Why Joy and Evelyn's 'mommy issues' in Everything Everywhere All At Once feel cathartic to South Asian women

Karishma Jangid
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Why Joy and Evelyn's 'mommy issues' in Everything Everywhere All at Once feel cathartic to South Asian women

In the Oscar-nominated Everything Everywhere All At Once, Evelyn Wang goes to multiple universes to save the universe and those she loves.

"Happy Mother's Day," I say smiling awkwardly. My mother stares blankly and resumes work. When upon visiting Joy (Stephanie Hsu) from Everything Everywhere All At Once dimly says, "Hi, Mom," Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) sees Joy's partner Becky (Tallie Medel) and says, "I only cooked for three people. Now I have to cook more." This is how many South Asian mother-daughter bonds work. Priyanka Chopra's "Daddy's li'l girl" tattoo made the quote famous. But what about "Mumma's li'l girl who loves-hates her mom and is unable to show affection because mom has always been distant?" Don't get me wrong. This is not a rant about mothers. I'm writing to tell you about South Asian women's mommy issues and why Everything Everywhere All At Once's depiction of our intergenerational trauma is cathartic. (You can read the review here.)

(Major spoilers ahead)

In the abovementioned scene, Joy offers to help Evelyn with translation during the family's meeting with the IRS agent, but Evelyn denies her help. Her attempt at bonding goes to waste. She follows Evelyn to discuss how to introduce Becky to her conservative grandfather Gong Gong (James Hong). But a thousand things demand Evelyn's attention, who is too busy to pay heed. "I fight for all of us," Evelyn says, referring to all the effort she puts into running the family and the business. She has taken the entire load and is hence, burnt out but is in denial about it. She won't take rest or help either. In turn, she suppresses her bitterness and acts passive-aggressive towards her family. Remember those jokes about how if Indian mothers are in a bad mood, they ruin everyone's mood too? Evelyn does exactly that. When her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) suggests a vacation, she laughs it off. Aren't most Indian parents like this? Those who came from poverty migrated for better opportunities and they were so focused on survival that it became a way of life. They found it crucial to be harsh to themselves, and it became their default behaviour.

Joy, Evelyn

Joy, Evelyn, and Waymond (L-R)

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The root of Evelyn's bitter isolation can be found in her youth. Gong Gong disliked Waymond. So, she got married, moved to the USA and started her laundromat. Gong Gong abandoned her. So, she had to make difficult decisions in life. Hence, Evelyn wanted to be a better parent. She didn't want to abandon Joy the way Gong Gong had abandoned her. This is why even though Evelyn doesn't like Becky, she lets Joy be with her. She doesn't make Joy choose between Becky and her. However, even though far from Gong Gong, Evelyn desperately wanted to prove herself to her father. So, she entirely focused on becoming successful. 


Becky and Joy (L-R)

In his book 'Anxious People', Fredrik Backman quotes, "Life is a bit like climbing trees... You climb and climb and climb, and you hardly ever see each other along the way. You don’t notice that when you’re young, but everything changes when you have children...You’re parents and teammates, first and foremost, and being married slips down the list of priorities. But... you keep climbing trees and see each other along the way. I always thought that was just the way it is, life, the way it has to be. We just had to get through everything, I thought... that sooner or later... we’d end up on the same branch. And then we could sit there holding hands and looking at the view."

Evelyn, too, believes that if she keeps climbing, someday she can sit with her family and enjoy the view. But she was so immersed in climbing that she forgot those climbing with her. Hence, came the distance, misunderstandings, and resentment. She could never find the time to understand Joy. Evelyn introduces Becky as Joy's good friend denying Joy the right to express her queer identity. Evelyn repeats the trauma pattern by hurting Joy just like Gong Gong had hurt her- by not accepting her daughter for who she is. A recent tweet read, "Love it when desi parents say, "Tumhe itni azadi isliye di thi humne? (Is this why we gave you such freedom?) and the azadi (freedom) they're referring to is literally just allowing you to go to college." For many Indian mothers who were not allowed to study, letting their daughters go to college or wear western dresses are ways of breaking generational curses but we often forget that freedom cannot be granted in parts. Real freedom is letting people make their own choices.


This doesn't mean Evelyn hates Joy. She loves Joy. Evelyn was climbing to give Joy a better life. Another quote I read on Instagram says, “Just because your mother didn’t break all generational curses, doesn’t mean she didn’t break any.” In the first scene, when Joy is leaving, Evelyn wants to say something caring to Joy. However, because they haven't communicated well for long, all that comes out of her mouth is fatphobia, "Eat healthier. You're getting fat." This is Evelyn's way of caring. In Asian cultures, we often show affection towards people by asking if they ate. However, brought up in the USA, Joy doesn’t understand this love language. As Joy walks away, it shows that she is tired of trying to get affection from her mother, especially when she only expects the bare minimum. Evelyn, too, walked away from Gong Gong once for similar reasons. And while this hurts Joy, to Evelyn, Joy looks ungrateful, "I fight for all of us." When Evelyn first encounters Jobu Tupaki, she says, “You are the reason why my daughter doesn’t call anymore.” Evelyn looks for someone or something to blame, not realizing that what stands between her and Joy is intergenerational trauma.

Through Jobu, Evelyn learns that Joy never wanted to fight her, she only wanted to show the void that exists within. Your mother gives birth to you and raises you. She witnesses you turning from a girl into a woman and guides you through. Daughters are an extension of their mothers. As you approach adulthood you realize that just like your looks and your love, you might get your anger and your pain from your mother too. You desperately try not to turn into her, but it's too late. You are very much like her. So, if anyone knows what the hollowness in your chest must feel like, it could be your mother. So, you desperately try to reach her. You know that times and again, you will fail. Your mother ignored her emotions for too long, and now she is too exhausted to claim them back. The world was cruel to your mother and fighting it made her bitter. So, even though it's not your fault, you have been locked out. Yet you crave her acceptance, just like Evelyn craved Gong Gong’s and Joy craved Evelyn’s.

Perhaps acceptance is the cure for healing from intergenerational trauma. It felt cathartic when Evelyn acknowledged her pain and asked Gong Gong, “How could you let me go?” and when she vows, “I’m not willing to do to my daughter what you did to me.” She finally accepts herself and says, “You don’t have to be proud of me because I finally am.” As Jug said in Dear Zindagi, “Jab hum apne aap ko achi tarah samajh lete hai, toh doosre kya samajhte hai, it doesn’t matter, not at all. (If you accept yourself, it doesn't matter what others think of you.)” When Evelyn is finally able to accept herself, she accepts Joy too. I tear up every time I see Evelyn acknowledging that just like her, Joy is stubborn and messy, and it’s ok. But then Joy runs away from her. “For some reason when I'm with you, it hurts the both of us... Just let me go."

Just like Evelyn sees Joy in herself, Joy sees herself in Evelyn and doesn't like what she sees. Even though Evelyn has accepted Joy, Joy hasn’t accepted herself yet. Even if you save your daughter from yourself, how do you save her from herself? Love is the only way out probably. And loving someone is also setting them free, free to be a mess, free to leave. So, when Evelyn sets Joy free, Joy comes home.


In patriarchal South Asian cultures, we put excessive pressure on mothers and daughters to get it right. Handling this pressure, all that mothers crave is validation and all that daughters expect is acceptance. Perhaps wisdom also lies in accepting that no matter what we do, our mothers may never be able to understand our queerness or our voids. And we may never understand their desperation to run past burning out. But maybe we don’t have to understand everything, maybe we can just accept ourselves and each other, and one step at a time, build a love language that we both understand.

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