Commentary: Parents can’t be everything everywhere all at once, so here are lessons from Oscar’s big-winning movie
Amid hotdog fingers and butt-plug fights in this year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, “Everything Everywhere All At Once”, the one thing people tend to miss is how the film is, at heart, a story about Asian parenting.
Amid hotdog fingers and butt-plug fights in this year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, Everything Everywhere All At Once, the one thing people tend to miss is how the film is, at heart, a story about Asian parenting.
In particular, it examines why so many Asian parents tightly twist their love with control — where if a child doesn’t do things their way or live up to their expectations, then that child is not welcome.
There are many examples of this in the film. (Before you go on, a note that this commentary contains spoilers.)
Take Michelle Yeoh’s character, Evelyn.
When her daughter Joy comes out as lesbian, she acts as if nothing happened. She later calls Joy’s girlfriend “him”, and refuses to introduce her to Gong Gong (grandfather in Mandarin) as Joy’s “nu peng you” (girlfriend) — sticking to “hao peng you” (good friend) instead.
But it’s hard to judge Evelyn harshly, as she is all-too-familiar with being a family disappointment. Much like her daughter, she has also been on a lifelong (and unsuccessful) quest for her father’s approval.
When she chose to move to the United States with her husband Waymond, played by Ke Huy Quan, her father said to her in Cantonese: “If you abandon this family for that silly boy, then we will abandon you.”
Decades later, she’s still trying to gain his affection and approval. When her aged dad comes to visit, she frets about the noodles being too soft, huffing: “My father hates overcooked noodles.”
Her husband says: “I know you want everything to be perfect for your father's party, but he's going to see you've nurtured a happy family, and a successful business.”
She replies: “You know that’s not what he’s going to see.”
“Everything Everywhere All At Once” makes clear that each generation passes their baggage on to the next, without realising it — and with so much good intention.
It all stems from a place of love, but there’s just one big problem: This is not love in its highest form — it’s a fearful and anxiety-ridden kind of love.
It’s the sort of love where you grip so tightly to your vision for what you think is best for your child, that in the process, you lose sight of what really matters:
Who they are, what they’re trying to tell you, and your relationship with them.
In fact, at one point, Joy tells her mother: “I'm tired. I don't want to hurt anymore. And for some reason when I'm with you, it hurts both of us. So, let's just go our separate ways.”
Certainly, this is not an outcome any parent wants. No one gives birth to a child, thinking: “One day, I would like them to be estranged from me.”
ASIAN PARENTS’ GREATEST FEAR
So why do so many of us Asian parents still cling on to this kind of love — where our kids must fulfil a certain checklist in order for them to be successful, in order for us to be proud, in order for the family to look good?
If it only serves to disconnect us from our children, and drive the parent-child relationship further apart, why do parents do it? Because our worst fear — at least on the surface — is that our children will amount to nothing.
But there’s a deeper fear that lurks — one that isn’t so easily seen: That if our kids amount to nothing, then we as their parents, are failures.
The sad thing is, it’s precisely the desire to control and dictate what a child’s life should look like, that can actually alienate kids and send them down a path to nothingness.
Just look at Joy.
Years of not feeling seen, heard, or understood, and perpetually feeling like she’s a disappointment to her mother push her to believe that there’s no point in even trying.
She tells her mum: “It feels nice, doesn’t it? If nothing matters, then all of the pain and guilt that you have for making nothing of your life — it goes away too. Sucked into a bagel.”
The film cleverly never mentions the words “depression” or “suicide” — words still taboo in many Asian families — choosing to employ instead the image of a bagel, with its gaping hole representing nothingness, nihilism, and a way to end all of life’s pain.
“Everything Everywhere All At Once” presents the grand irony of it all: Asian parents actually create their worst fear — their children amounting to nothing — when they use their love as leverage and a form of control.
THERE IS HOPE
Here’s what I love about the film: It takes a stand — that we’re not beyond redemption.
When Joy wanted to get sucked into the black hole that was the “everything bagel”, it’s fitting that it wasn’t just her mother who tried to save her.
Her Gong Gong stepped in, too — his were the unexpected pair of arms that attempted to pull her back from the nihilistic brink.
The film tells it plainly: Even if Asian parents are the problem, we are also the solution.
We don’t have to be doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. We can be aware of our intergenerational baggage, we can choose differently for our families, and it is never too late to start.
There’s a really touching moment toward the end of the film, where Evelyn says to her daughter: “Maybe there is something that explains why, even after seeing everything and giving up, you still went looking for me through all of this noise. And why no matter what, I still want to be here with you. I will always want to be here with you.”
The realisation is poignant, because out of all the alternative realities Evelyn could’ve chosen to escape to — including a really glamorous universe, where she’s a movie star and married to a debonair version of her husband — she still chooses to be in her original universe, because that’s where the daughter she knows and loves resides.
That’s some powerful stuff, because Evelyn finally realises one simple truth: Even with all the things she doesn’t approve of or understand in her daughter, none of it actually lessens her maternal love.
HARNESSING LOVE WELL
I’ve never once doubted that Asian parenting is steeped in intense love. I see it in my parents, in my grandparents, and all my elders who came before.
And it’s true that love is such a powerful guide, but only when it’s harnessed right. When it comes from a place of fear and control, it’s not only unhelpful — it’s actually counter-productive.
Yeoh’s character, Evelyn, goes on a journey of mythic proportions before she finally understands this.
It’s so cathartic to see an Asian mother (even a fictional one) get it on the big screen. It’s not something we see every day — prideful elders owning their mistakes and repairing frayed relationships.
As viewers, we don’t think less of Evelyn for it. We actually love her more — and it’s the exact same thing with our kids.
Most of us don’t have multiverse stories to traipse through — where we can look at our lives from different angles and figure out our parenting mistakes from afar.
The truth is, we can’t be everything, everywhere, all at once.
We only have this life that we’re in. So let’s make it count — not just for ourselves, but for our kids, too.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Kelly Tay is a parent coach, founder of Juicy Parenting, and mother of two. She teaches a “Respectful Parenting for Asians” online course, showing parents how they can drop the cane, stop the yelling, and enjoy parenthood.
Related topicsEverything Everywhere All At Once Oscars 2023 parenting
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