Something, Somewhere, Incrementally
Some fragmented thoughts on the Golden Globe successes for "Everything, Everywhere, All at Once," apple cake, social media, and repentance
Thursday, January 12
Grand Rapids, Mich.
I’m still basking in the afterglow of Tuesday evening, when Michelle Yeoh won best actress and Ke Huy Quan won best supporting actor at the Golden Globes for their performances in Everything, Everywhere, All at Once. I sat at my computer absorbing their acceptance speeches in tears. It moved me tremendously to see them onstage, to watch them being recognized for their performances, to witness them being recognized by their peers for the good work that they’ve done.
I knew of Michelle Yeoh when she was a star of Hong Kong film—before she became a Bond Girl and before she began to wow Westerners with her stunt skills in films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Even then, she felt the pressure of trying to conform to the perceived preferences of moviegoers abroad; for years, she was known onscreen as Michelle Khan, a name chosen by a Hong Kong film company to make her more “marketable” to global audiences.
“It’s been an amazing journey, an incredible fight to be here,” she said in her Globes speech. “Look at this face!” Though she had grown up speaking English in Malaysia, Yeoh recalled that one person reacted to her arrival in Hollywood by saying, “You speak English!” She responded, as so many of us have learned to, with humorous obfuscation: “Yeah, the flight here was about 13 hours long, so I learnt.”
By giving voice to anecdotes like these, Yeoh reminds those of us who have experienced similar things that we aren’t alone. As a young journalist working at Time, I tried some wordplay in one of my first articles. It was immediately edited out. When I went to discuss it with the editor, I asked whether my writing had somehow been incoherent. It had not. But he asked whether English was my second language—as if I were not fluent, as if my entire education hadn’t been in English, as if I weren’t allowed the same freedom to play.
“Stay behind me,” Indiana Jones says to Short Round in Temple of Doom. “Step where I step, and don’t touch anything!”
When I saw Everything, Everywhere, it took me a moment to realize who Ke Huy Quan was: the first Asian I remember seeing on the big screen. Born in Vietnam to an ethnic Chinese family, he and his loved ones fled their native country in the aftermath of the war and eventually landed in the United States. He tagged along with his brother for the casting call for Temple of Doom and he got the part of Short Round, the street urchin who becomes Dr. Jones’s young, Cantonese-speaking sidekick.
I loved Indiana Jones—and I especially loved Temple of Doom, which is in many ways a ridiculous movie, entirely because of Short Round. He was resourceful, deeply loyal, and impressively indefatigable—all things I wanted to be. Also, it was the first time I’d heard Cantonese spoken in an American movie.
But after a follow-up role in Goonies, which was also directed by Steven Spielberg, Quan struggled to get auditions, let alone significant roles. So he did what so many of us have had to do, in a sense channeling Short Round: He made himself useful. He returned to school and found behind-the-scenes gigs. And he was a success, working for the famed Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai. But Quan still wanted to act. In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, he recalls making the intentional choice of crushing his own dream “before it got ahold of anything, because I knew it wouldn’t happen.”
You might say to me: Yes, but many people have had to deal with stereotypes as Yeoh has and many people have struggled to break through as Quan did and such paths have never been easy even for those without names and faces like theirs. All true! What’s also true is that the perceptions they’ve had to battle are real, their windows of possibility have been smaller, and their professional obstacle courses longer and more complicated, simply because of who they are.
Things are changing, if slowly. In the last three years, we’ve had two major films receive acclaim for performances by Asian actors, both made by Asians—Minari, for which the luminous Youn Yuh-Jung won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and now Everything, Everywhere, All at Once. Both Minari and Everything, Everywhere tell stories that are at once deeply, culturally specific and beautifully universal—stories of wanting to be seen, stories of longing to matter.
As Jan Simpson, my former Time editor and one of the wisest people I know, reminded me yesterday, “Pop culture plays a large role in how people see us, and in how we see ourselves.” That these stories are both/and—both culturally specific and universal—is crucial to Asian belonging in American society. It tells the viewer—any viewer—that we are distinct in many ways; we are bearers of particular traditions and heirs to rich and diverse heritages. Yet all of us are similar too. We are siblings and loved ones, strivers and doers, humans who carry angst and sorrow and delight and joy. Even when we are not seen or acknowledged, we and our stories remain relevant. Even when we aren’t obviously useful, even when we aren’t feeding, we remain relatable.
I use the word “relatable” intentionally here. I recently got into a disagreement with a friend who was irritated, even hurt, because I told her she was “relatable” and I wasn’t. She found this diminishing. And given her context, I can understand why. But in mine? To be seen as relatable, rather than useful or helpful, exotic or alien—that would mean so much.
It might seem fantastic to imagine that a movie such as Everything, Everywhere, All at Once could help. The film is indeed fantastic in so many ways—a wild, surreal, strange work that is at once comedy and drama, sentimental family flick and outlandish flailing against systems beyond our control. And one power that movies at their best have is that they help us to imagine: Imagine beyond our bubbles. Imagine beyond our own circumstances. Imagine new possibilities and different paths. Even one of its most outlandish, least believable moments, when Evelyn Wang apologizes to her daughter, helps me to imagine: What a world, in which a Chinese mom would say sorry to her own child!
“You tell me it's a cruel world, and we're all running around in circles. I know that,” Waymond Wang says in Everything, Everywhere. His wife has accused him of being absurdly naive. But his posture isn’t a mistake; it’s intentional. “When I choose to see the good side of things, I'm not being naive,” he explains. “It is strategic and necessary. It's how I've learned to survive through everything.... This is how I fight.”
Wang’s words urge me to acknowledge that I’m more idealistic than I’d like to admit. I understand now that such idealism has been a part of my own strategy, a reflection of my own necessity, and a tool of survival too. I see the cruelties of this world, but I refuse to accept that they’re terminal. I perceive the injustices that plague our societies, and I have to believe that we can create something better and more just.
To find hope is to survive. To see the good is to persevere. But Michelle Yeoh’s and Ke Huy Quan’s stories—their examples of persistence, their models of resilience—push me just a little bit farther than that. Because they remind me that I’m still learning how to dream.
What I’m Cooking: Some years ago, under Michelle Obama’s watch, the White House kitchens began producing healthier desserts, and one of the recipes the White House cooks shared was an apple cake that has become a go-to when we have company in the fall and winter. Last weekend, we had some friends over, and I made it, but with a few slight tweaks: I cut the brown sugar in half, I added some freshly grated nutmeg, and because I had overripe pears in the fridge, I used those instead of apple. Usually, I don’t even bother with the confectioners sugar in the glaze; I just brush maple syrup on top. This cake is excellent on its own, even better with a cup of coffee, and best with a giant dollop of whipped cream. (Sorry, I forgot to take a picture.)
What I’m Contemplating: A few days ago, my spiritual director, Nish Weiseth, posted a brief reflection on her decision to quit social media for at least one full year. Tristan isn’t on social media at all, and I have at times taken lengthy breaks. I’ve thought a lot about how I show up on social media, when and if I do; I’m not interested in being a content creator, and the term “influencer” is laughable to me. I’m curious to know how you approach social media—why you use it, how you feel about it. Also, at Princeton Seminary, I helped create the first-ever class on how to think about social-media use theologically. Would sharing some of what we discussed be interesting and helpful to you?
Finally: Please join me in praying for Abigail Zwerner, the 25-year-old first-grade teacher who was shot in the chest by one of her own students last week in Newport News, Virginia. The child who shot Zwerner is six years old.
Please join me, too, in doing whatever you can, wherever you are, to push for stricter gun laws. People talk about our rights and our freedoms, but one American’s right to own a gun shouldn’t infringe on another’s freedom to live.
I am the son of an Army veteran who served honorably in Vietnam and who, because of that service, never allowed his children to own even a toy gun. All guns were forbidden in our house.
Perhaps if we lived in a society where people showed the adequate collective care and wisdom, I’d feel differently about gun ownership. But this is not that society. We haven’t proved that we are capable of handling such deadly weapons. Instead, this country has chosen to declare, again and again, that guns are more cherished than humans—even than young children and even than the teachers who devote their lives to educating those children.
So often, when these tragedies happen, we echo the psalmists, who prayed, millennia ago: How long, O Lord?
Maybe the answer to that question has to come from us: How long until we repent?
That’s all for this week. As always, I’d love to know what’s on your hearts and if there’s anything that I can be praying for.
I’m so glad we can stumble through all this together, and I’ll try to write again soon.
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Yes, please comment about theology and social media. Also, I’m going to try to find that apple cake recipe. I especially enjoyed today’s email. Thanks. Barbara Gose, Riverton, WY
Seconded re: theology and social media!