Mother of Mercilessness: Everything Everywhere All at Once

Everything Everywhere All at Once is a film that defies tidy categorization. It’s both ostensibly and fundamentally the story of a Chinese family struggling to keep things together, and it adds a hearty helping of what feels like every genre under the sun and moon that nevertheless achieves a bizarre harmonious blend of flavors. There’s a lot worth discussing about EEAO, but where I want to focus is its exploration of a familiar topic: intergenerational trauma. Particularly, I find that centering the story on the mother, Evelyn Wang (played by Michell Yeoh), brings a powerful and challenging perspective to the subject.

When it comes to stories about the Asian diaspora, intergenerational trauma seems to be big on Asian creators’ minds. Turning Red is an animated feature about the pressure a Chinese-Canadian girl feels towards her mother’s expectations. Himawari House is a comic about different Asian women moving to Japan to find themselves. Crazy Rich Asians shows how the decisions of one’s ancestors can ripple forward in time, affecting individual descendants in disparate ways. Messy Roots is about growing up Wuhanese in a predominantly white American environment. These works tend to describe families that come into conflict over the frustrating combination of expressing familial love through familial structure and obligation, but in every case, it’s the sons and daughters who are the main characters. 

Michelle Yeoh also plays a mom of one of the main characters in the Crazy Rich Asians movie. There, she’s a Singaporean mom trying to prevent her son from marrying a Chinese-American girl who comes from outside the vast-yet-insulated world of the ultra wealthy. Like so many of these stories, she as a parent is not necessarily a “villain,” but she and those of her generation are at least a source of stress for their kids as they try to carve out their identities.

EEAO flips the script, with Evelyn being both the figurative and literal hero. On the one hand, she’s a mother struggling with her non-serious husband, her teenage lesbian daughter, her judgmental elderly father, and a tax audit on the family’s laundry business. On the other hand, her endless string of failures apparently have made her the perfect candidate to stop the destruction of the multiverse. To say that it’s rare for a character like Evelyn to be this kind of protagonist is to make the queen of understatements. 

Through the metaphor of the multiverse, I find that EEAO explores so many facets of that Asian intergenerational experience. It’s stated that Evelyn made sacrifices to move to the US from China, and that she has a tendency to leave a lot of goals unfinished, giving a sense that she’s, well, trying to be everything everywhere all at once. Similarly, the pressure she puts on her daughter to be better than her through a combination of shame and criticism—well-intended but nevertheless painful—is one of the major sources of conflict in the film. 

By having all of this told primarily from the perspective of Evelyn, however, the Asian mom ceases to be a close-yet-distant figure in the story to eventually understand, and becomes the primary conduit through which these conflicting emotions are experienced. And it all comes down to trying to figure out how to deal with the expectations of others while trying to raise a child to exceed all expectations.

There’s actually a lot more I’d like to discuss about Everything Everywhere All at Once, especially the daughter and the husband Waymond, and how they each add to the wonderfully complex milieu that the film provides. But Evelyn is the main character and star, and the stalwart yet wobbly pillar around which the story is built. It’s an uncommon but welcome sight, and it has me wondering if I need to view my own mother a little differently—even if that doesn’t come easily.

Navigating Your Cultures: Himawari House

The cover of "Himawari House" by Harmony Becker, showing the three Asian girls Nao, Hyejung, and Tina by the window. Next to them are a bottle and glass of tea, as well as some sunflowers.

There are stories I can appreciate and enjoy, and to which I can emotionally connect. Then there are the stories that I can feel right down to my bones, as if they extracted a part of me and converted that piece to an artistic medium. The Wind Rises was one, Encanto is another, and now the graphic novel Himawari House by Harmony Becker joins that list.

Himawari House is the story of three Asian girls who come to live together in Japan as exchange students. Nao is Japanese and White, originally from Japan but having grown up in the US. Meanwhile, Hyejung is South Korean and Tina is Singaporean. Though their circumstances are different and they come from different countries, they form a friendship amidst struggles with notions of identity and belonging.

In reading this, I’m reminded of my experience with the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy. I naturally couldn’t relate to the ultra wealthy or the old-money families, but could see many elements of the Asian culture I grew up both in and around, transcending class and manifesting in that story in specific ways. With Himawari House, however, I found myself relating to all three characters throughout because I would see in them pieces of my own personal struggles as a part of the Asian diaspora. 

I was born and raised in the US, so I understand a young Nao’s desire to integrate into American society surrounding her at the expense of her roots. I studied abroad in Japan at around the same age as them, so I also know what it’s like to experience Japan as a foreigner with some Japanese skills who nevertheless can pass looks-wise before it becomes clear that I’m not from there. I have limited connections with the lands of my parents and those who came before them—I’ve visited literally only twice in my entire life, once when I was very young and once when I was well into adulthood. Like Nao, those trips are still a part of me. Lingering memories of the former combine with resolve from the latter to hold onto some of it, while knowing the language in an imperfect manner leads to feeling caught between worlds. 

Himawari House’s portrayals of the Hyejung and Tina’s relationships with their parents also hit home. It’s all there: the looks of concern and disappointment from Hye’s parents and Tina’s description of her mom as some whirlwind of concern, love, guilt, and motherly affection. Much like Encanto, it’s like getting walloped over and over, except instead of punches to the gut it feels akin to elbows to the ribs. Which is to say, different but just as painful in its own right.

The comic does wonderful things with language in order to depict the experience of being ostensibly multilingual while also being exposed to new languages and getting reminded that maybe you don’t know your parents’ tongue as well as you maybe should. The dialogue is written with the caveat that this book is primarily for an English-literate market, but often Japanese and Korean are added as well to express what is being spoken in the original language—and to show the moments when the characters’ language comprehension fails. All the characters are also given noticeable accents in their speech, which add to the sense that they all come from different places. In English, Hyejung struggles with “f” sounds due to the lack of it in Korean while Tina speaks Singlish—a patois of English, Cantonese, Hokkien, and more—that she purposely dials back when talking to non-Singaporeans. 

There’s a note in the back of the book by Becker discussing her decision to incorporate accents into the book despite their historical use as racist mockery. In essence, she’s aiming to reclaim accents as a point of pride—a natural product of learning new languages—and I can really get behind that idea. It’s a tough tightrope to walk, but I think Himawari House pulls it off with aplomb.

Based on conversations I’ve had, this book is more than capable of finding readers beyond Asian peoples and communities. That being said, I feel that it speaks to Asians on a whole other level, and that’s okay. The joys and travails of Nao, Hyejung, and Tina are universal on some levels yet deeply personalized on others, and I find myself reflecting on my own sense of self within the cultures that are a part of me.

“Very East-Coast Avengers.” War of the Realms: New Agents of Atlas

Every year, New York Comic Con is a torrent of color and energy squeezed into a space that will barely fit everyone inside. But I’ve gotten fairly accustomed to it after so long, and at this point it’s basically an annual ritual. But eight months removed from the last NYCC in 2018, I still think about the Asian-Americans in Comics panel held there. Discussing everything from the success of Crazy Rich Asians to the challenges of portraying Asians in media in a landscape eager to work off of old, exotic stereotypes, it made me more invested in a fight I’ve had a stake in all along, even as this blog has concentrated primarily on anime and manga.

So when I read that Marvel was debuting a comic with an all-Asian team, I decided to break my years-long hiatus from traditional superhero comics and purchase the first issue of War of the Realms: New Agents of Atlas. But without even seeing a single image or piece of dialogue, I instantly sensed who the writer for this brand-new series was, or perhaps hadto be: Greg Pak, a long-time champion of introducing Asian characters to comics who was also one of the biggest names on that NYCC panel. Joining him on art is Gang Hyuk Lim, and on color Federico Blee.

The first issue opens up with a very familiar problem in Asia: a territorial dispute. Wave, a Filipino superhero, is chasing after a disturbance only to run afoul of a Mainland Chinese superhero named Aero, who tells her that she shouldn’t be outside the Philippine Sea. The comic instantly frames the level of detail the series aims to have by not only touching upon the ongoing disagreements over borders between Asian countries but also implies that the Filipino and Chinese heroes have different levels of connection to their respective governments.

From there, the series introduces the main Agents of Atlas team, which consists of Asian characters from all around the world, with some established Marvel characters and some all-new. Here, while also showing individual character motivations, the comic also highlights something important: they may all be Asian and raised Asian, but they’ve all been brought up in different ways with different values and assumptions based on the countries of their respective people and where they call home. For many Asian-Americans, there’s often a bit of cultural dissonance when going back to Asia because of the Western values they’ve grown up with. In other words, the first issue specifically emphasizes that just because they’re all “Asian” doesn’t mean they can be painted by the same brush.

The comic goes on to show various other heroes, including a number of Korean ones, as if to imply that superheroes have really taken off there. Amid attack by an outside enemy (from another REALM!), confusion ensues, and a lack of communication and a whole lot of jumping to conclusions leads to heroes fighting one another rather than their common foe.

What impresses me about this first issue is how much it respects both the similarities and differences of Asian cultures around the world while also pointing at the sensitive topics endemic to Asia and its diaspora. It’s the classic and universal idea of “we have to put aside our differences and work together to overcome this obstacle” but through the lens of Asian characters. There’s no exoticizing of any of the heroes, not even the older ones who came about in a time of exoticization.

While I know Greg Pak values and pushes for Asian characters, I have to wonder if part of the reason why Marvel as a business has gone ahead with New Agents of Atlas and its all-Asian team (and non-affiliated Asian heroes) is due to the success of the Marvel movies in China especially. The afterword suggests this, such as when it mentions how stories featuring Aero and Swordmaster can be found on NetEase, a Chinese comics site. As China exerts influence on entertainment and media, companies increasingly try to cater to the country and it’s government’s values. At the same time, however, if appealing to a Chinese audience potentially means more portrayals of Asian characters are respectful, is it a net positive? I don’t really have an answer myself at the moment.

So War of the Realms: New Agents of Atlas is off to a good start more or less. Here’s to hoping it keeps its momentum.

New York Comic Con 2018 and Thoughts on the Asian-American Experience

New York Comic Con is the only non-explicitly Japan-focused convention I typically attend. In that respect, it gives me an opportunity to explore in greater detail the aspects of comics and media fandom that I normally prioritize less. This year, while I did my fair share of anime and manga-related activities—namely see Son Goku’s esteemed voice actress Nozawa Masako—my main takeaway from NYCC 2018 was that the shifting cultural landscape beneath the United States at this moment is of the utmost importance in comics and entertainment.

I went to many events during the convention, but the main stand-out was Super Asian America. A Q&A and discussion about Asian-Americans in comics, animation, and related media, the panel featured a bevy of guests: comics writer Marjorie Liu (Monstress), actor Ryan Potter (Hiro in Big Hero 6), comics writer Greg Pak (creator of Amadeus Cho), Kickstarter publishing’s Camilla Zhang, comics creator Nidhi Chanani, and host Mike Le. Much of the discussion was about the surprisingly good year that Asian-Americans have experienced in the entertainment industry between the successes of Crazy Rich Asians, To All The Boys I’ve Ever Loved, and Searching. The main takeaway was that this is a good step, but that convincing the Hollywood machine that falling back on its old racist and conservative mindset for “safety” reasons is going to take a lot more. Moreover, the United States as it currently stands is a troubling place for non-white ethnic groups, and this fight extends to more than just movies and TV shows.

I’ve long struggled with an unfortunate truth: many Asians, especially from older generations, are extremely racist. Readers might be wondering what this has to do with New York Comic Con, but my view of my fellow Asian-Americans is not always charitable. It always saddens me to see a kind of “we Asians need to get ahead” mindset that seems to come at the expense of others, the kind of attitude that encourages ingratiating ourselves to white people and avoiding association with other ethnic groups. So for years, I’ve seen those struggles for better representation in Hollywood and such, and felt myself being a bit skeptical. “How many of these people are really thinking about equality and opportunities for all?” Now I realize I’ve been conflating more than a few things that should be considered separate yet loosely related.

It is true that many Asians living in the US have been racist, and have tried to emulate “white success” to some degree. It’s also true that the Asian communities often focus on themselves to almost a deleterious degree, ignoring the reality of the politics surrounding us. However, the fight for better representation of Asians and Asian-Americans on screens and pages big and small is itself a fight against the racism that lingers within our communities among fellow Asians. There are generations of stereotypes that Asians have to fight against, like being weak and ineffectual compared to rugged European folk (unless we’re doing martial arts), and the sooner we remove the seeming need to graft the problematic elements of white privilege onto our own identities, the sooner we can make all Asian-Americans feel like they don’t have to conform to others’ ideas of who we can be.