In ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once,’ Intergenerational Trauma Is a Black Hole
Asian families, and Asian women in particular, struggle to communicate our pain, leaving many of us to carry it alone. Talking to our moms might be a solution.EntertainmentMovies
If the universe were collapsing in on itself, and reality was fraying at the seams, the one thing I could count on is that my mom would find a way to make it about my tattoos.
It’s a disdain she shares with many Asian immigrant parents, and certainly Michelle Yeoh’s Evelyn Wang in the new, absurdist film Everything Everywhere All at Once. Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the movie is a mind and genre-bending sci-fi adventure that posits there are infinite versions of us across infinite universes, and each decision we make ripples out into an infinite number of possibilities.
The movie’s grand thesis seems to be that life and humanity are both meaningless and meaningful, simultaneously. Meaningless, because even the most seemingly intense, significant moments of our lives are just tiny particles in a grand multiverse; meaningful, because every inane, seemingly insignificant choice we make can impact the trajectory of our lives across the multiverse. Everything Everywhere is a truly whacky epic rife with sausage-fingered lesbian lovers, a raccoon chef a la Ratatouille, and desk trophies made out of butt plugs. And yet it’s also, somehow, a story about the illusion of agency and reality itself.
Additionally, it’s very much a story about family. We spend the film following Evelyn and her family, as she struggles to connect with her gentle, romantic husband Waymond. The couple runs a struggling laundromat, and they share a daughter, Joy, whose girlfriend and queer identity are difficult for Evelyn to accept. Through flashbacks, we learn that before Evelyn and Waymond even had Joy, Evelyn and her father Gong-Gong had become estranged as a result of her running away with Waymond without his approval.
At its core, beneath all the layers of absurdity, Everything Everywhere All at Once is an exploration of intergenerational trauma. It puts a spotlight on the way our parents have fucked us up because their parents fucked them up, because their parents fucked them up, and so on. It also focuses on the particular duality of love and pain that characterizes so many mother-daughter relationships through Evelyn and Joy, and theorizes that perhaps the solution to everything wrong with existence could be as simple as talking to your mother, or talking to someone, about your trauma.
[Major spoilers ahead]
Perhaps the key plot point in the film is that the universe is being plagued by a mega-variant of Joy, after—and stay with me here—in one universe, Evelyn pushed her so hard to become gifted at jumping through universes that she rebelled by creating a black hole of infinite destruction called the “everything bagel.” I, too, at varying points have wanted to exact some form of perhaps less science-y revenge on my own mother. She always seems to have something to say about everything I wear, every blemish on my skin, every life choice I make that she often can’t understand because of our vastly, seemingly irreconcilably different upbringings. I’m certain my mother’s rage toward me has also sometimes been great enough to conjure up a massive, swirling black hole, too—and I’ll concede at times her rage was absolutely justified.
When I was growing up, my parents were once relatively laid back. Yet, I still managed to make all of our lives feel like an unending hell as a teenager—all the more so for my mom, who often had to hide the worst of what she found from my dad. And what she found included things like non-medically prescribed Adderall, weed (when it was still “bad”!), a pregnancy test, and an excruciatingly uncomfortable phone call she received from a classmate of mine who told her I’d had sex with her boyfriend. Obviously, these are all very distressing tidbits for any parent of a teen to uncover, but certainly more so for a parent who fervently believes her devout Christian faith is what brought her to America—a move she made, overcoming through every trial and tribulation, to give her apparently whorish daughter a better life. Over and over, in the face of my mother’s anger and disappointment, I insisted to myself that she didn’t understand. I held onto this insistence even as I made little to no effort to understand her, or help her understand me, for years. She just wouldn’t get it, I told myself repeatedly—she wouldn’t get how some of my most self-destructive choices as a teen were made around the time I had been sexually assaulted. I didn’t speak about this experience with her or anyone for years, because I didn’t even know how to speak about it.
Many of the most painful, crushing moments—and also the most loving ones—that I’ve shared with my mother, I recognized almost at once in Evelyn and Joy’s relationship. I hate the anti-Asian stereotypes of the tiger mom, and the supposedly loveless, demanding Asian parents that western sitcoms sell us. As Joy alludes in Everything Everywhere, many Asian immigrant parents simply have different ways of expressing love, and these expressions of love can be as seemingly inane as cutting up and bringing fresh fruit to you, without even being asked. In Evelyn’s case, her way is expressing concern about Joy’s weight and appearance, which fucking sucks. As comforting as these sometimes gentle, unassuming overtures of parental love can be, for many Asian families, there’s still undeniable stigma around talking about mental health, our struggles, or our feelings, in general. It’s a stigma that’s strained parental relationships like mine with my mother, and certainly Evelyn and Joy’s. This inclination toward silence, and our discomfort with open communication, aren’t for lack of love. For many of our parents, it’s a learned survival mechanism—a trauma response to the harsh realities of immigrating to America, all in pursuit of some abstract idea of what a better life for their children could look like.
For Asian women, this compulsory silence can stem from fear of occupying space, and fear of burdening others with our trauma and pain. It’s part of the reason many Asian and Asian-American women don’t come forward about the endemic sexual violence they experience. And cultural stereotypes of our silence are often subsequently exploited: As we’ve seen since the onset of the covid pandemic, Asian women are disproportionately victimized by attackers who don’t believe we’ll report them, let alone fight back. This silence about our pain is the focal point of Everything Everywhere All At Once, and it’s the impetus for Joy to create a black hole with which she attempts to end her very existence. Like Joy, we hide our pain from our loved ones because we refuse to believe anyone could ever understand it; we hide our pain from ourselves, until it bubbles up to a point where we can no longer control it. Thus, intergenerational familial trauma is born.
What I most deeply appreciate about Everything Everywhere is that it centers around an Asian family, without leaning too hard on their Asian identity. A number of recent movies have explored the unique dynamics of eastern vs. western values in modern Asian-American families, like The Farewell and Turning Red. They focus on Asian identity, and that’s wonderful. At the same time, it feels like a mark of progress that the Wangs’ Asian identity is both an indelible part of their story, and not the center of attention. Theirs is a universal family story, one that allowed me to very clearly see myself and my mother, while welcoming people of all backgrounds to do the same.
At the end of the day, I’m not a “blood is always thicker than water” kind of person. I’m a strong believer in the love and authenticity of chosen family and absolutely support anyone cutting off toxic or abusive family members. But I’m also a strong believer that, sometimes, the last people you believe can understand you might actually understand more than you expect, and being honest about your pain—with anyone—can change your life. It’s not impossible to have loving relationships with parents and family who don’t understand many parts of your life, so long as you’re able to set boundaries (like, say, living 300 miles away from your parents like I do).
As much as I may disagree with my mom, Everything Everywhere left me knowing that there are things I’ve never even given my mom a proper chance to understand. And maybe it’s time for me—and for all of us—to try.