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15 June 2023  •  Arts & Lifestyle

Intergenerational trauma is a bagel: A look into Everything Everywhere All At Once

I never expected a movie to destroy me the way Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) did. The two tissues that I had meticulously packed were not enough for the tears and snot that came out of me. So much so that the couple next to me offered their packet.

By Arshmah Jamal
Intergenerational trauma is a bagel: A look into Everything Everywhere All At Once

“Every rejection, every disappointment has led you here to this moment.”

A24’s Everything Everywhere All At Once (EEAAO) begins with Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) being stretched in all directions: the IRS is auditing her business, her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), is filing for a divorce, she’s caring for her elderly, critical father (James Hong), and she struggles to understand her adult daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu).

As the family meet with their IRS auditor (Jamie Lee Curtis), Waymond – or as we find out, Alpha Waymond – warns Evelyn that “the multiverse” is in danger with a paper of haphazard instructions written on the back of their divorce form. After following the instructions, Evelyn triggers the ability to unlock alternate universes. What if she never got in the car with Waymond? What if we had hot dogs for fingers? What if we were rocks, just hanging on a cliff? 

Evelyn eventually finds out the multiverses’ peril is linked to a nihilist version of Joy, known as Jobu Tapaki. She is forced to the edge and wants Evelyn to succumb to the ‘everything bagel’ (explored later). While attempting to fight Jobu and make the multiverse right again, Evelyn must confront her mother-daughter issues with Joy.

Beautiful shots, astonishing actors, well-timed jokes, and confrontational dialogue (between rocks!) all play a part in this movie. But, at the root of it all, once you move past all the cinematography and screenplay, you’re left with EEAAO being a metaphor for intergenerational family trauma and a meditation on nihilism and the meaning of life. The film is so philosophically dense that viewers will be left unpacking its nuances for years to come.

“Maybe there is something that explains why you still went looking for me through all of this mess. And why, no matter what, I still want to be here with you. I will always, always want to be here with you.”

I am a first-generation Australian. My mum and I migrated to the quiet suburbs of Sydney in 2001, where my dad had constructed the bare bones of his – our -- life. It was now our responsibility as a family to keep this house intact. Fun fact: I was a Hills girl! I used to live behind the main road of Beverly Hills. Imagine if we never moved to Liverpool? You probably wouldn’t be reading this piece.

As the first daughter in my family, many of my mum's feelings, thoughts and frustrations were projected onto me from a young age. Growing up, my mum thought of me as her best friend and confidant, thus blurring the lines of our mother-daughter relationship. Joy and Evelyn’s relationship was almost a mirror image of my mum and I. The loathing and disappointment I felt were reflected in Joy when Evelyn would criticise her weight or refuse to accept Joy’s identity. Their relationship was reminiscent of mine, filled with both love and pain. It made me realise how trauma is often passed down through generations. My mum is this way because that’s how her parents were, and that’s how their parents were, and so on.  

Intergenerational trauma refers to trauma passed from trauma survivors to their descendants. If ignored, survivors with trauma can exhibit problematic behaviours which can negatively affect their children. In turn, these children are more likely to develop mental health issues.

Three generations are shown in EEAAO. Evelyn’s father, Evelyn, and her daughter Joy. This lineage, alongside Evelyn and Waymond’s marriage, form the film's centre. 

In one universe, Evelyn pushes her daughter so hard to become gifted at jumping through universes that Joy rebels by creating a black hole of infinite destruction called the ‘everything bagel’ (explored later, trust me!). Reflecting on my teenage years, I realised that I did this a lot. I was perfect in primary. I got good grades, I never questioned my parents and always obeyed them and made them happy. But, once puberty set in, I made my parents' lives hell. I rebelled against them as much as I could. My grades in routine subjects became sloppy, whereas, in anything subjective, I excelled. I talked back to them, slammed doors, and yelled. I gave them an attitude and ignored everything they said, all based on individuality and my conscience telling me ‘they wouldn’t understand’. 

While following her nihilistic daughter, Evelyn is transported to another universe where the conditions weren’t right for life to form. Two rocks on a cliff’s edge – one tan and one dark grey – sit side by side, overlooking a canyon. It’s silent for a bit until captions appear – white for Joy, black for Evelyn.

“It’s nice,” reads Evelyn’s text.

“Yeah,” reads Joy’s text. “You can just sit here, and everything feels really… far away.”

“Joy,” Evelyn’s rock says, “I’m sorry about ruining everything —”

“Shhhh,” Joy’s rock says. “You don’t have to worry about that here. Just be a rock.”

“I just feel so stupid— ” Evelyn says.

“God!” Joy says. “Please. We’re all stupid! Small, stupid humans. It’s like our whole deal.”

Later, when Joy asks Evelyn to let her go, she lets her daughter go. The tan rock slides to the edge in the rock universe, falling and rolling down. But, in another world, Evelyn turns to Joy.

“Maybe there is something that explains why you still went looking for me through all of this mess. And why, no matter what, I still want to be here with you. I will always, always want to be here with you.” 

The dark grey rock scoots to the edge and falls, rolling after her daughter.

My heart shattered, and then glued back together. This scene made me cry so hard that I considered leaving to collect myself. It reminded me that this trauma started somewhere, and similar to the rocks, it was at a standstill. Rolling off the cliff and addressing it like Evelyn was now momentous.

Perhaps, one of the solutions to this generational pain is as simple as talking – talking to your mother or talking to someone about the trauma. I never tried to understand mine or help her understand me until recently. Their acts of love and forgiveness are embodied in bringing a plate of cut-up fruit or bringing such surplus of that one item you expressed your delight for. For Evelyn, her way of love was expressing concern about Joy’s weight and appearance, which sucks.

However, sometimes talking doesn’t cut it. It’s hard to draw the line and get parents to adhere to the respect you deserve. Yes, talking can be helpful. But only if the other party is willing to listen and change. There have been many instances where my parents have disregarded my feelings and thrown them around. For my own stability, I have learnt not to bring up these feelings and events, because at the end of the night there’s no resolution, just pain. Times like these are when it’s okay to run away.

As comforting as the sometimes gentle, unassuming overtures of parental love can be, there’s still a stigma around talking about mental health, our struggles, or our feelings in general. It’s a stigma that’s strained relationships like mine with my mum and Evelyn’s with Joy. The favourable silence and discomfort in communicating openly aren’t due to ignorance or resentment. It’s a trauma response of our parents from moving to an abstract idea of a better life. This silence is not uncommon for Asian women. In EEAAO, Joy’s silence about her pain is emulated into a black hole where it attempts to end her very existence. Like Joy, we also hide our pain from the people we cherish because we refuse to believe anyone can understand it. That is until it starts spilling over, making it hard to control. And then it explodes, fuelling intergenerational trauma.

My mother tongue is Urdu, but I learnt English through cartoons, and for a few weeks I went to preschool. Thus, a translator was born. I was the fence that separated government forms and my parents. If my mum was angry with her service, managers would have to first talk to 4-year-old me. If my dad needed help setting up the internet, it was 6-year-old me being addressed as ‘Mister Jamal’.

EEAAO’s way of weaving three languages – Cantonese, Mandarin, and English – perfectly depicts how many immigrant households communicate. It further shows the linguistic barrier of intergenerational misunderstanding. In the film, there are many humorous and painful instances of this. For myself, it’s hard to convey my thoughts and feelings in Urdu. Many times that I have spoken to my parents have ended with miscommunication and tears of frustration. When I told my parents I had deferred uni for the year, I was met with immediate demands to go back. Attempting to explain the reasons to them was futile; we were both hurt. Times like those are when I wish I had a much firmer grasp of the language. To freely express what, how, and why I felt without any blunder is very idealistic for myself and others like me.

EEAAO has made me realise that I am neither selfish nor selfless in feeling the repercussions of intergenerational trauma. Good on me (and yourself) for breaking the cycle at the cost of our entire childhood. Good on me (and yourself) for seeking the help you need despite it being a huge culture shock to your mum. Good and me (and yourself) for understanding the trauma but still blaming our parents. Don’t get me wrong, you can be angry, you can feel both love and pain, and you are valid to feel this way. However, understanding and being more communicative to my mum about my feelings has helped me. In return, she has told me about her hardships and traumas, allowing me to understand the unfortunate circle of life. 

The trauma of past generations still weighs heavily on us, making it tough to be kind to others and have healthy relationships. However, love and empathy can help us heal even when what we go through as individuals can't be changed.

“I wasn’t looking for you so I could kill you. I was just looking for someone who could see what I see, feel what I feel.”

The everything bagel. 

A bagel, created by Jobu, filled with delicious ingredients like onion flakes, sesame seeds, and every object, concept, feeling, and experience in the multiverse. Yum.

For Jobu, her rebellion, nihilism, and the multiverse’s chaos are in the form of this bagel. Towards the end, we see Jobu pressuring Evelyn to join her nihilistic approach by following her daughter into the bagel.

Before going further into the bagel, let’s talk about nihilism. It means nothing – literally. The philosophy focuses on the doctrine that nothing actually exists or that existence or values are meaningless. It’s a swirl of negativity and cynicism, which many people have experienced. 

Generation Z (around 1996 onwards) is considered the nihilistic generation. Factors range from the pandemic to global crisis’ to being a child of an immigrant. In EEAAO, Joy/Jobu represents us, the Gen Zers. At first, we see the bagel as a device that will destroy the world, but we soon realise the bagel is a device for Jobu to destroy herself and put herself out of the misery she feels. We see this when Jobu brings Evelyn to the bagel and instructs her to look in. A series of ‘what ifs’ follows. We see Evelyn not caring about the consequences and acting on her selfish impulses with an indifferent attitude. In one universe, the IRS auditor shows up at the laundromat alongside the police to repossess the place. Evelyn acts out by smashing the front windows and signing the divorce papers to symbolise the loathing she felt towards this life and the laundromat. In another, she exposes the raccoon sitting on another chef’s head (a nod to Disney’s Ratatouille) in an attempt to be the winner and the best.

In a way, it was almost like a daughter telling her mother to let go. To not care anymore. Live your life as yourself. Selfishly. This concept resonated with me. All of the pain, heartbreak, and grief my mum had felt was always thrown onto me. Let go, I would tell her for both herself and my sake. But, just like Evelyn, my mum would bounce back and reprimand me about kindness (the same way Waymond does). 

Everyone has an everything bagel, although hopefully less dangerous and world-destroying. For me, the bagel is every negative emotion, comment and thought that has transpired because of my mum. At times, the swirls took over and destroyed me. This year, I learned how to control and understand it by going to therapy. Although I have gotten better, my bagel sometimes plants itself in my body and mind. But I have realised that talking to people has helped. Support your bagel, but don’t let it consume your life into a tragic, nihilistic one. Whether it be a therapist, friend, or mother, talking will help you.

“You are not unlovable. There is always something to love. Even in a stupid, stupid universe where we have hot dogs for fingers, we get very good with our feet.”

Everything Everywhere All At Once is a masterpiece, both cinematically, thematically, and critically. With seven Oscar wins, it’s a movie that we will talk about for generations, and rightfully so. As the years go by, we will uncover more and more themes and concepts.

I am not a ‘blood is always thicker than water’ person. Chosen family is a concept that is dear to me, and I support cutting off toxic or abusive family members. In saying that, I believe that the last person who you expect to understand you might understand you more than you expect. Being honest about your pain and hardships with anyone can also change life's trajectory. It’s possible to still have a loving relationship with parents and family who don’t understand parts of your life, as long as you can set boundaries with them (... like living away from them).


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