Adopt the average in everything, everywhere, all at once
Last month, I paid $10 to sit in a room full of about 30 strangers and spend the next two and a half hours laughing, crying, and contemplating the meaning of life.
In other words, I watched the movie “Everything Everywhere All At Once” (EEAAO), and let’s just say, I’ll never look at hot dogs or bagels the same way again.
The basic premise of EEAAO is that Evelyn, a tired and very mean Asian American woman, is suddenly tasked with saving the universe and must do so by traveling across multiple universes and embodying all of her multiverse selves. .
Watching EEAAO was a wonderfully absurd experience – it was like being drunk on a roller coaster while sitting next to your eccentric aunt. But even if you haven’t watched EEAAO and experienced its incredible cast, original plot, and witty dialogue, it’s still remarkable and relevant for a reason: the simple fact that an Asian American woman ( even very common) can experience infinite realities and scenarios.
Growing up, other than my parents and immediate family, I never had role models who looked like me. It didn’t strike me as odd or weird; I just accepted it as a fact of life. In the books and media I consumed, I easily projected myself into the lives of various characters – from Barbie to Ramona Quimby to the sassy white heroine of the latest young adult fiction novel – without ever noticing that we looked different. Their fights were my fights, their dreams were my dreams, their hopes my hopes.
Until they are no longer.
Somewhere around the time I got old enough for braces and realized that microaggressions were a thing (though I didn’t yet have the term to call them that), I realized that the narratives between my life and the white characters I loved weren’t overlapping so easily. I realized that, unlike them, my storylines weren’t endless, that as an Asian American the world is asking you to play some type of role that you didn’t even know was there. was expected of you.
It is this exact experience of seeing endless stories around you but not being allowed to fully access them yourself that Jia Tolentino, a Filipino American author, writes about in her book “Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion”. . In his essay, “Pure Heroines”, Tolentino recalls a childhood experience playing Power Rangers with his friend. While Tolentino wanted to be the Pink Power Ranger, his white friend insisted she could only play the Yellow Power Ranger – the reasoning Tolentino just couldn’t understand.
Looking back on that experience as an adult, Tolentino writes that his “white friends would be able to launch their own biopic out of an endless cereal aisle of nearly identical celebrities, hundreds of manifestations of blonde or brunette identity or redhead…while (she) would only have about three actresses to choose from, all of whom probably would have had minor roles in a movie five years ago.
In a world where Asian Americans are either locked into stereotypes or seen as the model minority, media representation is too often a luxury, let alone human representation. We are either caricatured (the geek, the shy kid, the fetishized Asian American woman) or glorified (the kid who scores a 1600 on the SAT, the brilliant activist we learn about once a year during AA&PI heritage) – there is no -between.
I want to acknowledge that East Asian Americans hold a certain degree of privilege in the Asian American community as a whole. Based on stereotypes, some may assume that as an East Asian American woman I am particularly “intelligent” or “studious,” but these tropes are still harmful.
Sometimes, just sometimes, I’m exhausted by the relentless pressure to either conform to cultural expectations or be incredibly excellent, and I wonder: why, why can’t I just be average?
For most of my life, I’ve shunned the average. From the “A is average” mentality instilled in me as a child to my own neurotic perfectionism, I have unconsciously retained the belief that to be average is to be invisible. That no matter how hard I tried, no matter how many A’s I got, or how nice I was to the other kids in the class, I’d always be just another “bright but quiet kid” on my newsletter. That I have to somehow negotiate the terms and conditions of my visibility.
Where did I learn this? Well, representation within the media — where there are many ways to be seen.
I remember when the 2018 movie “Crazy Rich Asians” first came out, and I went to watch it with a friend. I was so excited for it – I had even bought the books and read them in preparation – but when I walked away from the theater, still on top of the end credits pop song, eyes glazed over from every scene saturated with lush landscapes and feasting fresh in my mind, I couldn’t help but feel a strange basic disconnect.
While the on-screen actors shared my skin color, they were also incredibly remarkable – remarkably rich, remarkably attractive, remarkably glitzy in a way that seemed so far removed from my own day-to-day reality.
The preference for the exceptional over the ordinary in “Crazy Rich Asians” runs counter to the EEAAO’s philosophy of conduct.
What I find most beautiful about the EEAAO is that Evelyn is not remarkable in any way, shape or form. If anything, she’s incredibly unremarkable. In fact, during the film, Evelyn is literally proclaimed as the “worst version of herself” that exists in all of the infinite multiverses. While we see Evelyn live out some pretty outrageous stories in other alternate universes (Evelyn as a hibachi leader, kung fu master, and red carpet star), the core of Evelyn we see the most is her as that scruffy mother and owner of the laundromat in an unremarkable suburban town.
Evelyn is average in the truest sense of the word — her life is commonplace, representative of the reality that many Asian American immigrants face daily. And while the word average is so often used to demean or insult, EEAAO reminds us that average does not mean unworthy. Just because Evelyn herself expresses discontent in her life doesn’t mean her lifestyle is inherently unfulfilling. Rather than being an indictment against her, the EEAAO filmmakers intentionally choose to make Evelyn’s mediocrity her strength, and in doing so, restore dignity to “average” life. Because Evelyn has so many unpursued opportunities, missed hobbies, and unfulfilled relationships, she has the most alternate life threads to embody and jump across multiple universes.
To me, this is meaningful media representation in the truest sense. The virtue of this type of representation is that it is not just about mere visibility — the type of representation that is so fragile, so conditional. On the contrary, true representation is achieved when granted unconditionally: when being seen is not just a given rarity at performance, but is accessible to all – even, and above all, to the “average” .
Overall, EEAAO is about the power of stories – specifically the stories we tell ourselves. That ultimately, even in the face of so many fascinating and glamorous universes and past selves she could inhabit, Evelyn chooses to stay in her own – to embrace her own story as an immigrant mother and laundromat owner. automatique. That sometimes the bravest choice we can make is not so much to embody other worlds or call for more storylines, but to realize the richness of our own history.
As I ponder this idea of personal acceptance, I recall Mary Oliver’s collection of essays titled “Upstream”, which contains a piece titled “Ropes”. She tells the story of Sammy, a runaway dog she adopted. He was a mischievous dog, loved by all – Sammy chewed ropes, climbed fences and often found himself in other people’s yards. Even the canine officer loved Sammy: once found, rather than imprison Sammy, he would simply bring him home. Even though Sammy understood his role as a companion dog, he never let other people’s ropes chain him down.
The last lines of this essay always touch me. Oliver explains that Sammy’s story is about more than a dog; it could rather be about “what life was like in this dear city years ago, and how many of us miss it. Or maybe it’s about the wonderful things that can happen if you break the ropes that hold you back.
What wonderful things can happen if we break the cords that hold us down? If we unfold our stories and let them take to the wind?
As an Asian American these days, I feel the strings around me loosen. As Asian American portrayal becomes more mainstream, it is my hope that future generations will grow up in a world where they see themselves in the media – a world where we are all truly seen.
And yet, there is a rope that I have not yet unraveled: the rope that demands the exception, that resists the average.
EEAAO dares me to break that rope – or maybe that rope was never meant to be there in the first place. For me, true representation is one that delicately straddles the balance between two infinities: the ever-urgent pursuit of portraying POC in infinite roles and scenarios – to show what is possible – and the need to rest, to dwell on our current stories and realize the infinite value that resides in each of us, no matter how mundane our history may be.
For me, maybe that infinite value is just in being myself – just another run-of-the-mill, burnt-out college student – and knowing that’s worthy enough of a story to tell.
MiC columnist Allison Wei can be reached at [email protected]