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Everything Everywhere All At Once & the Immigrant Parent-Child Relationship

A24 Films / Verywell

Mind in the Media is an ongoing series discussing mental health and psychological topics in popular movies and television

Spoiler alert! This article contains major spoilers for the film Everything Everywhere All At Once, currently playing in theaters.

The multiverse is the hottest destination in pop culture today. From Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness to Rick and Morty to The Flash, movies and TV have used the conceit to explore how small changes can make big differences in the lives of individuals and the world as a whole. In the movie Everything Everywhere All At Once, main character Evelyn’s (Michelle Yeoh) introduction to the multiverse comes during a tense time.

The laundromat she and her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) started years ago when they immigrated from China to the United States is being audited, Waymond has filed for divorce, and Evelyn’s exacting father Gong Gong (James Hong) is visiting from China. If that weren’t enough, Evelyn can’t connect with her young-adult daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), who has dropped out of college, gotten a tattoo, and is dating a woman.  

The last thing Evelyn needs is more complications, but soon she learns she may be the only version of Evelyn from any universe who can stop a mysterious figure named Jobu Tupaki who is threatening the entire multiverse. While Evelyn is already overwhelmed, when she learns the dreaded Jobu Tupaki is an alternate universe version of her daughter, she does everything in her power to reach her.

The movie is filled with fantastical action, strange alternate universes, and surprising additional versions of each of the main characters, but much of its emotional core centers on Evelyn’s relationship with Joy. While the movie doesn’t put a fine point on it, one of the reasons that Evelyn can’t connect with Joy and that Joy feels so hurt by Evelyn stems from a cultural divide.

Evelyn emigrated from China as an adult with the hope of making a better life for herself and her family in America. On the other hand, Joy was born in America and desperately wants her mother to accept her for who she is. This can be seen in small moments, including the hurt Joy projects when Evelyn takes advantage of her inability to speak Chinese to tell Gong Gong that Joy’s girlfriend is just a friend or when Joy sheds tears after Evelyn's parting words to her after a visit are that she’s getting fat.

In honor of AAPI Heritage month, we’re exploring how Everything Everywhere All At Once sheds light on the Asian immigrant experience and the challenges it poses to parent-child relationships.

The Experience of Immigrating to America

In Everything Everywhere All At Once, a version of Waymond from a universe called Alpha who’s traveled the multiverse searching for a version of Evelyn who can successfully defeat Jobu Tupaki, tells the Evelyn from our world that she’s the worst Evelyn he’s met.

And interestingly, of the alternate universe Evelyns we see (outside of the universe where everyone has hot dogs for fingers), the one from our universe seems to be the only Evelyn who decided to get married and move to America. The other versions stay in China and become a major movie star and a revered singer, lives that the Evelyn from our universe finds tantalizing.

Yet, Alpha-Waymond’s observation about the Evelyn from our world seems a bit narrow-minded. After all, while it may not be as glamorous, Evelyn has created a mostly successful business and marriage and has raised a daughter in a country where she wasn’t born. Plus, as an immigrant, her priorities may have been different than those she would have had if she’d stayed in her home country.

As Harry Au, MSW, RSW explains, immigrants who come to North America as adults put most of their energy into simply surviving. Their objective isn’t to follow their dreams but to meet their basic needs by putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their heads. This is especially true when recently arrived immigrants don’t speak the local language and encounter xenophobia and racial discrimination.

Although Asian culture is quite diverse, licensed marriage and family therapist Angela Wu points out that Asian-American parents are often more conservative than parents who stayed in Asia because, while individuals in Asia are able to progress with their culture, those who immigrated held onto the values and beliefs that they had when they left their country.

Moreover, while some may work to assimilate, many stay in their ethnic enclaves. Because of the xenophobia and racial trauma they may experience, these ethnic enclaves offer safety and acceptance, but they also can result in recent immigrants holding onto their culture of origin even more tightly, preventing them from truly becoming acculturated.

While Everything Everywhere doesn’t touch on whether Evelyn and Waymond have largely stayed within the Chinese community in America, we see them continue to encounter discrimination, including when a regular customer scolds Evelyn for giving him incorrect change by telling her “you people” are supposed to be good with money.

And while Evelyn and Waymond speak English well, when the IRS auditor Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis) says they may be guilty of charges Evelyn doesn’t understand, she claims Deirdre’s trying to confuse them, indicating she doesn’t feel entirely at home in America even after decades of living there.

The Experience of Children of Recent Immigrants

Meanwhile, Evelyn’s daughter Joy grew up in America and doesn’t feel especially comfortable with her mother, whose every word seems to hurt her.

While Everything, Everywhere suggests there are many reasons for the divide between the pair, part of their difficulty connecting is due to the fact that Evelyn and Joy grew up immersed in different cultures.

Acculturation stress

In particular, Joy essentially grew up between two cultures without being completely a part of either one. On the one hand, at home she was immersed in her parents’ version of Chinese culture, and at school and with friends she was immersed in American culture.

Ling Lam, PhD

Acculturation stress results in a pervasive sense of not being understood, feeling invalidated, feeling invisible, of feeling like you have to constantly hide a part of yourself.

— Ling Lam, PhD

As Wu notes, “You find a lot of Asian Americans growing up in this space of limbo, in this space of marginality, where they don't feel anchored in either and they feel like sometimes [they] have to choose either their Asian side or their American side, and that causes a lot of conflict because in either side, they're not accepted fully as they are.”

Navigating between two cultures while never feeling completely at home in either is referred to as acculturation stress and it can lead to a number of negative consequences. Ling Lam, PhD, Lecturer in Counseling Psychology at Santa Clara University notes that "acculturation stress results in a pervasive sense of not being understood, feeling invalidated, feeling invisible, of feeling like you have to constantly hide a part of yourself.” This can result in an unstable sense of identity as well as feelings of guilt and shame, which in turn can lead to mental health challenges including depressionanxiety, and suicidality.

In Everything, Everywhere, the multiple identities assumed by Jobu Tapaki throughout the movie—including a salsa dancer, a tennis pro, and a multiversal goddess—could be seen as a metaphor for the way Joy has learned to move between cultures, even as her anger and sadness indicates she isn’t happy in any of them.

High expectations and intergenerational stress

The movie also makes it clear that Jobu Tapaki was created by the version of Evelyn from the Alpha-universe, who discovered how to jump throughout the multiverse and pushed her daughter to become the best at this skill. However, Alpha-Evelyn’s expectations were too extreme, leading Alpha-Joy to take things too far, which resulted in her mind fracturing across the multiverse, This gave Alpha-Joy the ability to assume the consciousness of any version of Joy, manipulate reality, and experience the entire multiverse at once.

Alpha-Evelyn’s attitude toward her daughter could be seen as reflective of the way, as Lam notes, immigrant parents put their hopes and dreams into their children as a way of compensating for the sacrifices they made when they left their home countries. Meanwhile, Alpha-Joy’s attempt to live up to Alpha-Evelyn’s expectations is reflective of how many children of immigrants attempt to be perfect in their parents' eyes, causing them to lose a sense of their own identity.  

This can be an especially potent issue for immigrants from East Asian culture, Wu observes, because East Asian culture is rooted in Confucianism, which dictates that relationships are hierarchical, patriarchal, and interdependent.

As a result, East Asian immigrant parents’ sense of identity is wrapped up in the success of their children, leading parents to have often impossibly heightened expectations. If the child doesn’t meet those expectations, both the parent and the child feel shame, because as Wu explains, the child’s failure is “a reflection of the whole family.”

Children of immigrants tend to respond to this pressure to succeed in one of two ways, says Wu, " [Children of immigrants] either do everything in their power to be what their parents want or they rebel against their family. Joy has made the latter choice, even as she's still ashamed and hurt by Evelyn’s lack of acceptance."

Angela Wu, LMFT

[Children of immigrants] either do everything in their power to be what their parents want or they rebel against their family. Joy has made the latter choice, even as she's still ashamed and hurt by Evelyn’s lack of acceptance.

— Angela Wu, LMFT

Interestingly, the film establishes that Evelyn responded to her father’s rigid parenting by rebelling like Joy. Gong Gong never accepted Waymond and disowned Evelyn when she moved to America with him. However, instead of breaking that pattern and embracing Joy’s life choices, including her partner Becky (Tallie Medel), Evelyn is repeating the parental patterns modeled by her father.

This is called intergenerational or familial stress (not to be confused with intergenerational trauma, which may also play a role in the challenges faced by immigrant families, although it isn’t addressed in Everything Everywhere All At Once). While immigrant parents’ expressions of expectations and disapproval are a form of love, they can leave immigrant children feeling trapped between who their parents want them to be and the truest versions of themselves, yet another issue that leaves children of immigrants at greater risk of anxiety and depression.

Of course, almost every parent has expectations of their children and almost every person adjusts how they express themselves depending on the situation. However, Lam uses the metaphor of a rubber band to note the impact of expectations, acculturation stress, and familial stress on children of immigrants. “It’s a matter of degree,” Lam observes. “All of us have to stretch a rubber band a little bit, but for the [children of immigrants], they might have to stretch the rubber band much more intensely and the rubber band can lose elasticity as a result.”

Bridging the Gap Between Immigrant Parents and Their Children

In Everything Everywhere, Jobu Tapaki puts everything she knows, including her hopes, dreams, knowledge, and ideas, onto an everything bagel, an action that other multiversal travelers interpret as part of her plan to destroy the multiverse.

Yet, Jobu Tapaki’s intentions are misunderstood. Although after creating the everything bagel, she realizes nothing matters, this didn’t make her want to destroy the universe, it makes her want to go into the black hole in the center of the bagel and destroy herself, a sad metaphor for the hopelessness and depression many children of immigrants may feel.

Hollywood vs. Reality

Of course, this is a movie, so in the matter of a couple of scenes, Evelyn is able to recognize the pain she's caused Joy, and by expressing her love and acceptance repair her fraught relationship with her daughter and prevent Jobu Tapaki from self-destructing. For real-life children of immigrants, however, the path to healing is more complicated.

Yet, before Jobu Tapaki meets her fate, she wants to find a version of Evelyn who understands what she’s discovered, which has led her to search the multiverse for an Evelyn who can grasp what she’s going through.

Jobu Tapaki’s desire to connect with her mother mirrors a fundamental desire of most children, but her difficulty finding the mother who understands her can be seen as a metaphor for the particular challenges children of immigrants can face when trying to truly connect with their parents.

Correcting incorrect assumptions

Au says part of the difficulty for immigrant parents and their children is that they often make incorrect assumptions about where they’re both coming from. Children assume their parents represent the traditional culture of their country of origin without recognizing that they may have experienced difficulties like racism, xenophobia, or other stressors in their new country that have also shaped their worldview. On the other hand, immigrant parents don’t understand that their children have experienced discrimination and other hardships in America, but in a different way than they have.

Meanwhile, because immigrant parents are focused on meeting theirs' and their children’s basic needs, they don’t have time to do more than survive. Often they work long hours that make it impossible to meet their children’s psychological needs as they're growing up. So while their parents’ sacrifices often enable children to be in a position to envision what it would be like to not just survive but thrive, because of their knowledge of those sacrifices, children of immigrants often feel guilty that they aren’t living their lives exactly as their parents would like.

A lack of language

Unfortunately, neither immigrant parents nor their children may have the language to talk about these issues. As Wu points out, this can be understood by looking to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which states that you can’t meet your emotional needs for love, belonging, and esteem until you’ve met your physiological and safety needs and you can’t self-actualize until you’ve met your needs for love, belonging, and esteem.

For immigrant parents who are just trying to meet their physiological and safety needs, “you're not going to have the language to be able to talk about your emotional needs,” Wu explains. “And this is why a lot of immigrant parents minimize emotions…. Then immigrant children [don’t] really [learn to have] language for what they're feeling and a lot of it [comes] out in anger, but anger is actually a secondary emotion that serves to protect the primary emotion, which is pain and hurt.”

Learning to communicate with the help of a mental health professional

In order to untangle all these issues and give immigrant families a chance to connect in healthier ways it can be useful to seek the help of a mental health professional.

Au notes that once immigrant parents and their children understand the nuances of where each of them is coming from, “that’s where the real communication starts.” Lam says in order for this to happen it helps to have a therapist or counselor who has established a strong, positive relationship with both the parents and the children to serve as a translator who can bridge the gap between the two parties.

Repairing the self

Of course, not all immigrant parents will be willing to seek counseling with their children. But Au observes that children of immigrants can still heal.

In these cases, rebuilding their relationship with their parents may not be possible, so Au suggests working with a counselor who focuses on rebuilding the child’s relationship with themself. “It's really figuring out what they want,” Au explains, “and also healing from the hurt of what's blocking them from actually going after what they want.”

Setting boundaries

Wu adds it’s also useful for children of immigrants to work on setting boundaries with their parents. While this can lead to guilt at first, if the child focuses on some of the positive things that come out of it, both for the child and their parents, it can lead to a healthier relationship.

Finding a mental health professional from a similar background

For children of immigrants, healing can be an incremental process that may necessitate long-term work with a mental health professional, and while any therapist can be helpful, both Wu and Au note for children of recent immigrants, it can be especially helpful to seek out a mental health professional who has a similar background.

A common understanding of the experience of being raised by immigrant parents can give counselors and their clients a short hand and a mutual understanding that can make their work together easier and increase the potential for success.

By Cynthia Vinney
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.