Photo: Greg Williams/August Images
In Simu Liu’s Memoir “We Were Dreamers,” Marvel’s First Asian Superhero Tries to Live Up to His Parents’ Expectations
In an excerpt from his book, the Shang-Chi star describes telling his parents he got the role, and tries to trick them into saying “I love you.” / BY Kim Honey / June 30th, 2022
When Canadian actor Simu Liu went to the 2022 Oscars in a custom red Versace tux and black patent leather loafers, he looked “smoking hot,” a phrase he employs liberally in his memoir, We Were Dreamers: An Immigrant Superhero Origin Story. In an intimate, conversational writing style peppered with F-bombs and lots of jokes, the guy Canadians know and love as Jung Kim on the CBC-TV sitcom Kim’s Convenience digs deep into the pain of a kid trying, and repeatedly failing, to live up to his parents’ impossibly high expectations. The boy who would be Shang-Chi, the first Asian Marvel superhero, spent a lot of time feeling like a burden.
Liu was a “left-behind child” – a term non-governmental organizations use to describe children raised apart from their parents – who was entrusted to his grandparents’ care in the northeastern city of Harbin when his mother and father emigrated from China to seek a better life. When he was almost five, his father plucked “máomao” (a pet name for children, which, roughly translated from Mandarin, means little furry caterpillar) from his grandparents’ home in Harbin, and they flew to Canada to join his mother. He started life here – in a new culture and a new language – with two people who were essentially strangers with no parenting experience.
Liu, 33, does not gloss over the verbal and physical abuse he endures from his parents, who never show affection. “I became convinced that my parents did not love me; they loved having a child who was ‘gifted,’” he writes. And so, as a teenager, he rebels. When he gets into the elite University of Toronto Schools, he’s obsessed with being “the cool kid on campus” and gets a disappointing 82.6 average; at Western University’s Ivey Business School, he blows a chance to get a good summer internship; when he calls in sick to play Xbox and work as an extra in the Toronto film industry, he loses his accounting job. Luckily, the acting gigs pick up and, when he is 27, he lands the Kim’s Convenience role.
An activist for more normalized Asian representation in the entertainment industry and media, and less racism towards Asian immigrants, Liu hopes his frank depiction of his family’s experience will help others “learn from us and steer themselves from the same mistakes.”
Liu did reconcile with his parents, and they were the first people he told about getting the lead in the 2021 box-office hit Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
“On that day I became more than just a comic book character – I became a part of an idea that everyone deserves to see themselves as superheroes, as the leads of their own stories, or simply, just as multifaceted beings with hopes and aspirations and flaws,” he writes.
In this excerpt from the book’s prologue, Liu relates the FaceTime call to his mom and dad to break the news, and how he and his best friend, actor Jason Chan, try to trick them into saying “I love you.” —Kim Honey
After Jason and I hang up the phone, he races over to my apartment and we hatch a plan to record my parents’ reaction to the news over FaceTime. He stands just out of my camera’s view as I dial my dad’s cell, anxious to break the news to the people who raised me. Like me, I know they’ve probably had a bit of trouble eating and sleeping these past couple of days. I want this call to bring closure not only on this movie, but to their entire lives spent in the pursuit of a better life for our family.
I want to tell them that their better life has finally come.
The call connects: “Wei, Máomao! What’s going on?”
The moment I see my dad, a slender fifty-nine-year-old man with more salt than pepper in his hair, I feel my throat begin to close up. It’s been thirty years since he left his home in China to eventually settle in a suburb outside Toronto – over twenty of which he has been a working professional with dental coverage – and yet, the man has never bothered to fix his horrendously crooked teeth. I think he was too busy paying for my braces, my education and my apartment to notice that he looked like a jack-o’-lantern whenever he opened his mouth. I should also mention that he cuts his own hair – don’t ask me how.
“Hey, is Māma home? Can you put her on, too?”
Mom hates when people know her real age, so let’s just say she’s not exactly a spring chicken anymore. You’d never know it looking at her though – she’s got a smile that radiates youthful energy and a flawless complexion that owes itself to religious use of Estée Lauder’s Night Repair Serum. A white man mistook her for my wife many years ago during a family ski trip, and she hasn’t shut up about it since. I don’t have the heart to tell her that he was probably just trying to hit on her.
“Máomao! What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong, I, uh . . .” I take a deep breath.
“. . . I just wanted to tell you that I got it.”
It feels like eons before my parents respond. When my dad finally speaks, it sounds like someone’s just told him his dry cleaning would be ready on time.
“Oh . . . okay! That’s good!”
Four days from now, after watching a livestream of me walking out onto the stage of the infamous Hall H at the San Diego Comic-Con to the thunderous applause of eight thousand die-hard fans, my parents would finally understand the significance of landing a role like Shang-Chi. For now, though, they are simply happy that I got a job. We talk for a few more minutes about stupid things like money when I see Jason motioning for my attention. Say I love you, he mouths. I nod, already knowing what my parents’ response to this will be.
Exchanging I love yous was a uniquely Western custom, and I had long ago come to terms with the fact that my parents expressed their love in a very different way – by telling me to put on a jacket, asking if I had eaten yet, or yelling at me when they felt like I wasn’t studying hard enough. The actual words were not a part of my family’s vocabulary growing up at all.
Still, it would’ve been pretty nice to hear them say it.
“I gotta go, so I just want to say goodbye, and of course, I love you.”
“Yeah, yeah – stay calm,” my mother says.
“A new day has begun,” my dad adds, wistfully.
Maybe they just didn’t hear it? Just to be sure, I double down.
“I love you. Bye.”
There’s a short pause. Jason and I look at each other, wondering if one of them is going to prove us wrong . . .
“Yes, go go go,” my mom says. “Thank you for letting us know.”
“Yep,” my dad chimes in the background. “Bye-bye!”
BEEP. The call ends, and Jason and I burst out
Excerpt from We Were Dreamers: An Immigrant Superhero Origin Story by Simu Liu ©2022. Published in Canada by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.