My Family’s Failures Took Center Stage in “Everything Everywhere All At Once”
Part I of Brian Lin’s essay on complex Asian American family dynamics in the record-breaking box office hit
The first time Ma told me was my last semester of college. I was in Providence. She’d moved back to Taiwan for good when I left the suburbs for Brown. One winter night, at the movies by myself, I watched Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The hero, a whiteboy, copes with the double abandonment of his dead father (9/11) and seemingly absent mother (grief). In the movie’s emotional climax, the boy yells at his mother, I wish you had died instead of him.
I do too, she says.
Ma and I weren’t capable of such honesty together. Still, after watching a son take his mother for granted and feeling how deeply he hurt her, I chose to tell the truth for once. That night, I called my ma and told her that I’m gay. That week, with my brother and sister, both a decade older, she flew out to the farthest coast of America. We went to the beach in winter. On a cliff, in a leather coat with a thick, fur cuff, she told me that she loved me.
She did? Since when? Why now?
I didn’t say any of this. I left her for the rental car. We ate somewhere unmemorable.
She’s continued to say it since, mostly on Facebook Messenger. I write it back out of obligation, but I don’t know what it means. How do you love the person who left you when she was supposed to raise you? How do you love a person across space, time, language?
I’m back in the suburbs of Chicago for an artists’ residency. Ma and I moved here from Taiwan when I was in elementary school. Starting in fourth grade, she’d leave me every spring—Taiwan’s tax season, and she was an accountant. In her absence, my siblings were my caretakers, each on academic leave, neither much older than twenty. It won’t surprise you, then, that abandonment is the song that I can’t get out of my head, and unworthiness is my forever fear.
Everything Everywhere All At Once portrays the pain of lifelong silences. The film also puts words to unspeakable things between mother and daughter, wife and husband, adult child and ailing father.
Directed by the Daniels, Everything Everywhere All At Once is part Matrix and part Multiverse of Madness with the tonal range and mother-daughter themes of Turning Red. It’s as goofy as it is heartbreaking, and it holds all that range with a whole lot of sci-fi. It’s about the Wangs, a Chinese American family in California. Evelyn and Waymond, the parents (played by Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, respectively), own a laundromat. It’s tax season, and the IRS is auditing the family.
In fact, the Wangs are going to the IRS for a meeting. Waymond also plans on serving Evelyn divorce papers. When she’s not berating him, she is brushing him off, and he’s hoping that this rupture will finally get her attention. Bad timing though because the family is hosting a Lunar New Year party that evening. The occasion honors Evelyn’s father, a.k.a. Gong Gong (James Hong), who is visiting from China.
To frazzle Evelyn even more, her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) has shown up at the laundromat with Becky (Tallie Medel), her girlfriend of three years. The couple wants Evelyn’s permission for Becky to attend the party. However, Gong Gong doesn’t know that Joy is queer. Things go left when Joy tries to tell him, so she and Becky leave. Short a translator and a caretaker, Evelyn and Waymond bring Gong Gong to the IRS meeting. The three are going up the elevator to meet their officer, Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis), when Waymond takes off his glasses and snaps into a different persona.
This alter ego is Alpha Waymond—Alpha for the Alphaverse, the first universe to make contact with the others in the multiverse. Alpha Waymond believes that Evelyn is the multiverse’s last defense against its worst threat, Jobu Tupaki. To beat Jobu, Evelyn has to learn how to Verse Jump—to access the skills, memories, and feelings of the Evelyns in the other universes. Can this Evelyn carry out the Alpha mission, living up to her potential for the first time in her life?
As wild and absurd as the film gets, its themes are remarkably straightforward. Everything Everywhere All At Once is about all the possible lives that Evelyn has given up after leaving her parents in China to build a life with Waymond in California. It’s about how a family of the Chinese diaspora falls apart as the second generation acculturates to the U.S. It’s about intergenerational trauma: Evelyn’s rejection by her father, Joy’s compromised acceptance by her mother. Quite literally, it’s about saving your child to save yourself.
In Taiwan, we lived in an empty apartment with marble floors. I slept in the same room as my parents. It had two beds, a king and a twin. I slept in the big one with Ma. Ba slept on his side in the bed fit for a child. Later, in the Chicago suburbs, I slept in my parents’ room again. Ba wasn’t around. I never knew where he was. An ocean away, probably. Taiwan or China—or not. I stopped keeping track.
I felt my parents’ distance most whenever I went to my friends’ houses. Their parents lived together and called each other by their names—even as Mom or Dad. They talked to each other at the table, enjoying whole adult conversations while the kids chatted on the side. These parents, all white, showed love so openly. Mine taught me that marriage entraps, turning everyone into monuments of ash.
Everything Everywhere All At Once never uses the words “Asian,” “Asian American,” or “immigrant.” Instead, the characters talk about fraying neighborhoods and crumbling institutions. When Alpha Waymond is explaining the mission to Evelyn, he says she has what it takes to bring everything back to normal. To make things great again.
Say you’re making a movie about global fascism without saying “global fascism.”
Even with all the timelines and Verse Jumps, the film plays out the question of survival pretty neatly. Evelyn has two options: chaos or kindness, ways of being embodied by the villainous Jobu Tupaki and the reliable Waymond Wang.
At first, Evelyn chooses Jobu. She pulls a “Hold Up” in the laundromat, snatching a baseball bat and smashing a storefront window. I’ve always hated this place, she says. Later, Waymond talks Evelyn off Jobu’s cliff. In the film’s final fight scene, Evelyn tries to save her daughter by fighting like her husband—which is to say, with kindness. She turns the bullets about to break her body into googly eyes, the ones that silly Waymond sticks everywhere, and launches them at her enemies. Then she tends to their needs, aligning a man’s spine, spraying a widower with his dead wife’s perfume, convincing the IRS officer Deirdre that she is not unlovable.
Peel back all the sci-fi, and the movie’s position is simple. When the world is ending and everything seems pointless, take care of each other instead of not caring at all.
How is a seemingly race-neutral story so deeply Asian American?
What I have of my family these days is memories from when our lives overlapped.
Staying up past my bedtime, waiting for Ba to get back from a business trip.
Listening in the back of the car as Ma drove while my sister talked shit about Ba. For the first time, I chimed in and made a joke about him too. They laughed—they laughed!—and I belonged.
Sleeping in on weekends in the suburbs. Looking for Ma in her room, finding her face un-made and beautiful.
Finding my brother hung over on the couch when I needed him to drive me to the Labor Day parade.
Believing my sister when she said that high school would be hell. The older kids would stuff me into lockers all the time because I was such a pain in the ass.
Making plans during college to live in Chicago one summer instead of the suburbs. Ma refused, saying it made no sense to pay rent somewhere when I had a house right there, saying that I treated our home like a hotel.
Beaming with belonging at graduation. Marching with my first real friends in college from the Asian American Studies class I took that final semester. Flaring with anger whenever my parents approached.
What I have of my family these days is sadness and hurt—feelings I have no way of telling them about, feelings I have no way of living down.
Family is the cornerstone of “Asian American culture,” that profitable myth of a monolith. Throw in hard work, boba, and the pains and quirks of migration, and you’ve mapped out the landscape of Asian America—the East Asian territories, at least.
Everything Everywhere All At Once isn’t content with treading such familiar ground. Its aims are more radical than ethnography and cultural authenticity. Consider the Wangs’ Lunar New Year party. This choice—to highlight that many Asians literally follow a different calendar than the West—cues us to the film’s contribution to Asian American storytelling.
Everything Everywhere All At Once creates a form for Asian American space-time.
My Asian family doesn’t take up space like American nuclear families. Our lives, crossing hemispheres, spill out of all the boxes built to contain the Joneses. Living all over the place, we act it too. Ba writes me DMs and red envelopes in Mandarin like he doesn’t know English has surrounded me most my life. Ma sends heart emojis and Pusheen stickers like these charms might repair our relationship, stretched thin across the Pacific for so long.
We treat time differently too. We take for granted that history unfolds in cycles instead of progressing in a line. There are philosophical differences and mundane ones too. When your family spans oceans and continents, you learn to live around time zones. Long before understanding attachment styles, you accept that you and your parents live at opposite times, in places the other might never see.
Our space and time turn our lives into sci-fi. Think about how our elders’ traumas keep them cycling through the past. Think partitions, carpet bombs, internment camps. It doesn’t take much worldbuilding for us to grasp the multiverse. What we refuse to believe is closed borders and linear time.
I came back to the suburbs a week before the residency to spend time with my brother’s family. It’s him, my sister-in-law, and their three kids—two nephews and a niece.
My brother and I also bookend a middle sister. This isn’t the only parallel between my nuclear family and his. It’s only the most harmless.
Both my family and his kill time by eating out and shopping. We know how to be together when the focus is on anything but ourselves. Before, my family being too many even for the SUV, I’d fold myself up in the trunk. To Asian groceries or outlet malls, the drives always felt so long. The landscape was always the same: tall grass and bare trees, identical houses in mazes, strip malls like a checkerboard of the same seven chains. Whatever restaurant we ended up at, one of the six that grounded our routines, my siblings filled the conversation. They always told the same five stories about their childhood, all of them preceding my birth. What was I supposed to say?
I had so much to say but no way to say it. Neither my world nor my inner life had a place with these people called my family. Not the emo music or morbid TV I dedicated myself to. Not the stream-of-consciousness books I fell in love with. Certainly not the gingers. I came alive with my friends—I made them my family. Around Ma, my sister and brother, his then-girlfriend, and Ba if he was around, I was already gone.
Now, in my brother’s family, the kids sit with their mom. The dad is off to the side. The parents don’t talk to each other except, on occasion, to bicker. Most of the conversation is about the food. Who has eaten the most? Who is falling behind? At the corner of the table, I speak if spoken to. Otherwise, I go on Grindr. Men ignore me, I expect it. Eat. I go on Grindr. Men hit on me, I don’t buy it.
A familiar immigrant refrain offers a jumping pad for interpreting the multiverse. Your elders sacrificed so much for you to have these opportunities. This saying prompts the current generation to imagine alternative timelines for our elders, possibilities given up so we can work our way to the top.
Everything Everywhere All At Once makes the figurative task literal. Joy’s family members can all tap into the lives they passed up for her to live in Beautiful Country. When the Mandarin name for America is this aspirational, disappointment is inevitable. The project of America sets up immigrants to fall short. For so many Asian Americans, falling short is failure.
Also consider that Alpha Evelyn’s the one who invented Verse-Jumping technology. She saw so much potential in Alpha Joy to jump from universe to universe—to become anyone she put her mind to—that she pushed Joy past her limit. As a result, Alpha Evelyn turned Alpha Joy into Jobu Tupaki. Mother broke child with too many expectations. Mother made child into enemy.
The multiverse—all those lives not lived—is the cost paid by one generation for the next to achieve the American Dream. The multiverse is the people abandoned, the passions forsaken, the possibilities deferred. It’s the shadow of the dream, an ashen field of grief.
Grief is the root of Joy’s sadness. Jobu, Alpha Joy, experiencing everything everywhere all at once, holds her family’s grief for the lives given up for her benefit. All their mourning makes her own life hard to live—so much so that she created a weapon to destroy the multiverse, or so the Alphaverse believes.
Why have the Alphas labeled Jobu the enemy? As a queer Asian child, Alpha Joy threatens the foreclosure of all future timelines, the waste of all that sacrifice. She’s not the only one. In one of the most recurring timelines (the hotdog one, the phallic one, the gaggiest one—but more on that soon and, yes, the bagel too), Evelyn and Deirdre are lovers. Evelyn’s a failure too. After all, queerness is failure at the nuclear family, that most hetero of social projects.
Watching Everything Everywhere All At Once the first time was like smashing a dam with a battering ram. I was finally meeting a family like mine, an Asian American failure.
It’s not like I’d assumed that all of us were happy. I’ve been at enough restaurants and projected onto enough silent Asian American families to believe just the opposite. A lot of us find our families of origin beyond repair. We avoid the same trap by dating people with zero resemblance to our parents.
But the power of shame is the silence it compels. So many Asian American stories insist that family is central to life. No one talks about giving up on family. No one talks about family giving up on you.
What if the families talking the least to one another have the most they need to say?
My ma had cancer when I was in high school. While she was going through chemo in Taiwan, I was taking summer classes at Harvard like a good model minority.
JK. One was a fiction workshop and the other, a lit class in Modernism and Postmodernism. Discussing To the Lighthouse, the professor told us what Woolf said about imagining your parents as adults. It’s the hardest thing to do.
On top of chemo, Ma was also getting calls and texts from China. A woman claimed to have a video of her sleeping with Ba. She was extorting Ma—money in exchange for silence.
My sister told me all this in e-mail. She was there for everything. She was there for Ma.
When I finally made it back to Taiwan, Ma sat me down to talk about her will.
The day I die, your dad’s going to marry that woman, and she’s going to take everything away from this family. You cannot let that happen.
The parts of Everything Everywhere All At Once I needed the most were the warmest, the softest, the most tender and most raw. I’m not alone. I’ve brought up this movie with a whole lot of people. If they’ve seen it, especially the Asian Americans, I ask a presumptuous question. So where in the movie did you cry?
If you believe so-called Asian Twitter or the Facebook group Subtle Asian Traits, Asian parents don’t say I love you. Asian moms show care by asking if you’ve eaten, and Asian dads are stoic to death.
Once, an Asian American made this generalization IRL: Asians aren’t good at communicating. We’re not the most expressive of people.
My skepticism aside, I’ll admit: something seduces me about the consistency of all the tears. It convinces me that Everything Everywhere All At Once is speaking to Asian Americans in a new and distinctive way. That more of us come from fucked-up families than anyone has ever let on.
I’ve watched the movie four times now. A scene that’s made me cry each time comes at the end. Evelyn has just confronted Gong Gong about abandoning her after she left home.
I don’t know how it was so easy for you to let me go.
I tried to talk about abandonment with Ma once. We were at a cavernous Italian restaurant with high ceilings and a bicycle on the wall. Why did you leave me when I was growing up? I asked. Without missing a beat, as if she’d been waiting for this question all my life, she told me how normal it was for parents to leave their kids. Your uncle did it with your cousin. He put her in a boarding school. At least I lived with you most of the time. Recognizing right away that she was invalidating my reality—your girl was in therapy, alright?—I left the table to go pace in the parking lot.
In the course of standing up for herself, Evelyn drags Joy and her partner Becky into the conversation. The day before, when Joy was trying to tell Gong Gong in Mandarin that Becky is her girlfriend, Evelyn interrupted and introduced Becky as Joy’s good friend. Now, making up for her betrayal, Evelyn tells Gong Gong the truth. Girlfriend, Evelyn says in Mandarin as Joy tries to shake off her mother’s grip. Evelyn has outed Joy. She escapes to the parking lot.
Evelyn follows, but Joy yells at her to stop. When we’re together, it hurts the both of us, Joy says, so let’s just go our separate ways.
Months after the Italian restaurant, I got a Messenger alert. It was either a bot or a parent, the only entities that DM on Facebook. It turned out to be my ma, and her message, an apology. It was brief and in English, a heartbreaking kindness.
The message started a conversation that hasn’t moved an inch since. Every subsequent DM has been heart emojis or Pusheen stickers.
Though her sorry softened something in me—I write it back now, “I love you”—we still don’t talk that much. We see each other even less. So many months separate my calls that I’m never sure she’ll recognize my voice. When she picks up, she always sounds a little panicked like I must be calling with bad news.
Long before “I’m sorry” and “I love you,” we had gone our separate ways.
At first, Evelyn respects what Joy says. She turns around. But right away, she faces her daughter again. She walks up to Joy’s janky car and opens the door. She gets real.
You are getting fat. You never return my calls. You only come over when you need something. You got a tattoo even though you know I hate tattoos, and I don’t care that it’s supposed to represent our family. Why in the world would I choose this life with you?
Then she gets tender.
Even though it hurts to be together, you still came looking for me. And even if it’s only a matter of time before something else in the universe makes us feel like even smaller pieces of shit—even if life is just a few specks of light—I would still want to experience them with you.
Even after mother and daughter have come close to killing each other, even after one of them has called it quits, it’s the power of maternal love—the far-from-unconditional but nevertheless limitless commitment—that brings the two to embrace. To try again and differently.
Three days into the residency, I missed a call from my brother, so he texted. “Can you call me back?” When I didn’t respond right away, he texted again. “Can I call you later?” Until we finally got a hold of each other, my one thought was that Ma must have died.
It’s like this every time my family calls. Was I missing yet again when she needed me most?
This song of abandonment. Almost twenty years.
I talk a big game about her leaving me, but I get it now. I’ve abandoned her too.
Everything Everywhere All At Once taught me to do the hardest thing: imagine Ma as an adult. A person of savvy and humor and ambition—the woman who wore shoulder-padded blazers and dresses at the head of her own office, speaking quick and sharp to all the dull men. A person who’s faced betrayal, mortality, abandonment—the woman who wrote me a note on the small blackboard in my room in the suburbs about how alone she was in the house, all of her children gone, in another space and time.
Thanks to Everything, my sadness about Ma, pooling in me for years, has taken the form of questions, things I can ask her one day.
All those years when it was just me and you in the house, what did you do every time I was gone, escaping? Did you escape too? If you got lost, how did you find your way back? Were you ever lonely? Did you ever despair like I did about all the space between the houses and all the time wasted in crossing? Did I make it worse?
On my way to the residency, I drive past the box-store lot where Ma taught me how to make turns in the snow.
By myself now, I wonder about all the times she took these same roads alone.