Last month, I paid $10 to sit in a room full of 30-odd strangers and spend the next two-and-a-half hours laughing, crying and contemplating the meaning of life.
In other words, I watched the movie “Everything Everywhere All At Once” (EEAAO), and let’s just say, I’ll never see hot dogs or everything bagels the same way again.
The basic premise of EEAAO is that Evelyn, a very average, tired, Asian American woman, is suddenly tasked with saving the universe and must do so by traveling through multiple universes and embodying all of her multiverse selves.
Watching EEAAO was a wonderfully absurd experience — it felt like being drunk on a rollercoaster while sitting next to your quirky aunt. But even if you haven’t watched EEAAO and experienced its amazing cast, original plot and witty dialogue, it’s still remarkable and relevant for one reason: the simple fact that an Asian American woman (even a very common one) can experience infinite realities and storylines.
Growing up, aside from my parents and immediate family, I never had any role models that looked like me. This didn’t strike me as strange or weird; I simply just accepted this as a fact of life. In the books and media I consumed, I readily projected myself into the lives of various characters — from Barbie to Ramona Quimby to the sassy white heroine in the latest young adult fiction novel — never noticing that we looked different. Their struggles were my struggles, their dreams were my dreams, their hopes my hopes.
Until they weren’t.
Somewhere around the age I became old enough for braces and realized that microaggressions were a thing (though I didn’t have the term to call them that, yet), I realized that the narratives between my life and the white characters I loved didn’t superimpose themselves onto each other so easily. I realized that, unlike them, my storylines weren’t infinite, that as an Asian American, the world demands you to play some type of role that you never even knew was expected of you.
It is this exact experience of seeing infinite storylines around you but not being allowed to fully access them yourself that Jia Tolentino, a Filipino American author, writes about in her book, “Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion.” In her essay, “Pure Heroines,” Tolentino reminisces on a childhood experience playing Power Rangers with her friend. While Tolentino wanted to be the Pink Power Ranger, her white friend insisted that she could only play the Yellow Power Ranger — the reasoning for which Tolentino simply couldn’t comprehend.
Reflecting back on this experience as an adult, Tolentino writes that her “white friends would be able to fantasy-cast their own biopic from an endless cereal aisle of nearly identical celebrities, hundreds of manifestations of blonde or brunette or redhead selfhood … while (she) would have no one to choose from except about three actresses who’d probably all had minor roles in some movie five years back.”
In a world where Asian Americans are either boxed into stereotypes or pedestaled for being the model minority, representation in the media is too often a luxury — not to mention representation in a way that is human. We either get caricatured (the geek, the shy kid, the fetishized Asian American woman) or glorified (the kid that scores a 1600 on the SAT, the brilliant activist we learn about once every year during AA&PI Heritage Month) — there is no in-between.
I want to recognize that East Asian Americans do occupy a certain degree of privilege in the Asian American community as a whole. Based on stereotypes, some may assume that as an East Asian American woman, I’m particularly “smart” or “studious,” but these tropes are still harmful.
Sometimes, just sometimes, I get exhausted by the relentless pressure to either conform to cultural expectations or be unbelievably excellent, and I wonder: Why, why can’t I just be average?
For most of my life, I’ve run from being average. From the “A is average” mentality instilled in me as a child to my own neurotic perfectionism, I’ve subconsciously held on to the belief that to be average is to be invisible. That no matter how hard I tried, no matter how many A’s I got or how nice I was to the other kids in class, I would still be just another “bright but quiet kid” on my report card. That I must somehow negotiate the terms and conditions of my visibility.
Where did I learn this? Well, the representation within the media — where the terms and conditions of being seen are numerous.
I remember when the 2018 film “Crazy Rich Asians” first came out, and I went to go watch it with a friend. I was so excited for it — I had even bought the books and read them in preparation — but when I walked away from the theater, still riding the high of the end credits’ pop song, eyes glazed over from all the saturated scenes of lush landscapes and feasts fresh in my mind, I couldn’t help but feel some weird base-level of disconnection.
While the actors on screen shared my skin color, they were also incredibly remarkable — remarkably rich, remarkably attractive, remarkably glitzy in a way that felt so distant from my own everyday reality.
The preference for the exceptional over the ordinary in “Crazy Rich Asians” is the polar opposite of EEAAO’s driving ethos.
What I find most beautiful about EEAAO is that Evelyn is not remarkable in any way, shape or form. If anything, she is unbelievably mundane. In fact, during the film, Evelyn is literally proclaimed as the “worst version of herself” that exists across any of the infinite multiverses. While we do get to see Evelyn live out some pretty outrageous storylines in other alternate universes (Evelyn as a hibachi chef, kung fu master and red-carpet star), the core Evelyn we see the most is her as a bedraggled mom and laundromat owner in a run-of-the-mill suburban town.
Evelyn is average in the truest sense of the word — her life is common, representative of the reality many Asian American immigrants face on a daily basis. And while the word average is so often used to belittle or insult, EEAAO reminds us that average does not equal undignified. Just because Evelyn herself expresses discontentment in her life doesn’t make her lifestyle inherently dissatisfactory. Rather than being an indictment against her, the filmmakers of EEAAO intentionally choose to make Evelyn’s averageness her strength, and by doing so, restore the dignity back to the “average” life. Because Evelyn has so many unpursued opportunities, left-behind hobbies and unfulfilled relationships, she has the most alternate life threads to embody and jump into multiple universes.
To me, this is meaningful media representation in the truest sense. The virtue of this kind of representation is that it isn’t just sheer visibility — the kind of representation that is so fragile, so conditional. Rather, true representation is achieved when it is granted unconditionally: when being seen is not just a rarity given when performing, but is available to all — even, and especially, the “average.”
Overall, EEAAO is about the power of stories — particularly the stories we tell ourselves. That at the end of the day, even when faced with so many tantalizing, glamorous universes and past selves she could dwell in, Evelyn chooses to stay in her own — to embrace her own story as an immigrant mother and laundromat owner. That sometimes the bravest choice we can make is not so much about embodying other worlds or calling for more storylines, but realizing the richness in our own story.
As I reflect on this idea of personal acceptance, I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s collection of essays entitled “Upstream,” which contains a piece called “Ropes.” In it, she tells the story of Sammy, a runaway dog she adopted. He was a mischievous dog, beloved by everyone — Sammy chewed through ropes, climbed up fences and would often end up in other people’s yards. Even the dog officer loved Sammy: When found, rather than imprisoning Sammy, he would simply drive Sammy home. As much as Sammy understood his role as a pet dog, he never let the ropes of others chain him.
The last lines of this essay always get me. Oliver explains that Sammy’s story is about more than a dog; rather, it might be about “what life was like in this dear town years ago, and how a lot of us miss it. Or maybe it’s about the wonderful things that may happen if you break the ropes that are holding you.”
What wonderful things may happen if we break the ropes that hold us? If we unfurl our stories and let them catch wind?
As an Asian American nowadays, I do feel the ropes around me loosening. As Asian American representation becomes more mainstream, I have hope that future generations will grow up in a world where they see themselves in the media — a world where we are all truly seen.
And yet, there is a rope I have not yet untied for myself: the rope that demands exceptionalism, that resists averageness.
EEAAO challenges me to break that rope — or perhaps that rope was never meant to be there in the first place. To me, true representation is one that delicately straddles the balance between two infinities: the ever-urgent pursuit to portray POC in infinite roles and storylines — to show what is possible — and the need to rest, to dwell in our current stories and realize the infinite value that lies in each of us, however mundane our story may be.
For me, perhaps this infinite value is found in simply being myself — just another run-of-the-mill, burnt out college student — and knowing that is worthy enough of a story to be told.
MiC Columnist Allison Wei can be reached at email@example.com.