But that familiarity is instantly exploded: Mere minutes into what could have been every intergenerational chronicle of every immigrant community all at once, “Everything Everywhere” makes a sudden, phantasmagorical swerve into what might best be described as the Michelle Yeoh Cinematic Universe. A version of Wang’s husband from a parallel dimension appears, telling Wang, who is busy juggling an IRS audit, a visit from her estranged father (played by the inimitable James Hong) and the potential demise of the family’s flailing laundromat business, that only she can save the cosmos from an agent of chaos. In order to do so, Wang finds herself having to channel thousands of far-flung multiversal versions of herself in a freewheeling journey that ultimately gives meaning to a life seemingly mired in the struggles of everyday life. We see Wang embody martial arts masters to teppanyaki chefs to street-corner sign spinners — all wildly varied, yet intrinsically intertwined; improbably different, yet deeply connected by a common purpose and a shared identity.
As Nguyen wrote, “‘Asian American’ was a creation, and those who say that there are no ‘Asians’ in Asia are right … Against (the) racist and sexist fiction of the Oriental, we built the anti-racist, anti-sexist fiction of the Asian American. We willed ourselves into being.”
For many growing up in that era, however, Asian American was a term that pointed recursively back at itself: Being Asian American stood for being of Asian descent in America. Maybe the growing millions of us had some features and cultural traits in common; but more often than not, our great-grandparents were mortal enemies, our grandparents retained mutual suspicion, and our parents gave us lengthy lectures on why marrying across Asian ethnic lines might cause “problems.”
It was left to those of us who stumbled out of college in the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s — having had those late-night conversations at college, having exchanged those yes-I-see-you glances, having dated whomever the heck we wanted, over the outcries of our parents — to fill the box of Asian American with a multiverse.
Each of these tales is intrinsically Asian (North) American, yet stretches the meaning of that identity across breathtaking new frontiers: In short, like us, they’re wildly varied, yet intrinsically intertwined; improbably different, yet deeply connected by common purpose and a shared identity.
That’s the promise the next decades hold, as we continue to encode meaning into a term that was once empty, to add canonical flesh to a cultural skeleton, to build solidarity and community in growing, aggregate layers: that our Asian America will become steadily less fictional, less flawed, more beautiful. Yes, we’re a work in progress, but we’re still working and still making progress, and the success that we have in overcoming our differences and finding common ground has the potential to be a model for the whole of our fragmented nation. If Asians, America’s most Everything Bagel population, can learn to accept and integrate our multiversal selves, why can’t the entirety of these not-so-United States figure it out?
It’s just a matter of weaving together our individual tales by telling them to one another and to the world. To quote Jamie Lee Curtis, who plays “Everything Everywhere”‘s antagonist, Deirdre Beaubeirdra: “You may just see a pile of receipts, but I see a story.” And to quote Ke Huy Quan, who plays its romantic hero, Waymond Wang: “Every rejection, every disappointment has led you here to this moment. Don’t let anything distract you from it.”
And finally, to quote Michelle Yeoh’s Evelyn Wang herself, as she slowly discovers she has the ability to connect to all of her many multiversal variants, drawing from their memories, their experiences and even their skills to fuel her own fight for the future: “I am paying attention.”