BIPOC Voices, Entertainment, Opinions

I watched ‘Turning Red’ & ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ with my Chinese mother

Hint: It’s not easy.

words by: Alee Kwong
Jun 7, 2022

In the span of 2 short months, we’ve been given two films that center around a first-born Chinese daughter and her relationship with her immigrant mother — Turning Red and Everything Everywhere All at Once. Both films follow two daughters who struggle with gaining acceptance and validation from their mother. Some people might think to themselves, “Why does your mother’s validation matter?” You’re right; to many people, it doesn’t matter. However, to the daughters of immigrant Asian mothers, their validation can make or break us.

 

Being the first-born child of a Chinese family is a blessing and a curse. That being said, it’s a different story when you’re the first-born daughter of a Chinese family. It’s not all too bad, but let’s just say the ratio of blessing to curse is not an even 50/50.

 

Turning Red

When Turning Red released on Disney+ in February, I thought it was just going to be a cute animated coming-of-age film. I completely disregarded the fact that Pixar films almost always make you cry. Director Domee Shi’s previous project, Bao, nearly emptied the entirety of my tear ducts, but I figured that this was going to be smooth sailing.

 

The colors, the character design, and the promise of boy band-era music put the blinders around my eyes. With my blinders in full effect, I invited my parents to watch the film with me. My parents are always down to watch a movie (with no discrimination around whether it’s good or bad), and were excited to see a full-length Pixar film about a Chinese family.

 

In the beginning, the fun maintained itself at a steady pace, and by the time main character Mei turned into a giant red panda, my parents were fully hooked on how cute she was. It was all fun and games, relating to the overbearing mother, the beautiful sights and sounds of Chinese homestyle cooking, and the nosy aunties with the tight curl perms.

 

 

It wasn’t until Mei’s struggle to explore her budding adolescent personality, simultaneously maintaining the “good daughter” personality her parents covet, that it all started to come crashing down on me. Mei was finding her true self through her red panda form, and that form was frowned upon by, not only her mother, but her grandmother and aunties as well.

 

There was fear and shame attached to that identity, and it was hard for Mei to reconcile with that. I looked inwards as the protagonist worked through her inner struggles to please her parents while trying to keep parts of this new self she discovered. I struggled to make eye contact with my mother, or provide any commentary around Mei’s conflicts. I didn’t want to open the door and potentially hear what my own mother had to say about the personality I had cultivated from my young adulthood to now.

 

As Mei approached a younger version of her mother crying in a mystical realm (belonging to their ancestor, who was the origin of the family’s red panda curse), I tried my very best to hold back my tears. Throughout my adolescence, I thought about how my mother could have been more emotionally supportive and open in allowing me to explore my identity.

 

As frustrating as those years were, I realized in adulthood that the person who raised me was a reflection of her upbringing, and amended with diluted rules and lowered expectations. That’s not to say that they were any easier to live with, but it was a huge upgrade from what she had to endure with my grandparents. While I watched Mei compassionately hold the hand of her mother in her teenage form, and comfort her as she is breaking down from the same intergenerational stress, I couldn’t help but think about how I wanted to do the same for my mother. I wanted to meet her at the same level and reassure her that she was safe, accepted, and more importantly, enough.

 

 

 

Everything Everywhere All at Once

As I sat with the thought of validating and nurturing my mother’s inner teenager, April rolled around and dropped Everything Everywhere All at Once into my lap. After seeing that this film was Ke Huy Quan’s comeback, I knew that it was a must-watch. I was on a video call with my best friend and she asked, “Are you going to see Everything Everywhere All at Once? You have to. I just watched it and I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but the story is centered around a mother and her queer daughter and, well, they remind me exactly of you, your mom, and what you two go through with each other.” Talk about a hook. The cast list and cool poster were enough to ignite interest, but now there’s a direct parallel to my life?

 

Not learning my lesson from Turning Red, I went on to ignorantly invite my parents to watch it with me, and pandered to my mom’s similar interest in seeing her parallel on-screen. Prior, I’d reiterated my best friend’s brief film review. Of course, she was just as curious as I was, and we both went in thinking that the film could bring us closer together, and she can’t pass up the opportunity to see Michelle Yeoh.

 

Similar to Turning Red, it was nice to giggle with my parents and grab each other’s arms in excitement as we bonded over familiar things, such as a small over-crowded apartment, a rice cooker that we seemed to be able to smell through the screen, lost in translation moments when it comes to gender pronouns, and keeping struggles close to your chest, so that you don’t worry the elderly in your family.

 

 

That’s how they get you. They throw in all these familiarities to get you all warm and fuzzy first, and then they tear you apart with the emotional nuances. As soon as Evelyn (played by Michelle Yeoh) interacted with her daughter Joy (played by Stephanie Hsu), I could feel the daggers piercing into my heart. In a sad (but very true) way, my mother and I bonded over the fact that Joy had to keep her girlfriend a secret from her grandfather to keep the stress from affecting his old age. The frustration and discomfort Evelyn had around her queer daughter felt all too familiar to me, and all of the sudden I started shallow breathing.

 

It’s a little late in the game now, but I feel like it’s worth mentioning I’m the first-born child in my Chinese family. Not only am I the first-born child, but I’m the only daughter. Oh, and to top it all off, I’m the only queer child. A lot of first and only’s in a family like this can really only mean one thing — a lot of room to disappoint your parents.

 

Similar to Joy, I also dropped out of college, got a bunch of tattoos, and ended up coming out to my parents as queer. This is the trifecta of hell for basically every Asian parent. As Evelyn brings up the trifecta in the film, my mother silently but fiercely grabs my wrist and shakes it. While she has my attention, she quickly taps my dad’s arm and furiously points at me. I guess that was her way of letting us know that she picked up the parallel that the film was putting down. The obvious parallel had nothing on the greater message, though.

 

 

Through the multiverse, Evelyn is granted the opportunity to see what her life could have been like in alternate universes. From having hotdog fingers to being a successful actor, Evelyn is presented with possibilities beyond the life she loathes in the universe she resides in. Unlike Evelyn, Joy’s experience with the multiverse is much more chaotic and painful. In the film, there is the Alpha-Verse — a universe where jumping between universes is possible. Alpha-Verse Joy was heavily experimented on by Alpha-Verse Evelyn in hopes of making her daughter the most skilled universe-jumper there was.

 

These weighted expectations and constant universe jumping caused Joy immeasurable stress, and resulted in her consciousness fracturing and splitting across the multiverse. From then on out, Alpha-Verse Joy stopped seeking validation from her mother and embraced the chaos that came with her split consciousness and trauma.

 

This created Jobu Tupaki, an untethered universe-jumper with the ability to tap into any one of her multiverse identities. Jobu Tupaki’s ability to literally be everything everywhere all at once makes her nihilistic (a stark contrast to her mother), and pushes her to an unhinged place where she concentrates all of her chaotic being into an everything bagel in an effort to see what would happen. No fear of consequence, no fear of potential self-harm.

 

 

I sat in my seat and worried about why I didn’t see Jobu Tupaki as a villain. Everything she did made sense to me. Sure, we were similar but destroying universes isn’t on the agenda…right? Along with the ability to jump to different universes, she can tap into others’ consciousness and destroy them at will if she so chooses. While it seemed like Joy was tearing through universes just for the hell of it, what she was actually doing was looking for someone who understood the concept of the everything bagel and she ultimately wanted to surrender to the nothingness of the bagel.

 

As I watched a trauma-torn daughter unintentionally rip through universes like they were unwanted receipts, my focus was taken inward and I saw a reel of moments where I attempted to destroy everything in my life because I was emotionally in a place where I didn’t believe that anything mattered. I just needed someone to understand where I was coming from.

 

I was reminded of how lonely it was for me when my mind was being broken by intergenerational stress. Just like Jobu Tupaki, I needed my mother to know that nothing mattered to me, and that I was more than happy to allow chaos in and takeover. As my eyes were pouring with tears and my nose started running uncontrollably, I looked over to my mother to make sure that she didn’t see me sobbing and to see if she was showing any sign of emotion. It may have been hopeful thinking, but it looked like my mother’s eye muscles were working overtime to keep the tears from falling down her face.

 

 

The film ended with Evelyn opening up to Joy about how she has access to many different universes and yet willingly chooses to stay in the one with her version of Joy. They go on to tell Joy’s grandfather about her girlfriend and it all gets tied into a nice and neat bow.

 

Exiting the theater and hoping my mother got some perspective, she immediately turned to me and said, “That was such a good movie. I related so much with the mother and it just felt so much like our life.” I told her that I was so happy that she enjoyed it and before I could finish my sentence she said, “But just because it’s similar to our life, you know we can’t have that same ending. We can never tell your grandfather about you being queer. We just can’t. It’ll kill him.” That felt like emotional whiplash.

 

I knew that we could never tell my grandfather, but it was hard to come out fresh from watching that film, filled with more hope than usual, only to be yanked back down to the reality of shame and hiding. As much as it killed me, I agreed with her. I didn’t want her to think that I was selfish enough to risk my own grandfather’s health in exchange for my emotional freedom.

 

Despite the film’s meaning being very clear, I don’t think my mother understood the importance of Jobu Tupaki’s destructive behavior in relation to Evelyn. I think the point of making an effort to sift through the chaos to truly understand your daughter’s pain either flew right over her head or hit her dead center and she was just pretending it didn’t. Either way, it wasn’t a conversation I was ready to have right after watching the film.

 

A couple of months roll past and I sorted the majority of my feelings out. I tell my mother that while I enjoyed the two films, I realized that both Turning Red and Everything Everywhere All at Once had unrealistic endings — the mothers apologize to their daughters. Did I realize this much sooner? Yes. But I wanted to see how she would respond to the sad stereotype that Asian mothers never apologize.

 

She looked at me with suspicion and slight confusion and asked, “What are you getting at?” Frantically trying to reroute my conversation to a less confrontational direction, I replied, “Well, I just think it’s funny. You know, thanks for the accuracy but you really missed the mark at the end there. They’re setting unrealistic expectations for me. I can’t be out here hoping you’ll say sorry to me.” She nodded her head in agreement and said, “Exactly. You’ll never get an apology from us. But we do other things instead like make sure you’ve eaten food.”

 

I nervously laughed. I went back upstairs and did a six minute breathing exercise to anchor myself so that I didn’t drift away into the sea of crushed expectations.

 

Photo via A24