'Everything Everywhere All At Once,' and the multiverse of being a child of immigrants
Beyond the special effects and science fiction setting, this now-Academy-Award winning sci-fi comedy speaks to the heart of what it is like to be an immigrant and a child of immigrants in the U.S.
Everyone I knew, it seemed like, told me I needed to watch Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Everything Everywhere All At Once. Science fiction films set in a confusing multiverse aren’t exactly the kind of movies I gravitate to, but given the chance to see the film on the big screen, I jumped on it. This impressive movie tells the tale of a Chinese-American immigrant, Evelyn Quan Wang, a role Michelle Yeoh won Best Actress for, who, married to Waymond, runs a laundromat that is being audited by the IRS. Evelyn is navigating the audit, while hosting a Chinese New Year Party, which brings her father, Gong Gong (Cantonese for “grandfather”) to town. Evelyn is holding together the party, the audit, while also introducing her daughter Joy’s new lesbian relationship with Becky.
The family tension, which felt very familiar to me, is set in a multiverse threatened by Jobu Tupaki, an Alphaverse version of Joy. Waymond and Evelyn learn how to jump between verses and end up in a cosmic battle for the fate of the multiverse. I do think that the setting of the film was beautiful and fascinating, but beyond the multiple verses of the movie itself, there is another one overlaying the entire movie: the complicated experience of an immigrant and her children.
I’m well acquainted with the tension of incorporating Western culture into (Middle) Eastern tradition. I know what it is like to have a rigid, conservative upbringing and to adapt to it, and to resist it. My own philosophical rebellion from my parents coupled with how I’ve learned to hold on to my faith adds many layers of experience. My queerness added even more complication, and frankly, so did my separation.
For a child of immigrants, life is multilayered, and we do go in and out of our own dimensions as we navigate the world. Just like Evelyn, Waymond, and Joy, we move from nihilism, to cynicism, to hope. We do so within our families, but just like Evelyn’s we learn how to navigate the greater world, represented as the IRS in the film. We conform to standards foreign to us, while we find ones that fit us, and still integrate into ones that feel dated, but important to our families and our past.
Life is multi-layered for an immigrant, and we have lots of choices to make. How do we engage in our past? How do we hold on to the good? How do we assimilate to the world around us, while never being accepted? What verse shall we navigate today? How many verses must we jump through just to survive? And as we navigate all of the different verses, we face an existential question: who are we?
For an immigrant, the question of who we are may never be simply answered. As a Christian, I know that the true answer is a child of God, the beloved of God. But as we navigate the different layers of ourselves and our experiences, complexities fall under that overarching identity that we need to sort through. Am I an Egyptian? Am I an American? Am I a queer person? A brown person? A child of immigrants? A person who speaks broken Arabic or English with an accent? These categories of being fail us – they are constructs – but they are no less real that the physical constructions we live in called homes. We occupy the spaces we make for ourselves and the identities we occupy in our own multiverse. I was one person at home, one person at school, one person at church, one person at work. We adapt to our surroundings to survive, and rather than finding our “true identity,” we are comfortable with the fact that we have many.
Truth be told, so do people who don’t come from non-dominant cultures. Even white men occupy a multiverse, they are often unaware of it, however. For migrants, we are faced with the complexity of our lives just by going through the basics of them: like a holiday gathering where we introduce our family to our significant other. It takes navigating the depths of ourselves when we don’t face the adversity of being an immigrant or a child of immigrants to see how multi-layered we are. And furthermore, to put it into the vibrancy of Everything Everywhere All At Once is accomplishment all on its own.
The movie itself dazzled us with its creativity and amused us in its absurdity. Beyond its talent though, I saw myself, a child of immigrants living in a multiverse right here and now. Immigrants and their families are often, in the face of our complexity, indeed everything, everywhere, all at once.