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Sunday, April 14, 2024

A Letter to My Fellow Asian Mothers From the Multiverse

Like many Asian writers, I have never written about being Asian.

The Asian adjacency to whiteness has something to do with it; I’ve never had to write about it. Also, writing about immigration and my race in a way that doesn’t feel like cosplay is difficult. It’s easy to describe my exotic meals growing up. But it’s too hard to talk about why, for example, Asian women have one of the highest rates of interracial marriage but also experience disproportionate rates of violence. We’re assimilated, but also hypersexualized and small, so it’s easy to murder us lest we lead innocent white men astray.

If there’s anyone who should be able to empathize with me on this, it’s my mom, who is also Asian, a woman, and an immigrant. But just because we’ve shared similar experiences doesn’t mean she has anything helpful to say. If anything, her advice would be that if you do everything exactly right, you will be safe. My parents never pushed me to be a doctor or a lawyer, but the pressure to get good grades, behave perfectly, and restrict my free time—a phenomenon researchers call “disempowering parenting”—is familiar.

It’s only recently that I’ve examined the flaws in this thinking. Perhaps that’s because only recently have there been movies like Turning Red and Everything Everywhere All at Once to illustrate that perfection is both unnecessary and impossible. I get it, though. If we daughters accept the pressure, it’s only to justify the sacrifices our mothers made in coming here and having us. And watching my oddly specific experiences reflected on-screen has led me to empathize with my mom in a way I wasn’t able to before.

Turning Red was the first inkling I had that something was up. Multiple reviews have latched onto the notion that the film is about puberty. That a preteen girl transforming into a giant panda when she gets upset is a metaphor for menstruation. And indeed, Meilin’s mother does publicly brandish a box of menstrual pads in one of the movie’s more humiliating scenes, but for me Turning Red’s message lies in its denouement, when her mom discovers evidence of Meilin’s various transgressions under her bed. Money! The pop band 4Town! And most of all, schoolwork that is bunched and crumpled! The grades are visible. B+! C! “Unacceptable!” I cried out loud, before I could stop myself.

I brought home a C in high school physics once, as I recall, which immediately landed me sessions with a private tutor. It was disorienting to discover, safely in my thirties, that I envied Meilin the ability to turn herself into a red panda as a teenager. It was involuntary! It wasn’t her fault! When she poofed into becoming huge, furry, cute, and stinky, she wasn’t small and obedient and quiet. She was loud and took up space, and it was fine. Her friends—who accepted her for who she was instead of punishing her for what she wasn’t—saved her. She could experiment. She got bad grades and made dumb decisions.

Like most high school girls, I belonged to a clique. I hung out with them a lot, but I missed a lot of the inside jokes. Until now, it never occurred to me that my friends spent so much time together without me because they didn’t have soccer, piano, violin practice, internships, and big family gatherings every weekend like I did. The structure holds you up, but it can also stifle you.

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“We discovered that the powers that saved us in the old country were an inconvenience in the new,” one of Meilin’s aunties mourns. As one by one her aunts and mother renounce their unruly panda spirits, Meilin chooses to keep hers. In her unapologetic personhood, she more fully honors her ancestors than any of her older, more respectful female relatives.

As Jay Caspian Kang wrote in his book The Loneliest Americans, to be an Asian immigrant is to be forever superimposing our own stories onto our adopted country’s myths, holding up books like On the Road or Johnny Tremain and trying to match those outlines to the contours of our own lives.

Nowhere is this more clear than in Everything Everywhere All at Once. I loved my colleague Eric Ravenscraft’s review and the message to be kind and reach out to one another amidst chaos. But it is so clear to me that this story—of a Chinese American woman plowing through all the disparate lives she could have had in a quest to save herself and her daughter—is an immigrant parent narrative.

When I was a kid, my mother worked a day job as a secretary while going to night school to become a software engineer. It worked out! But she did not get a chance, for example, to be an artist. With a big extended family to support, she couldn’t fail. She couldn’t choose to be something as frivolous as a Gear editor who spends most of her time testing vacuums and biking.

To be an immigrant woman means to hold many visions of yourself in your head at once. Not only is there the yawning difference between how we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived by others (honestly, sometimes I don’t know about you people), but there’s also the gap between what our lives would have looked like if we’d stayed there instead of coming here.

No one can embody this more perfectly than Michelle Yeoh as Everything’s Evelyn. Yeoh’s graceful athleticism in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon made her one of the firmaments of my superstar night skies. When Evelyn ping-pongs around the multiverse and experiences a reality in which she’s a glamorous movie star—in shots that feature Yeoh at the premiere of her movie Crazy Rich Asians—she gasps to her husband upon her return, “I saw my life without you, and it was beautiful.”

In the end, Evelyn recognizes that the standards she set were impossible. The act of choosing her own singular, messy, human daughter above all the other realities she could have had redeems their relationship. Trusting in her mother’s love, the villain—her daughter—becomes her daughter again. It’s very touching, and no one should have to be perfect to be loved.

But watching Everything Everywhere, it’s also hard not to scream, But you’re Michelle fucking Yeoh! I’m sure your daughter is very nice, and you all look very happy, but also, what if my mother could’ve been Michelle Yeoh? I could’ve been the daughter of Michelle Yeoh! Pick that reality! I would’ve.

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In contrast to the more complex visions of Everything Everywhere and Turning Red is Umma, a film directed by Iris Shim, produced by Sam Raimi, and so slow and boring that I could not finish it (sorry!). It physically pained me to witness the long, mobile face of my queen Sandra Oh and the sculptured cheekbones of Fivel Stewart in such an unexamined depiction of intergenerational trauma.

Umma is the story of Amanda, a Korean woman who has renounced her heritage to live with her daughter on an isolated farm without electricity. Amanda’s mother was abusive, so she fled. But, of course, you can’t run from your past forever. Being an immigrant was so hard that it led Umma to abuse Amanda, but Amanda breaks the cycle, forgives her mother, and (spoiler!) lets her own daughter go away to college. Rather than nuanced, it is the boilerplate, one-minute version of a complicated immigrant mother-daughter relationship you might give to a disinterested white therapist.

But that’s OK. One of the privileges of being assimilated is that it’s fine to make a movie that, er, isn’t that great. We already have enough to deal with. There’s the conflict between being a “real” Asian versus a wholly Americanized one, or whether you’ll walk into a room and the people there see either Suzie Wong or Long Duk Dong. There’s the life you could’ve had in the place you left behind, compared to the one you have now. As Waymond says in Everything Everywhere, holding too many realities in your head cracks your brain open like a clay pot.

I’m closer to Meilin’s mother’s age than I am to Meilin, and closer to Evelyn’s age than to her daughter Joy’s; I have a young daughter myself. My daughter is a third-generation immigrant, and biracial, and the conflicts that she will face will be just as different from mine as my experiences as an assimilated second-gen were different from my mother’s.

But I do hope to be able to give her at least one gift, besides a metabolism that won’t quit (and terrible vision). For her, I hope that the multiverse recedes. This is our place, whether other people like it or not, and she’ll be able to be who she is—red-haired, furry, stinky, lesbian, a kung fu master, or a movie star with hot dogs for fingers. The goal for Asian American women is ultimately to just be fully human, whatever that looks like.

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