Opinion: This movie’s Asian American metaphor is a message to the not-so-United States

Editor’s Note: Jeff Yang is a research director for the Institute for the Future and the head of their Digital Intelligence Lab. A frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, he co-hosts the podcast “They Call Us Bruce,” and is co-author of the new book “RISE: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. Read more opinion on CNN.

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In the movie “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” iconic actress Michelle Yeoh – whom you’ve surely seen in “Shang-Chi,” “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and, if you’re lucky, a slew of Hong Kong action masterpieces – plays Evelyn Wang, a hardworking Asian American midlifer dealing with the overwhelming demands of an aging parent and a high-maintenance child. It’s a story that feels like nonfiction, because many of us (myself included!) are actually living it.

Jeff Yang

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.

“Everything Everywhere” is absurd, exhilarating, and enrapturing. And it’s a startlingly perfect metaphor for this thing we call Asian America, a culture and identity that The New York Times once famously referred to as a “beautiful, flawed fiction” in an op-ed by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen: Beautiful because Asian American is a term that promises the warmth of belonging to a greater cause, a larger community. Flawed because the term is sometimes used to reduce us into a textureless, featureless monolith, flattening the unruly and uncomfortable diversity that resists our common categorization. And fiction because at its core, Asian America is indeed an act of collective invention – a superhero origin story that 18 million of us are jointly telling together.

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.”

In “Everything Everywhere,” Evelyn Wang can conjure up any reality she imagines, bringing substance to the outrageous worlds of her imagination by drawing power from the infinite diversity of her myriad selves – making many into one, sometimes by chance, sometimes by choice. And we, as Asian Americans, are in the process of doing the same, building a cultural collage out of mixed media and lived experiences – out of late-night conversations in college dorms, yes-I-see-you glances across crowded rooms, viral videos, surging hashtags and ricocheting memes; out of a growing mass of magical moments, from the hard court hysteria of Linsanity to the historic election of Kamala Harris as the first Black and first Asian woman vice president of the United States.

In the process, what began as fiction has, over the past three decades, accumulated reality. That story, of our Asian American self-invention, happens to be the subject of our new book “RISE: A Pop History of Asian America, from the Nineties to Now.” Cowritten by myself, Phil Yu, creator of the iconic blog Angry Asian Man and Philip Wang, guiding force behind prolific and influential YouTube channel Wong Fu Productions, “RISE” traces three decades in which the Asian experience in America went from the excluded margins of our society and culture to – well, if not center stage, then at least a new and defiant visibility.

There’s a reason why we chose to focus on the decades “from the Nineties to Now.” In 1965, the Hart-Cellar Act removed racist restrictions that had historically sharply limited first Chinese, and then all people from the “Asiatic Barred Zone” from migrating to the US. A vast wave of Asian immigrants began to land on these shores, pushed from their homelands by war or natural disaster and sucked toward America by its hunger for skilled labor. Most of them came intending to stay, to raise families. Our own parents were among them, and we came to adulthood neatly spaced across those decades, myself in the 1990s, Phil in the 2000s, Philip in the 2010s.

But it was what happened in 1968 – three years after Hart-Cellar – that framed how we experienced those decades. That was the year in which the phrase “Asian American” was first coined by a group of Berkeley, California-based student activists led by Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka, who sought to create a very literal banner to stand under in support of Black students rallying for the release of Black Panther Huey Newton from police custody. By 1971, the term had already spread from its Bay Area protest roots into broad use among policymakers, academics, marketers and culture creators. By the time I hit high school a decade later, it was a box I was regularly being asked to check on forms and applications.

And what did it even mean to be “Asian American?” In the 1970s and 1980s, it was still mostly an identifier of convenience (certainly better than being shunted into the category of “Other”); a tool for self-defense (the killing of Vincent Chin in 1982 by two unemployed autoworkers seeking to punish the “Japanese” created the incentive to embrace “Asian” identity among those seeking safety in numbers); or a term of art, applied pragmatically by social scientists and demographers to give a fast-growing and extremely diverse population some kind of taxonomic purchase in a country whose primary means of categorization is race.

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.

And now, 30 years later, we’re still filling, still scribbling in the margins of the work of prior generations, still making new leaps and connections, setting standards, creating canonical works and breaking records. But now, we’re doing so with unprecedented comfort, even confidence, which comes with having had just enough success – a “Fresh Off the Boat” here (starring my son Hudson!), a “Never Have I Ever” there, a “Crazy Rich Asians” breakthrough and a “Minari” breakout, a few Nathan Chens, Chloe Kims and Naomi Osakas to go with our Tiger Woodses, Michelle Kwans and Kristi Yamaguchis – to feel like our entire future doesn’t rest on each next thing we put out into the culture, with the pressure that we’ll be exiled back to the wilderness should we earn mere B+ status (an “Asian F,” in Hollywood as well as numberless well-worn Tiger Mom memes).

What this means is that now we can take risks, expanding our “beautiful, flawed fiction” into limitless new story worlds. This past month saw the arrival of Domee Shi’s “Turning Red,” an animated feature addressing the trials of puberty through a gleefully unexpected lens; “Umma,” Iris Shim’s horror film starring Sandra Oh as a woman with mommy issues of the call-an-exorcist variety; Kogonada’s “After Yang,” a layered science fiction meditation on race, technology and the meaning of family; “Pachinko,” the unimaginably ambitious Apple TV+ adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s book of the same name; and yes, of course, “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” from Daniels Kwan and Scheinert.

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.”