icelandic backpacks; New Yorker subscriptions and Criterion editions of Fellini flicks; the faces of Student Labor Alliance and the College Hill Independent, cool extracurriculars that made a difference. I felt in all moments like a guest. I wouldn’t take another creative-writing class for eight long years.
A baseline of self-loathing. An open wound in the shape of myself, which I filled with longing for white men. A field of landmines for anyone who was other. This is what I mean when I say I thought I was white.
White supremacy sets up Asian Americans endlessly to act as beige pawns. In the case of Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard College, which is bound for the Supreme Court, Edward Blum and the Asian Americans he’s organized accuse the Ivy League icon of institutional racism. The predictable ruling would “likely reduce the number of Black and Latino students . . . with more Asian American and white students gaining admission instead.” It’s wedgy shit like this that makes it hard to believe in “BIPOC solidarity”—hard to keep calling myself a “person of color.”
So, when Jobu says that everything’s a matter of chance, here’s the film’s implication. Making it in America has little to do with talent or hard work. Success is about the largely random factors of one’s positionality: race, ethnicity, sex, class.
Jobuvision is chaos to the Alphaverse, epicenter of becoming anyone you put your mind to, that madness of meritocracy. Far from evil, Jobu’s a hero—an iconoclast against Asian American mythologies, ones that rest on anti-Blackness.
Before my first Asian American Studies class, my last semester of college, Asian meant out of place to me. It meant obedient and robotic, the opposite of artistic. It meant conformist and indistinguishable, the opposite of American. It meant boring and awkward, the opposite of personable. It meant the opposite of Black.
Never mind that back in high school, in jazz band, the students who set the bar for improv were Filipino and South Asian. That my group of friends senior year, all of us misfits, who wore thrift-store tracksuits on the last day of school, was majority Asian and Middle Eastern. That the friend who got me through college—who I’d known since elementary school and turned into my lifeline once we were a commuter rail apart in New England—was Indian.
Never mind these facts. Believing in whiteness meant denying what was in my line of sight, most of all myself. It took seven semesters of thawing my frozen sense of self to find Asian Americans worth studying.
My last semester of college was my first time in an American classroom where everyone was Asian. It was my first time making friends at Brown who accepted me exactly as I was. (It was my first time cuffing it with somebody who looked like me.) It was my first time learning that Asians have been on this land longer than the United States; that contrary to my anomalous presence in the Midwest, Asians live all over Latin America; that contrary to my family’s wealth and our post-’65 migration, Asians in the U.S. are also refugees and undocumented immigrants.
It was my first time finding power and pride in the term “Asian American,” which originated in the radical movements of the ’60s. For the first time, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinx students were crossing paths at San Francisco State College. Across the Bay, in Oakland, the Black Panther Party organized around self-determination. This model of Black liberation gave rise to the first “Asian Americans,” who demanded SFSC offer relevant curriculum and representative faculty.
My last semester of college was my first time identifying as Asian American. I am thirty-one now. I was in the class a decade ago when I learned about Vincent Chin. Chin lived to be twenty-seven. I was months short of twenty-one. That’s when I learned about Trayvon Martin. Martin lived to be seventeen.
I became Asian American in the shadow of a grim coincidence. I learned in the class that two white men killed an Asian American because the man was Asian. At the same time, the nation was grappling with the fact that a white man killed a Black boy because the child was Black. I recall no talk during class about Vincent Chin and Trayvon, no addressing the parallels of the two incommensurate acts.
In the film’s most overtly political scene, Jobu steps out of an elevator in Elvis drag. Evelyn is handcuffed. Waymond is unconscious. Police are on the premises.
A cop tells Jobu that she can’t be there. Heated, King Tupaki taunts him. You keep saying “can’t,” but I don’t think you know what that word means. Serving Yvie Oddly, she reveals a second face on the back of her head. She snaps the neck of one cop and positions another to get shot. Then a cop shoots Jobu in the back. Evelyn watches her daughter bleed until Jobu pulls out a ketchup bottle, revealing the deadliest gag.
It’s hard to make sense of an Asian American woman killing cops and staging her own homicide. Scrubbed clean of the historical record, popular imagination does not associate Asian Americans with racial violence. In the minds of many, attacks on Asians in America started with “kung flu” and Trump and peaked with the shootings in Atlanta.
Why might a text that’s Asian American in form choose content so tethered to Black American experiences?
The case of Vincent Chin made it plain that I wasn’t—would never be—white. What would I become instead? Whom? Would I claim a role of racial target, which in 2012 was taking shape in the image of Trayvon Martin? If I did, I’d be putting down my limited access to whiteness just to pick up a misguided claim to anti-Blackness. What kept me from swapping out one over-identification for another?
One day, in the Asian American Studies class, discussing the concept of honorary whiteness, I said I often felt other POC assuming I was basically white. I had never talked about this before—the nebulous place of Asian Americans in the U.S. racial hierarchy. The professor—a father figure, of course—asked a question, simple and difficult. How do you know that people perceive you that way? I heard doubt in his asking, but I had no answer, so I dropped into overthinking, a Virgo’s groove. How did I know? Was I making all of it up? Was I the only one judging me—the only one even thinking of me?
At the ceremony for the English department, I noticed that English majors were either Asian or white. At the college-wide graduation, donning a red and yellow stole made for everyone in our class, I was part of a community—finally—at the end of four otherwise alienating years.
I was moving to Los Angeles that summer for grad school in social-justice education. I would start a career in “urban” public schools—that is, to work with youth of color—which is really to say, to teach low-income Black and Latinx kids. I was immeasurably, inter-dimensionally self-conscious about pursuing this role as a rich, East Asian man. While I surged with social-justice values, I was at a loss about what would make my care credible to the people I sought to serve.
So, en route to LA, in the middle of a summer renaissance, I attended the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance conference. At an “intergenerational plenary” that filled a hotel ballroom, a queer, South Asian woman said something that would stick with me for years. Though I’m technically Asian American and proudly so, too, I identify as a person of color much more—politically, spiritually.
At the time, this self-articulation felt as intimate as a password—magical like a riddle solved. In the ballroom, jotting down every word as if divinely revealed, I thought, It’s cute to be Asian American, but the real work is in solidarity to those more oppressed than I, and the only appropriate role for this duty is as a queer person of color.
Jobu’s everything bagel is literally a black hole. Given the film’s wobbly preoccupation with phalluses and anal penetration, I’m inclined to read the bagel as—well—as a Black hole.
I acknowledge that this gloss might seem glib, literal and a little embarrassing, but, no shade, so is the film. I would also assert that a crucible of American culture is an obsession with Black bodies—controlling them, inhabiting them. So, if I may:
Entering the everything bagel—Black hole—symbolizes fucking a Black person. Loving Black people is the last thing you’re supposed to do if vertical assimilation is one’s MO in this country. The opposite is how you make it: hide privilege, champion hard work, ignore injustice, marry white, make hapa babies, lock the Tesla driving through Black neighborhoods.
People strive for other endgames. When non-Black people come into racial consciousness, whether white or of color, we often immerse ourselves in the breadth of anti-Blackness. We act like Black death is the whole of Black life.
Jobu allegorizes first-gen kids like me who go to liberal-arts colleges, go in on ethnic-studies classes, go home all gung-ho about communism and queerness, and go off on relatives about their racist, sexist views. Jobu’s black hole of a bagel symbolizes an all-consuming understanding: the fictions of American life hinge on the premature death of Black Americans.
From the start of my teaching career to the summer of 2020, a passage of my life bookended by two chapters in the Movement for Black Lives, I believed in the predictive power of positionality. The premise was this: socialized as a cis man, East Asian and rich, I was doomed to hurt people, to reproduce patterns of harm.
I wore this fate like a corset. Behaviors I tried to anticipate and hide: talking too much in my teacher-education classes, where the majority of my peers were women and only one or two were Black; mispronouncing the names of my Latinx students; mixing up the names of students with similar positionalities; locking my car doors “just in case” after passing a Black pedestrian; choosing bougie restaurants for dates without considering access and cost.
I made it a job to monitor all my thoughts and choices. Everything I did, I distrusted on account of my suburban origins, all that white supremacy I internalized growing up the only one. Everything I said, I said to myself first—a line from Tegan and Sara, a queer, white band that gave words to my anxiety in high school and whose music, along with that of so many white indie acts, I put aside to excise myself of whiteness.
I student-taught at Compton High School. I commuted there from Koreatown. Every day, I listened exclusively to rap, believing that conscious Black music would correct my basically white consciousness. One morning, at a railroad crossing, cutting it close to the start of first period, I broke into tears listening to The College Dropout. “I’ll Fly Away” and “Spaceship,” gospel teeing up slice-of-life rap with Afrofuturist motifs, were teaching me about the lives of my Black and brown students—their dignity and their despair, I was sure. I felt good about myself for crying. It meant that I really cared.
The one class I taught was small. The students were majority Latinx, minority Black. The guiding teacher, a Black woman who ran the kind of classroom in which students rarely spoke, chose for me to teach poetry. I designed my first-ever unit around good kid, m.A.A.d. city, the Kendrick Lamar album set in Compton. For the final essay, which the students wrote in class, I assigned a prompt about how accurately the text represented “life in the hood.”
That weekend, the guiding teacher emailed me and my teacher-ed professor. On the day of the in-class essay, after I left, some students came to her during lunch and told her how uncomfortable they were with my prompt, how hurtful it was that I’d called their home “the hood.”
The teacher ended my student-teaching assignment early. She afforded me the opportunity to apologize to the students in person. I would like to think I took it—that I went back in and acknowledged to the students that I had disrespected them and their communities—but honestly, I’m not sure. I remember the students’ faces, their names and even their voices, but all I remember about the end is my massive shame over my preventable, almost textbook mistake.
In her official evaluation, which would factor into my credentialing by the state, the guiding teacher wrote that some people are not meant to be teachers. I took “some people” to confirm my worst fears about myself. I took it to mean Asian American men. My positionality would always be a liability. No matter my hypervigilance, my conscious cultural consumption, I would always end up hurting the people I was building a life to love.
Five years later—after I failed enough at teaching to get better at it, after I entered the first romantic relationship of my life, after I left my job as a high-school teacher and moved in with my partner, after we took the plastic off the sofa—we had reservations one night at a restaurant down the street. Before heading out, I opened a can of hard cider. I drank it on our walk there. My partner’s Black. He brought up this evening months later, pointing out my carelessness in drinking outdoors. If the cops had stopped me for breaking the law, anti-Blackness might have implicated my partner. Had police escalated—
My partner didn’t go into all this. He knew I knew, I think. In fact, early in our courtship—before he presented me a key to his apartment while humming “Darth Vader’s Theme”—we talked about the benefits of dating people of color, all the energy we were saving instead of coddling and convincing white partners. We took for granted that our experiences and worldviews overlapped as Asian and Black men—that “people of color” functioned intimately as well as politically. That hope was why it hurt when he told me what I’d done the night we walked to dinner.
I learned in my twenties to condemn myself for thinking like a white person. This script assumes that the crucial division in white supremacy is between whites and people of color. But as Frank B. Wilderson III argues in Afropessimism, anti-Blackness and Black cultures are what structure the world that we all share. White or not, anybody non-Black needs a reminder of the world we’re accountable for.
As news spread in 2020 of attacks on Asians in America, I was ever aware of my privileges. Moving through the world in a body more masc than not; living in LA—in Little Tokyo—almost never the only Asian; young and able-bodied and dressed in the fashion of Angelenos; I figured myself, if not safe, then at least less vulnerable than most.
Then a white man killed eight people, six of them Asian women. Since then, government at every level has invested and intervened to #StopAsianHate. In contrast, since the 2020 elections and uprisings, the buzz around police abolition has dissipated. While enough Asian Americans have refrained from “#AsianLivesMatter,” the state’s limited acknowledgement of anti-Blackness—inconsistent, largely symbolic—implies over and over that Black lives don’t matter in the United States of America.
What I can’t get over about this inequity is that Asian Americans gained state resources through the use of Black American discourse. After the Atlanta spa killings, admonishing traditional media for erasing before anglicizing the Asian women’s names, Asian Americans enjoined social media to “say their names” in the original languages. Indignant about public indifference and incredulity, Asian Americans urged people to “check on their Asian friends.” To balance out the grief, Asian Americans were even showcasing “Asian excellence” on social media.
Asian Americans use Black cultures to make sense, to be seen. We do so without crediting Black people. Our gains have been disproportionate to what’s afforded Black Americans. We’re not the only ones to do this. America has a problem.
To use what doesn’t belong to me and get more out of it than the creators—this is a specific mode of theft. The behavior is settler colonial; it’s model minority and anti-Black.
This is the defining challenge of my Asian American selfhood: crafting a way of being that’s as genuine as it is just.
The Alphas represent the burgeoning movement of Asian American conservatives, anti-affirmative action, pro-criminalization. The Alphas try to radicalize Evelyn by stoking her class-based resentments (laundry, taxes, laundry, taxes) and endowing her with a purpose: save the whole-ass multiverse by making things how they used to be.
As the MAGA agenda makes clear, you make your own civilization supreme by conjuring outsized enemies. Enter Jobu Tupaki. Sexual deviant. Remorseless murderer. Cop killer! No goals or moral code. An agent of chaos.
If the Alphas stand in for Asian American conservatives, Jobu represents their cultural opposite: the Social Justice Warrior. A genderfucking queer. An iconoclast. A police abolitionist. No ties to the status quo. A revolutionary.
Reading the almighty Tupaki as a paradigmatic SJW—a BLM, FTP, QTPOC leftist—we can interpret Jobuvision as an awareness of systemic oppression, of the life-or-death stakes of people’s social location. When one becomes aware that race, class, and gender all condition the life you get to live, the world begins to unfold as a multiverse.
The multiverse represents more than all the paths one’s life can take. The multiverse is metaphor for hierarchy, for how unfairness is the grounds for everyday living.
Aware I’m positioned to thrive while others struggle to survive, I’ve learned to minimize my struggles and discredit my successes. Yes, I got into a competitive Ph.D. program for creative writing without publications or an MFA, but I did undergrad at an Ivy, and the year I took to apply to writing programs, I did so unemployed as my parents paid all my bills. Yes, this is my third essay at Electric Literature, the biggest platform of my career so far, but I met my editor at a conference, which I paid full price to attend. Trained to name and shame my privileges, I can qualify and even loathe every nice thing about my life. When I follow this logic, it’s like I’m not a person at all. I’m a cheat code, a string of privileges and pure luck.
Now get all up in your mind the iconic scene of Everything. Mother and daughter, rocks, overlook an expanse of nothing. The two are in a universe where conditions aren’t right for life. The only thing to do is watch. Jobu acts like it’s peaceful at first, an existence limited to observation. Then she tells the truth. The nothingness has felt like a trap. She’s been pursuing Evelyn not to kill her but to find another way, a subjecthood that would allow her more life.
Plato who? Cave what? 2022 is the dawn of talking rocks. Good morning to this allegory and this allegory alone of my East Asian American life.
Proximity to white-male privilege is my lot. Since the start in 2020 of the white-liberal frenzy to “expose” white supremacy, I’ve felt mighty uneasy. The culture and the market were aligned for the nation to go on a journey, something racial-justice-y. I’d started mine the decade before, feeling guilty and very much alone. I reached a bitter standstill. To live an ethical life, I had to accept I didn’t matter. The stories that called for championing would center me but rarely. The harms that warranted spotlighting would never be my own.
In a culture that feeds on spectacles of suffering, I’ve got a whole lot of nothing. I refuse to lay claim to any oppression other than what governs us all. I’ve resigned myself in adulthood to a status of American insignificance.
Everything is committed to redeeming Asian American men as indispensable political actors. It does so by staging our near-constant humiliation.
The movie’s running bit is belittling Waymond without his knowing. Alpha Waymond derides the weakness of Waymond’s body. He mimics Waymond’s voice to blend into a hysterical crowd. Waymond Wang even ridicules himself. In one scene, confronting Gong Gong, Evelyn takes on Waymond’s voice, literally speaking as him. Waymond’s right there, but he doesn’t seem to recognize his voice, calling it weird. Evelyn changes voices again, chirping this time. The film subtitles the noises as actual dialogue. By the end of the scene, the joke is less the birdsong than the affect of an Asian immigrant man.
It breaks my soul to enumerate Waymond’s many humiliations. This is precisely the point. The film’s atmospheric abuse of Asian men simulates our American condition. The movie implicates all audiences in our quotidian indignities. You might find yourself laughing at all the gags until Waymond turns out to be the linchpin of the family.
His importance comes to light in the epic kindness speech. The conservative Alphas are bent on eliminating the leftist Jobu. An Alpha recruit at first, Evelyn has become a SJW sympathizer. After Evelyn stabs Waymond for all the Alphas to see, he puts himself in the middle of their fight. He begs Evelyn, Please. Be kind, especially when we don’t know what’s going on.
Everything Everywhere turns on this very plea. Because of Waymond, Evelyn chooses empathy over nihilism. Fighting with kindness, she defeats the goons. She wins over Gong Gong and reconciles with Joy. If the movie has an overt thesis, this is it. In a polarized, disintegrating world—an age of extremes and radicalization—reach across the aisle. Relate to the pain of the other.
For a movie about the multiverse, this is noticeably facile, perfunctory. The not-uncommon position turns a blind eye to power and politics. The naivete passes muster only because it’s delivered by a cishet, Chinese American man, a social location presumed to lack ideological allegiances.
The movie tries to make Asian American men relevant by presenting us as pitiable and, on top of that, apolitical, a rare class of angels that soars above the times. For this rhetoric to work, the film tears out the people most likely to grasp identity politics at its roots: Asian queers like me.
Not long after “My Family’s Failures” published, in the thique of revising “My Drag Masculinity,” I watched the movie a fifth time. Back in the dark of the theater, no longer crying about family and abandonment, I had the bandwidth now to start processing the gay stuff emotionally as well as intellectually.
From viewings one through four, I’d thought through the implications of framing ass play as irrational. Queerness is a joke, a total humiliation. While this wasn’t lost on me—the cruelty—I judged the audience, not the text, whenever people laughed at Asian American bottoms, at Hot-Dog Evelyn and Deirdre.
The fifth time, though, I felt it: stepped on and struck out by butt plugs and dildos as gags; betrayed by the phallic undercutting of the women’s queer intimacy. Everything is so insistent on the absurdity of Asian American queerness that by the end of my fifth viewing, I stared down an obliterating question. Are queer Asian Americans real in Evelyn Wang’s universe?
This movie that’s helped me heal—that’s helped me feel what had gone numb in thirty-one years—does it accept that I’m that girl? Does it know the particularities of my queer Asian American life?
I remember what it feels like to doubt that I am real. I’ve worked so long—with such tenderness—to recover from systematic self-denial.
Tension is not a problem to solve. Tension—far from purity—is what it feels like to be alive. Tension—multiplicity—is a fulcrum to ride to freedom.
Now that I’ve felt what it’s like to be whole—loveable, desirable, and uncontainable by the inhuman Black-white binary—I refuse to be divided again. Masc, femme; Black, white; Asian, American—all of the above, always—I am everything. With my loves, we are everywhere, free to be all the contradictory things at once.