Book 59 of 52: We Were Dreamers: An Immigrant Superhero Origin Story by Simu Liu

Let’s take a trip with a very handsome man! Simu Liu, who is most known as the lead in Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings. He has quite a story to tell in We Were Dreamers: An Immigrant Superhero Origin Story. And most of it is not about Hollywood.

Liu is a Chinese-Canadian actor who spent the first four years of his life in China with his grandparents, as his parents scraped their way to establishing a new life for the three of them in Canada. When Liu was finally able to join them, it wasn’t a perfect reunion. Not only were his parents essentially raising a small child they didn’t know, but they also pressured him to succeed in sometimes cruel ways. No way around it: they beat him, and did things like lock him out of the apartment if he was bad. They made him feel worthless if he was not at the top of his class, and beyond, in everything.

I thought a lot about book 44 in this series, I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy. The big differences are that his parents didn’t want Liu to have anything to do with performing while her mother did, his abuse was mostly physical and psychological (not sexual) and he reconciled with his parents. He even interviewed them for the book. My parents weren’t a big part of my memoir, and even those bits were uncomfortable writing. I can’t even imagine the courage it took for him to write his story — with their input — about what happened.

So its a book about all that, but also about taking a huge leap of faith in yourself. It gets a little “follow your dreams!” at parts, but you can’t say it didn’t work out for Liu.

Because of pressure to do something meaningful that would make a lot of money, Liu became an accountant with Deloitte, and fired after only eight months on the job. He’d done a few bits of performing, mostly in college but also as an extra on Pacific Rim, and worked his tail off to get a toehold into any kind of acting (even as he realized the racism in show businesses that for a long time limited opportunities), then make a name for himself in Canadian entertainment, and then Hollywood. Even he seems shocked he got the part of Shang-Chi. When I watched the movie for the first time, it seemed he was born for the role. We Were Dreamers shows the long, steady work that went into putting himself in the right position at the right time to helm that movie.

Some fun facts I learned along the way:

  • Liu read Animorphs as a kid. I know this means a lot to a very specific group of people, so there you go.
  • He had very little martial arts training before Shang-Chi. Instead, he was “tricker,” which is how he learned how to do all those flips. That helped him when he worked as a stunt man as part of that steady climb to acting success.
  • He worked as a stock photo model, which has become a running gag on his Twitter account.
  • Yes, he tweeted that he wanted to be Shang-Chi after the success of Black Panther, but he said it was an off handed tweet that he never expected to amount to anything.
  • This book was already in the works before he was cast in Shang Chi. An agent reached out to him after he write this 2017 piece for Maclean’s. Nice get!
  • He’s sober. He wrote that he stopped drinking alcohol after college.
  • He seems to be having the most fun of a famous person in Hollywood right now. He’s a delight to follow on Instagram.

The book was a fine companion while driving across Kansas, which is where I was when I finished the book. And if you’ve ever driven straight across I-70, you know what a long, boring haul that can be. I cried while he read the acknowledgments, because he was crying too while thanking his grandparents, who died while the book was still in progress. He cried when he thanked his dog Barkley too, who had recently crossed the Rainbow Bridge. He seems like a good egg (and I sure hope he really is).

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Jen Miller

Jen Miller

Jen A. Miller is a an author and freelance writer. Her memoir, Running a Love Story, was a Philadelphia Inquirer best book of the year. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, SELF, Buzzfeed and the Guardian, among others.

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