The Sunday Magazine·Q&A

Simu Liu says this generation of immigrants needs 'to show the world that we belong'

In an interview with CBC Radio's The Sunday Magazine, Liu expressed his hopes that the next generation of immigrants will escape the 'grateful immigrant' trope — one where newcomers are expected to be gracious guests and not to expect too much from their adopted home.

Canadian actor's new memoir details his journey to Hollywood A-List

Actor Simu Liu wears a black shirt, black pants and a black wristwatch, while smiling and posing with his arms crossed in front of a white wall.
In an interview with The Sunday Magazine, actor Simu Liu talks about his relationship with parents, as well as dealing with discrimination. (Taylor Jewell/Invision/The Associated Press)

Simu Liu has been a very busy guy.

Since his breakout role starring in Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings last fall, the actor has presented at the Academy Awards, walked the carpet at the Met Gala, and hosted the Junos

Amid the accolades, Liu acknowledges that a lot of his success is thanks to his parents, who moved to Ontario from Harbin, China, when Liu was a small child.

"I wouldn't have had the opportunities that I've had in my life were it not for all that my parents had worked for and struggled for and sacrificed for," he said. 

In his new memoir, We Were Dreamers: An Immigrant Superhero Origin Story, Liu writes about growing up as an immigrant in Kingston, Ont., and later Mississauga. He opens up about his early strife with his parents, and how they eventually healed their relationship.

In an interview with CBC Radio's The Sunday Magazine, Liu also expressed his hopes that the next generation of immigrants will escape the "grateful immigrant" trope — one where newcomers are expected to be gracious guests and not to expect too much from their adopted home.

"It's different, because we grew up here. This is our home and we deserve to be here every bit as much as anybody else, you know?" he said. 

Liu spoke with The Sunday Magazine host Piya Chattopadhyay. Here is a part of their conversation. 

So let's talk about your family, because it's such an integral part of who you are. So you're born in China. Your parents left so they could carve out this life in Canada. And you stayed in China, raised by your grandparents, until you were four. And then your dad comes to bring you to Canada. What do you remember about meeting your parents when you were four?

Yeah, I remember just a strange presence that you feel when you're a small child and you meet someone for the first time. That's the way my parents felt. That's the way my dad felt when he knocked on our door and we opened it up. My grandparents were telling me, "This is your dad, go hug him, talk to him." And I just remember not quite being able to, because this was a presence that was entirely foreign to me, down to the sound of his voice, the way that he smelled. And when he held me, it also felt unfamiliar. I would say it took years to be able to overcome that. But like, even now, we're, like, not the most touchy-feely people, you know.

As you talked to them [for the book] and learned more about their lives before you enter the picture, how do their stories and that historical context of China play into your story?

Around the time that I was writing this book, I was about 30. And there's an interesting parallel, because my parents were roughly the same age when they had me and when they first immigrated to Canada. And this idea of hitting that point in your life where you look to the horizon and you have a dream and you say,  "I'm going to go for it. I'm going to put thought into action and I'm going to pursue this. I'm going to risk greatly. And if I fail, I fail spectacularly. But, you know, I do so knowing that I gave it a shot." 

In his memoir, We Were Dreamers, Liu opens up about his relationship with his parents. (HarperCollins Publishers)

And I feel like, even though … there's so many differences that separate our generations, that pursuit of a dream and that willingness to put it all on the line is something that really connected us. 

This will come probably as no surprise to anyone listening, given what we're talking about, but your parents didn't want you to be an actor, and you struggled with your career choices. … It was really with Kim's Convenience that your dad saw the success. I remember when I was younger, when I was a television reporter, my parents kind of, I don't know, made me feel like I'd made it somehow. 

To go back to what we were talking about earlier, it was all their sacrifices, all their expectations, all the hard work and all the things that they gave up to come to Canada, that it was them being proud not only of their kid, but of what they've achieved. And I'm just wondering if that's what that Kim's Convenience moment was like for your dad. Is that how you see it?

Yeah, definitely.

[The book] ends at the moment that I book Shang-Chi, which is the role of a lifetime. But I was struggling with just how to frame that story. And I thought back to when I was about 11 years old. I played Little League soccer, and we, for some reason, made it all the way to the finals, and it was sudden death overtime. 

And I wasn't the most skilled player on my team or anything. But for some reason, the ball ended up right in front of me at the critical time. And I literally just saw that clear path from me, the ball and the goal, and I was like, "I'm going to hit the shot." And when I did, I got swarmed. 

And I think back, I think about how they must have felt watching their son lifted up and celebrated; for two immigrants who who literally just wanted to keep their heads down and work hard and give their children every possible opportunity, you know, for them to experience that through their child must have been just such an incredible moment. 

In 2021, Liu starred as Marvel's first Asian lead superhero in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. (Jasin Boland/Marvel Studios)

There's also this side, you know, of being a kid of an immigrant, that the good immigrant is one that's grateful, that just being here, he should be grateful for that. I'm wondering how you reckon with that yourself? 

Yeah. I mean, you probably already know how I'm going to answer this question. There is an element of "put your head down; be grateful." And my parents said this very clearly to me; they were like, "Nobody asked us to be here," you know? 

With us, it's different because we grew up here. This is our home and we deserve to be here every bit as much as anybody else, you know? And so with all of the reverence in the world for everything that my parents went through, I demand more for myself. For us, in our generation, we do not deserve the prejudice. I mean, nor do our parents. But we do not deserve the prejudice and discrimination that's been levied upon us. 

And, you know, we also are in a position where we can really speak up about it. And that might run counter to a lot of the way that our parents raised us and programmed us, right? The tall weeds are the ones that get cut. Keep your head down. Don't cause a ruckus. But I'm kind of feeling like, in our generation, we've got to cause a ruckus. Otherwise, we'll just be stuck in this state of not really belonging forever. We need to carve out a path for us. We need to build out a home. And we need to show the world that we belong.

Written by Althea Manasan. Interview produced by Andrea Hoang.