When I was 13, my mother made me watch an English-language Indian movie featuring a mother and her daughter. In the movie, which I otherwise don’t really remember, the daughter runs out of the house one evening while upset with her mother, who follows her and then slaps her in the middle of the street. I was, of course, staunchly on the daughter’s side and couldn’t understand why I was even watching this in the first place. “What’s the message of this story?” my mother asked me, her eyes glassy with an anxiety I’d see a number of times during my pubescence. I told her I didn’t know. “Communication is important,” she said. I had no idea what she was talking about.
Almost 20 years later, I did the same to her. I made her sit on her couch in her home while I sat on mine in a completely different country and peered at her with the same glassy eyes over FaceTime. “OK, Mom,” I said, “what’s the message of Everything Everywhere All at Once?”
She shrugged. “The end was nice,” she said. Now I understood why she was always so frustrated with me.
I don’t know what I expected. The hope, I guess, was that she’d have the same insights I did after I watched it. Everything Everywhere, like a few movies that have come out this year, is about the traumas our mothers pass down to us, and how daughters try to break that cycle. Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) is dealing with a rapidly unraveling reality: Her laundry business is on the brink of collapse, as is her marriage to Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), and she’s struggling to connect with her queer daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu). Evelyn spirals into different dimensions and timelines, discovering that she’s effectively a superhero, destined to save countless timelines from destructive forces.
Evelyn is the protagonist, but the interplay between her and Joy is the core of the movie. They just keep missing each other, in every sense of the word; Evelyn only barely acknowledges her daughter’s queerness, while Joy only somewhat understands her mother’s enormous and devastating sacrifices. Both are susceptible to falling into the abyss of disconnection, lost forever.
I don’t know the last time a movie made me cry so much, and for so long — when I left the theater, I immediately texted my mom, telling her to watch it too. There’s no experience as indelible as seeing a version of your mother so accurately portrayed in film, even when it’s not an exact carbon copy — Yeoh’s character telling her daughter she looks fat, and that being an act of love, was just one of several moments I immediately recognized from my own life. I wondered if my mother would see herself in the grown woman whose unresolved issues with her own parent were trickling down into her dynamic with her daughter. Maybe she could recognize the way Evelyn made Joy’s pain hers, the way she coopted her daughter’s experiences and undercut her, the ways Joy still needed her, even though she wasn’t present. My mom was a mean lady when I was a kid, and it’s only been in the last decade that she’s softened enough for me to actually get to know her. Would she be able to see herself in this movie?
First, I had to get her there — my mother is an Indian immigrant who still believes in austerity measures, so naturally, she hasn’t paid full price to see a movie since 1998 when I wanted to see the Rugrats feature film. The only way to get her to see it was to tell her I needed to interview her, for work. (I had to send my dad with her too, because neither of them have done anything independently since their respective colonoscopies.)
From the beginning, it’s clear that Everything Everywhere is rooted in an exploration of intergenerational trauma, or trauma that’s passed down through generations. Intergenerational trauma has gone from a lesser-known psychological idea to a term Gen Z easily references on TikTok; it was first observed in the children of Holocaust survivors and their grandchildren and has also been seen in the descendants of those forced into slavery, Indigenous genocide survivors, and families affected by domestic violence. The way this trauma manifests can be specific to an individual or culturally or politically broader, as with families or communities that emerge from war or other societal conflict. It’s tough to diagnose, and even tougher to get our elders to recognize it; often, the older folks in our communities either minimize the impact of the trauma to make it seem less painful than it is or refuse to acknowledge that anything happened at all.
Turning Red director Domee Shi referred to intergenerational trauma in an interview about why she made the film. Like Everything Everywhere, Turning Red made me audibly scream, “Oh, no,” when I started watching it — I knew it was going to fill the pit of my stomach with familiar dread. Released on Disney+ in February, it tells a story about a Chinese Canadian teenager whose hormones (and also, an old family curse) turn her into a giant red panda, and whose mother just doesn’t understand the undeniable pull of boy band fandom. Turning Red gets so much right about puberty, having crushes, and wanting desperately to be your true, weird, gross self with freedom, but it especially gets having a stern, demanding Asian mom right. The mother in Turning Red goes through her daughter’s notebooks and finds her sexy drawings of a boy who works down the street at a convenience store. The scene made me react the same way I did when I was 11 and my mom read my diary entries about Alec, a boy at school whose face I wanted to sit on for reasons that were not yet clear to me. I just needed to find a way to slink into my skin, like an awful little snake lost in an extra-large sweater.
But the arc of that story, too, is about letting your children go, just enough so they can grow. Some of the conversations about Turning Red were exhausting, as if a story about puberty and moms can’t be relatable if it’s about a Chinese girl and her family. But that discourse did make me wonder if the people these movies were honoring — our Asian, immigrant mothers — considered movies like Everything Everywhere relatable. The movie affected me so deeply because I saw myself and my mother in it at every turn; I saw how much we love each other, but how often we’re wrapped up in our own worlds and expectations. Sometimes it feels like we’re just trading the same pain back and forth through the cord that somehow still ties us together.
My mother and I are undergoing a kind of transformation in how we talk about our pain. The older she gets, the more she tells me — with great, agonizing detail — about what hurts her, how it hurts her, and what kind of vengeance she plans to inflict upon her enemies. I haven’t ever known my mother as intimately as I do now, though not for a lack of trying; it just seemed like we were ships in the night for most of my 20s, and only in my 30s does she really make sense to me. She often tells me that she’s not good with words, that she can’t appropriately explain herself, especially in English. But I don’t think our barriers were ever about language; they always seemed to be more about intent. I always viewed my mom as someone who was fighting with me, not someone who was fighting for me.
We still struggle to connect on the definition of trauma. I can see, very clearly, the injuries passed on from my grandparents to my mother, and now to me. I see how we’re inadvertently cultivating it in my niece, who is still the most well adjusted of all of us, though that’s a low bar to clear.
“I wouldn’t say I have any trauma,” my mom told me after she watched the movie. “I define trauma [as] where you are homeless, you have nothing to eat, there are tragedies in the family, kids going on drugs. Those things are trauma. Routine life has its ups and downs.” She liked Everything Everywhere plenty; it made her cry almost as much as it made me cry. But she metabolized the movie in a completely different way. For her, it was about queerness, and not much else. “I liked that she finally accepted the relationship,” she said about Evelyn. “The mother was, like we all are, old-fashioned. We have a hard time to reconcile with those situations.”
Was there anything else? I asked her. Was there any other message in the movie? Anything about inheriting pain from our mothers or how trauma has to be healed before we can move forward with the people in our lives? “There was a lot of things going on at the same time,” my mom said. “They were just shoving everything under the rug and carrying on. I think that was the only issue. Was there any other issue?”
Once again, we were not communicating that well. I wanted her to see something important — that she had been owed better treatment from the adults in her life when she was young, and that maybe, in turn, she owed me something better too. The movie was immediately relatable to me, but she couldn’t see herself in it at all, which astonished me. To her, it was pure fiction.
I asked my mother if she thought I had any intergenerational trauma, if there was anything I might have inherited. She frowned gently and shook her head — I was born in Canada, and brought up there, so what kind of difficulty could I be talking about? I prodded her: Maybe the grand theme of the movie was how our immigrant mothers ignored our first-generation struggles. She huffed. “Why couldn’t you send me to some plain simple movie where I didn’t have to think about it?”
She started to cry, which I took some perverse pleasure in. We talked about my recent separation, about the deaths of my grandparents, about how different my niece is now from when she was just a baby. We talked about everything that hurts us, without calling it trauma, without suggesting it could be inherited, without recognizing that what hurts me hurts her, and vice versa, because our veins are fused. Her heart still pumps blood for me, even at my big, old age.
But my mom also recognized the need to be more accommodating with her children, a little less reactive. “I would say, before you conclude to anything, you should find out what are the reasons, what is the background of that situation, before you get woo-woo,” she said, acknowledging the ways she could have gotten to know me better. I tried to ask another question, but she broke off to yell at my dad, who was convinced he would be a better interview. “Yeah,” she called back. “You’re Mister Perfect.”
Daughters are fixated on their mothers for good reason. They’re oracles for us, a peek into the future but also a vision of the past. For the children of immigrants, that connection is even more electric. When our parents move to a new country, we lose grip on our histories; our mothers are the only blueprint we have left. No wonder we’re so desperate for them to understand us, and to finally, eventually, one day, apologize.
In Everything Everywhere, Evelyn finally recognizes the harm she’s done to Joy by not seeing her for who she is, and she gives an imperfect but comprehensive speech, taking accountability for it all. It’s wish fulfillment for Asian daughters everywhere — imagine your mom ever apologizing for anything, ever. I will probably never get that kind of emotional reckoning; the only apology I’ve received from my mom was a bowl of cut-up watermelon and a suggestion that maybe we go to the mall later.
I have spent and will likely continue to spend my entire life trying to get my mother to understand me, to recognize what hurts and why it hurts, to be witness to what I need and to respond to it. She will fail, to no fault of her own. But isn’t her effort what matters? Maybe it’s enough that she said, Sure, I’ll see this exhausting movie for you. Maybe it’s enough that she’ll even talk to me about complicated experiences at all. An inflection point is perhaps all I ever needed.
I wasn’t aiming for perfection, for idealized communication. Would she really be my mother if she wasn’t strident and difficult and argumentative and a little dismissive? I’d be disappointed, frankly, if she understood me all too well. That would require a full personality transplant. If my mother didn’t have her trauma, she wouldn’t be who she is. She might not view her life as being full of burns and bruises, but I do. I see it in her immigration story, in her pregnancies, in the way she sometimes gazes out the living room window and gets lost for an hour, thinking about her own mom. All of that has shaped her, as it’s shaping me. And I do like her the way she is, even if she periodically runs her hand down my hair in a way that I think is loving until she says, “You need to do something about...all this.” I appreciate my mother’s stoicism about our collective pain. It allows me to be dramatic and loud about it instead.
We discussed the finer points of the movie for a while — what is the everything bagel? — but mostly circled back to talking about my separation. I’m the first in my family to split from their spouse; it’s a fissure that I know will have consequences beyond just me. My mom’s struggling with it, despite her absolute best efforts. She understands why it’s happening, and she’s not angry with me in the ways I feared. But she’s sad. I am too. It’s hard to watch. I want to rescue her from the discomfort I know I’ve caused.
She took her glasses off and wiped her face. “I used to always tell you, it’s very important to have a family around and talk to each other. There will always be fights. There will always be me not understanding you, you not understanding me,” she said. This is a far more generous interpretation of our dynamic than I’ve ever heard from her; even the recognition that she doesn’t understand me feels profound at this point. “But at the end of the day, we are still family. That’s why at the end of the movie, I liked it. She didn’t let her go. What else is there?” ●