We Were Dreamers_ An Immigrant Superhero Origin Story
These were the passages that stood out to me. It could really be an Asian American studies novel. This book really captured what many immigrant parents and kids have to deal with growing up.
“For my parents, though, neither of whom had been raised to be complacent, it wasn’t enough. It was only a matter of time before they would cast their gaze upward yet again, toward another nearly unattainable goal: North America. Sometime in 1986, my parents’ former classmate Liuchen told them that he had been accepted into a PhD program in electrical engineering at Queen’s University in Canada. This immediately piqued my mom’s interest—actually, the idea of leaving to study in the West quickly grew inside her mind to the point where she would not stop bringing it up with my dad. “If Liuchen can do it, why not us?” she would say. “His family has no special connections—he’s common folk, just like you and I.” For decades, opportunities to study abroad were mostly reserved for those who had influential ties or had family living abroad. Even then, it was an extreme rarity. But Liuchen’s success story meant that the tides of favor were shifting; China was beginning to open itself to the world, and people like my parents were becoming curious about what lay beyond its borders. My dad admits that it took a little convincing to get him on board with my mom’s plan. They were both competitive by nature and were indeed jealous of Liuchen’s accomplishment, but my dad had essentially just moved heaven and earth so that he could relocate to Beijing to be with my mom. “And now you want to leave again?”
“We don’t know how long our borders will stay open,” my mom reasoned. “This might be our only chance to see the outside world. Don’t you ever wonder what’s out there?” In fact, my dad had wondered—even as a teenager he would find ways to sneak into the cinema whenever an American movie was playing, just to catch a glimpse of what life was like out there. Even though the films never played with subtitles, the imagery of pictures like The Sound of Music, Casablanca and Futureworld nonetheless made a strong impression on him; it didn’t take much to change his already curious mind. My parents had spent the better part of the last decade reaching for an impossible dream and then willing it into being. If anyone could beat the odds yet again, it was them.”
“When my dad finally returned to Beijing in the summer of 1988, he took my mom on a date to celebrate. They went to a newly opened amusement park in the city, riding a Ferris wheel and a roller coaster for the first time, laughing away all their worries and past hardships. It was the dawn of a new era—one of infinite possibilities and endless wonder . . . which meant it was the perfect night for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Yeah, my father’s idea of fine dining was eating at the restaurant that would give us the Double Down sandwich.”
“In his defense, KFC had just opened in China, and it was absolutely crushing the fast-food market with its impeccable service and mind-blowing efficiency. It was an immediate hit for the Chinese locals, who were used to long wait times and meandering service. My parents waited excitedly in line and paid a week’s worth of salary for a two-piece meal and a Coke each. Even though nobody in the West would consider KFC anything more than a cheap and greasy fast food option, everything imported from America was viewed as an immense luxury in China—the prices there were still prohibitively expensive for most households. “Was it worth the hype?” I asked. My dad shrugged his shoulders—meh. “The chicken was pretty tasty, but there was this side dish called coleslaw that was absolutely disgusting. I couldn’t believe that white people ate that stuff!”
“But going to KFC was about more than getting that finger-lickin’ good chicken; it was an acknowledgment that they, like Colonel Sanders, would soon cross international borders and lay down roots in a completely foreign land. When my parents bit into those eleven mouthwatering herbs and spices, they were tasting America—land of opportunity and home of assembly-line cooking—where you could make just about anything happen through imagination and sheer force of will . . . even a sandwich made of a slice of bacon wedged between two pieces of battered chicken. It was probably the most meaningful meal ever shared in a fast-food establishment. “And that, Máomao, was the night you were conceived.” TMI, Father. TMI.”
“You see this one? This is how they all ought to look!” This harmless comment from my parents’ sassy nurse would color their expectations of me for my entire life. I was the “perfect baby,” the torchbearer of my family name, and—per the government policy at the time—the only child; my tiny shoulders would bear the weight of all their combined hopes, dreams and ambitions.”
“Over three decades later, the average standard of living in China has increased dramatically, and immigration to North America is much more commonplace. Journeying to the West is no longer seen as a pursuit of a “better” life; after all, China is the country with the sprawling megacities and bullet trains that travel more than 300 miles per hour. Although issues like income inequality still exist, China’s rapid modernization has been truly staggering; an estimated 800 million citizens have been lifted out of poverty, and the country’s economy has become the second largest in the world, projected to surpass the United States by 2032.”
“For my dad, China was kicking a soccer ball around with his best friends on a hot summer day, rowing along the Songhua River, making dumplings at home with his sister and his parents, and sneaking out of his dorm at night to see my mom. To attack “China” as a whole would be to attack all of those moments he held so dearly in his heart. He wouldn’t tolerate that any more than someone disparaging Canada, a place that has become equally meaningful to him.”
“Despite taking a full course load, holding down a part-time job and subsisting on a diet of rice and boiled cabbage, my dad remembers his time in Tempe fondly. It was, after all, a period of unlimited freedom and discovery. He had made new friends, even road-tripped to the Grand Canyon with a roommate. After eight months, he was even beginning to think of Arizona as home.”
“To top it all off, she had a little boy that she missed terribly. “You were a very cute baby, Máomao. Everyone that saw you would say it,” my mom says lovingly, before miming the rigid posture of an overly muscular man. “Now you’re just a big giant meathead. What happened?” Clearly, she has never heard of The Rock. If I was a meathead, then what was he? A turducken?”
“In March of 1991, Liuchen and my dad made the three-hour drive from Kingston to Toronto to pick my mother up from the airport. My dad had settled nicely into life in Canada, and so when the paperwork for my mother’s spousal visa came through, he had called her right away and booked her ticket. Since he didn’t own a car, he once again conscripted his pal Liuchen to help. Seriously, Liuchen is shaping up to be the low-key MVP of the story. Once the three of them were reunited and began their drive east toward Kingston, my mom grew increasingly anxious as the tall buildings of Toronto faded away and were replaced with . . . well, not a whole lot. Was this the supposed land of unlimited opportunity? All she could see along Highway 401 were scattered forests and farmland. The next morning, as she headed down the stairs for breakfast, my mother found herself face-to-face with a very excited Mary. “Oh, my dear, I’ve heard so much about you! It is so nice to have you here,” the old lady exclaimed as she took my mother’s hands in her own. At a literal loss for words, Mom could only smile and nod. It hit her in that moment, the gravity of what she’d done; she’d left behind a successful career in Beijing, during which she co-authored two books and several research papers, and come to an entirely foreign place to start from scratch. This would be her greatest challenge yet.”
“My mother had not initially planned to find work in Canada—she was only supposed to study for her TOEFL exam, after which she would apply for a master’s in engineering at Queen’s. But money was always tight, and the promise of financial security that came with a second income was too great to pass up; she was eventually able to find some work washing dishes at a little restaurant in downtown Kingston. Her time working in the fields served her well on the job, as she established herself very quickly as an absolute workhorse. My mother was the embodiment of immigrant grit. No disrespect to any of the other dishwashers working there, but they didn’t stand a chance.”
“Money was always shared in our family, and could never be owed to each other.”
Such a simple statement but it says a lot about the collective nature of Asian households.
“‘At home my mother was welcomed with open arms by Mary, who had heard so much about her already from her conversations with my dad. Before my mother’s arrival in Canada, my dad had tried to offer Mary more rent to account for an extra person in the house. Not only did Mary ardently refuse the extra money—she actually lowered the rent so that my parents would be able to save more money. In turn, Mom helped Mary around the house, cleaning and dusting and doing the shopping that Mary wasn’t able to do.”
“I didn’t know Mary or her niece personally, but I know that their exceptional kindness and generosity made a tremendous impression on my parents. Today, both my mom and dad are the most accommodating and gracious hosts you could ever dream of, to the point where I get endlessly frustrated over how often they allow themselves to be taken advantage of. I know that a big part of that comes from their time with Mary, their landlord with a heart of absolute gold.”
There are always people who make a difference and none of us have gotten this far alone. It feels great to acknowledge the many people who made this all possible.
“At some point over my dad’s stay in Harbin, he wrote a letter to my mother: Dear Zheng, How are you? As soon as I began this letter, a wave of memories flashed through my mind—remember when we wrote each other all the time? I arrived in Beijing at around 10:30 a.m. on December 14. Aside from the flight being delayed about an hour, everything was pretty smooth. Getting luggage took another hour, roughly. Your siblings were already waiting outside. They looked healthy, and haven’t changed much. They were pleased to see me, but naturally disappointed that you couldn’t come along. I arrived at Harbin yesterday morning, and finally saw my long-missed family and Máomao. Our son is tall and chubby, and in much better health than I expected. When I first met him he was a bit unfamiliar, but he still showed the courtesy and manners I expected, and he seemed to be a well-behaved child. I was very impressed. Máomao is a child who easily attracts a lot of affection. He is quiet, smart and introspective, just like we named him. I raised two arithmetic questions with him (5 + 6 and 5 + 2) and, without using his fingers, he was able to get the correct answers quickly. He also showed me how to do a jigsaw puzzle (for children nine years old and above). He took only 33 minutes, which is a record, as Grandma said it had taken over 50 minutes before. Obviously our child is not without his shortcomings; mainly, he cannot eat properly by himself without being fed by adults. He also likes to be praised and does not take criticism well. All these will have to be corrected in the future.”
“The night we left for Beijing, my family conspired to come up with a plan that would result in the least amount of unnecessary emotion and/or crying. The idea was for each of them to gradually disappear, to prevent me from catching on to the fact that this was a goodbye. There would be no tearful farewells, or prolonged hugs; everyone was to play it totally cool, at least until the package was en route.
“But regardless of how sick I got, how loudly I fought with them or how close I came to fully electrocuting myself, we would always sleep soundly at night knowing that we were together. I know now that my grandparents both fought back tears as they snuck away that night. I know that it broke their hearts to have to give away the child they raised as their own.”
“I fear that in an attempt to uphold the traditional Chinese values of stoicism, my family deprived us of a human moment. I wish we had held each other for an eternity as tears streamed down our cheeks, crystallizing in the frozen air. I wish that I had kicked and screamed at my father, telling him I didn’t want to go. I wish I had gotten the chance to say a proper goodbye not only for me, but for Yéye and Năinai, so that they could have known at that moment just how much I loved them. All I can do now is hope that they knew. After a long and sleepy ride to the train station, the remaining four of us got on board and took our seats. My gūgu and gūfū gave me candy and did their best to keep my mind off of what was happening. I dozed off, and when I awoke, I saw only my father. “Where did Gūgu and Gūfū go?” Deep down, I already knew; even a four-year-old could figure it out by this point. “It’s just us now, Máomao.” As the train pulled out of the station, I looked out my window and watched as the life I knew vanished behind.”
“At some point between my arrival in Canada and the day I started first grade, I was introduced to something that I initially thought was quite harmless, but which would ultimately fester and grow to become a constant malignant force in my life. In the beginning, satisfying my parents was a pretty easy thing to do. Actually, I’m not sure that I had to do anything at all; I could make my mother smile and laugh just by existing, could make my father applaud my artistic talents with the ugliest creations on Microsoft Paint. I’m sure that they were still caught up in the honeymoon period of having a son as cute as I was. However, as time went on, Mom’s smiles grew smaller, her laughs became mere chuckles, and Dad stopped reaching for the camera to document every little thing I made. I effectively became a Big Bang Theory rerun—something once fresh and shiny and new that became progressively less funny with each repeat viewing, until every punch line and the subsequent audience laughter that followed grated on you like nails on a chalkboard.”
“As time went on, I felt like I ceased to be an endless burst of joy and became something that had to be molded, or groomed, for success. Around the time I was set to begin first grade, I started to feel the weight of my parents’ expectations on my shoulders, something that I had never encountered before in China, where being my adorable self was enough.”
“was a walking poster child for model-minority Asian excellence. It was a testament to all of the hours my parents had invested in preparing me for school, and I was determined to make them proud.”
“My mother was tireless in her efforts to raise me, and often went above and beyond to ensure that I had everything she never did. This woman literally force-fed herself sardines every single day when she was pregnant with me, because she had heard that they would make me smarter. But there was a definite dark side to her, and when her anger flared up there was seemingly no limit to the hurtfulness of her words. I was often called stupid or useless, and sometimes even slapped for my disobedience. The following day, she would carry on as if nothing had happened, leaving me alone to grapple with what she had done. I had developed a genuine fear of her that would morph into a resentment and even a hatred in later years. In 1997, though, I just wanted to make her happy.”
“Despite all their hard work, both my parents would readily agree that they’ve had to do twice the amount of work as their white Canadian counterparts for the same amount of recognition. They were, after all, minorities in a white-dominated country—it would have been unrealistic to assume that their lives would be free of any disadvantage. From their own language deficiencies to racial biases in the workplace, the bamboo ceiling was ever present in each of my parents’ careers—but they still fought as hard as they could, pushing it up inch by inch. Twenty-five years later, my dad still refuses to complain.”
“Nobody forced us to come here,” he says. “We made a choice to immigrate. We knew that nothing was going to be handed to us, and we knew we were going to have to work twice as hard as everyone else.” My parents were not interested in concepts like political activism or social equality; there was only work, and survival.”
“The man who had performed my assessment sat across from my parents. “I’m very happy to share that Simu is an incredibly bright boy. His aptitude scores suggest that he would do well in a more stimulating environment, like our gifted program.” This was music to my parents’ ears. For two immigrants who were perpetually at the top of their class, nothing could be better than hearing that their child was diligently following in their footsteps.”
“The man hesitated for a split second, as if he knew that my parents would not like his response. “Well . . . nothing is to say that Simu couldn’t become an engineer, if that was what he wanted. However, his results clearly indicate to me that his strengths lie in the language arts. He could be a great writer.” My parents smiled politely as always, but scoffed internally. A writer? That’s not a career! He might as well be flipping burgers at Wendy’s! In the absence of any Abrahamic or Taoist influences, science was their only gospel—to suggest that I could be anything other than a scientist was blasphemy.”
“Judy treated piano players the way she did in the Old Country, which meant that she was fixated on results and completely uninterested in concepts like “self-expression” and “fun.” I jumped six piano grades in the span of a year, during which Judy made me cry nearly every week for not practicing two hours per day. This, my parents were convinced, was much better than taking it easy with Karen and playing fun Disney songs every week.”
“And then, of course, there was the total mindfuck that came with growing up Asian and male, in a society that saw us as nothing more than a bunch of derogatory stereotypes. Asian men were frequently depicted in Western media as awkward, nerdy and completely undatable—pretty much exactly what my parents were trying to make me into. I know this is a lot of really heavy stuff to put into the psyche of a twelve-year-old, but it definitely affected me, and it definitely affected every Asian boy that grew up in a Western country.”
“Because I was in Canada, though, I was constantly surrounded by images of what a family ought to be; and mine wasn’t it. I caught glimpses of a picture-perfect family through the friends I made and through TV and movies. I felt a pang of sadness whenever I’d visit a friend’s house; they always seemed so close to their parents, who in turn showered them with love and affection. My parents always seemed happy and exuberant on the rare occasion I was allowed to invite friends over, but they’d often drop the façade as soon as the last car pulled out of our driveway.”
“The not-so-magical institution in question was UTS, short for the University of Toronto Schools—an inner-city private school spanning grades seven through twelve that was also affiliated with the University of Toronto, which was widely considered to be Canada’s top college. It was colloquially known as a “doctor factory” for its reputation for producing high-achieving graduates that included Olympic medalists, politicians, Rhodes scholars and yes—doctors. Lots of doctors. SO many doctors. Seriously, at our ten-year high school reunion, MD degrees were like Birkenstocks on college campuses. My parents learned of this mythical place through the Chinese immigrant grapevine and were immediately intrigued, because of course they were—UTS was the kind of place they dreamed of for themselves, a utopian paradise of academic achievement and constant grading. In essence, it was the next step in the natural progression of a “special” kid like me.”
“handed anything in on time. Eek! Most damning of all, UTS printed the median grade for each class next to the individual one, and I was below average in everything except for gym. Suffice it to say that my parents were furious. For a couple of immigrants who had never been anything other than the top of the class, having an underachieving kid was probably their worst nightmare. What was worse than working yourself halfway to death to give your child a future that they were just going to throw away?”
“Looking back, it’s easy to see that I was just looking for the love and intimacy I wasn’t getting at home.”
“Never did they really sit down and ask me how I was doing. Never did they make me feel I was respected as an individual; not as a thing they were merely obligated to feed and clothe, but as a person with his own lens of the world. Never did they just tell me they loved me, or that they were proud of me. In my parents’ mind, they had already gone far beyond what any parent was expected to do for their child. Perhaps they felt no additional obligation to be compassionate, or patient. They were like a couple of Pavlovian machines to me, hardwired to respond only to basic information inputs:”
“This was an incredibly bleak time for the three of us—one that was particularly difficult to revisit in the process of writing this book. My parents certainly weren’t keen on potentially being portrayed as sadistic monsters who took pleasure in constantly arguing with their only son, nor was I champing at the bit to air out all of our dirty laundry. Still, I also couldn’t shy away from the realities of what happened. My parents were not monsters—they were frustrated at their inability to connect with their son, tired and overworked from the constant grind of their jobs, and resentful of how much money I was costing them.”
“As sympathetic as I am to all of this now, though, I also know that it doesn’t change how deeply and profoundly I have been affected by their abuse. My parents have come a long way since the events of this chapter, and we all look back on this time with complicated feelings of guilt and remorse. Our hope is that families like ours will read our story and understand where we went wrong, so that they can make a different choice—a choice to listen, and to be kinder to one another.”
“Sometimes, red-faced and ears ringing after getting slapped hard across the cheek, I’d stick my neck out toward them, asking for more. At least then, I was the one in control; at least then, they would understand that no matter how hard they hit me, they would never bend me to their will. This probably resulted in me taking way more beatings than I needed to. It was scorched-earth warfare; you hurt me, I hurt you right back.”
“My father was no doormat, either. Over time, his docile, harmless personality had twisted into a sort of Jekyll and Hyde–like dynamic—he was gentle and even-tempered most of the time, but would redline in the blink of an eye. He didn’t lose control often, but when he did, it always hurt. He would hit with his feet and his closed fists, all the while stringing together curses in Mandarin that would make a sailor blush.”
“I read the little ‘songs’ you wrote,” he sneered at me. “‘Oooh, look at me, I’m a celebrity’? It’s the saddest thing I’ve ever read.” Admittedly my “song” was an absolute turd sandwich, but sue me; I was fourteen and I wanted people to notice me. I tore up my pages and never wrote another line of music. It seemed like there was no line my parents weren’t willing to cross; to this day, I still struggle deeply with setting boundaries for myself and for others.”
“baby!’” As he mocked me in his crying voice, he pretended to hug me reassuringly, patting my back like he was consoling an infant. I have never felt more betrayed than in that moment. The truth was that, deep down, there was actually nothing I wanted more than a true moment of reconciliation with him. But my father saw me showing a sliver of vulnerability, and then twisted the knife in the wound.”
“Meanwhile, I was still fully reliant on my parents, and would stay that way so long as I was stuck in their house and not making any money of my own. In order to truly win, in order to be truly happy . . . I needed to be free of their control. In the short term, that meant being as self-sufficient as I possibly could. Long term, it meant landing a good enough job that would get me as far away from them as possible. It was time to put my anger and resentment aside and start actually giving a shit about my life.
“When I triangulated the convergence of all of my talents, it led me to . . . business and economics?! It all made sense as far as I could tell; economics was the study of money, and I wanted to make lots of money to move far away from my parentals. I also didn’t hate the idea of driving a nice car to work every day with a fancy suit—so business it was!”
“My big brother and my rock was Peter, a tall and lanky white kid who was more fascinated by how cars worked than how to execute the perfect body wave. Peter was the introvert to my extrovert, the scientist to my free-spirited artist. Our friendship first began on subway rides home together, where we connected over our mutual love of video games and Star Wars, and evolved to sleepovers and weekend cottage trips with his family. To me, the Goshulaks were the perfect example of what a family ought to be—unconditionally loving, always patient and unflinchingly supportive. They graciously took me in when things with my own parents were turbulent, dubbing me the sixth Goshulak after Peter and his two sisters, and even nicknaming the basement “Simu’s room.”
“Beyond just the adoration of the crowd—which, believe me, I loved—I became addicted to the rush of doing the seemingly impossible. Outside of school I joined the “tricking” community, a movement-based art form that borrowed from martial arts, gymnastics, breakdancing and parkour. Tricking was a countercultural art form, and most of its people were not unlike me—a little socially awkward, and often coming from difficult family situations. They all saw what they did as an escape, and I was no different. Needless to say, my parents thought that this was a colossal waste of time. But what could they do? I was pulling an A-plus average in senior year and was on track to attend a top business school in the country—not to mention I was making my own money, too. Like I said before, I had lost interest in winning my parents’ approval a long time ago.”
“I had somehow managed to piece together a pretty comprehensive high school experience for myself. If it were up to my folks, none of that would have happened; I’d be letting my teenage years pass me by, doing dumb shit like vectors and advanced calculus and definitely not having sexual relations of any sort. And while some of my classmates may have been feeling anxious about leaving home for college, I could not have been more excited. Homesickness was for people who actually had homes; I was an astronaut, after all, whose only home was the eternal vastness of space through which I floated, untethered and unencumbered by any familial attachments. High school was over, and I was finally on my own; I was finally free.”
“I basked in my Superfrosh “fame” the way that any awkward eighteen-year-old would—completely shamelessly. Many of my high school classmates had judged me for being a bit of a tryhard and a show-off, leading me to constantly question myself. Now, my weird skills and talents were not only being judged, but celebrated by the entire school?! Sorry, Mom and Dad, the universe hath spoken.”
“In pre-recession 2008, Abercrombie and Fitch had a monopoly on the “hot guy summer” look; blond windswept hair, fair sun-kissed skin, broad shoulders and abs that could scrub the stains off of your dirtiest clothes—an Aryan wet dream. I both resented and admired this white bastion of male beauty and wanted nothing more than to be ogled and pined for the way that these minimum-wage employees were.”
“So . . . do you like working here?” “Oh yeah, everyone’s pretty chill, so it’s a good time!”
“Whether you like it or not, you’re getting better at something every day. I know that sounds like some esoteric TikTok life coach bullshit, but bear with me. No matter what you choose to do with your day, you are either helping to create a new habit or solidifying old ones. When you are making an active decision—say, learning French, or picking up the bassoon—you are teaching your body to pick up a new skill. When you are engaged at work, you are becoming more knowledgeable and more efficient at the tasks that comprise your job. Have I just been paraphrasing Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory? Maybe.”
“I had cobbled together some twisted idea of attraction and romance through AskMen.com and Cosmo magazine (you had to know what the other side was reading!) and through movies like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Hitch. I’d throw my heart at any girl who gave me even the slightest sliver of attention, while convincing myself that I was in love with her. Maybe you’ve been this guy, or dated him at some point—a walking rom-com caricature, full of sweet words and grand romantic gestures but short on substance or any modicum of self-respect. While it may sound sweet and cute on the surface, especially to some of the younger readers, imposing your view of love onto others is probably one of the most selfish things you can do.”
“Little Simu tried really hard,” she wrote me. “He craved attention and praise but didn’t actually have the experiences or confidence to back it up. It was almost too easy to bully him because he always made such a big scene about himself.” It hurt, but it was a fair assessment. But May wasn’t done: “You worked really hard to make every interaction movie-magic—picnics, hand holding, nose snuggling when we were cold at night. I felt it! Expectation. You always wanted a fairy tale. You were constantly proving yourself: to me, to your family, to your friends, to yourself. Everything had to be a statement, a loud one. You couldn’t quite relax, and that meant I couldn’t, either.” All right, May, getting a little real now— “I felt like you wanted us to be perfect—already. There, then. Ten years ago. The cutest. So complete you wanted to scream it to the world. You already lived so obnoxiously in your own spotlight. There was no room for failure; it was too suffocating before it even started.” Wait— “Your words were manipulative, mean, and designed to hurt—a skill we both inherited from our parents and upbringing. I’m admittedly still a tiny bit careful now. In the breakup, you wanted to tarnish my reputation . . . you wanted everyone to know how I messed up and how I wronged you. We met up a few times, and you towered over me to recite my sins to my face while I cried.”
“By the way . . . can you make it clear in your book that we never had sex?” May was absolutely right; I was miserable every day and thought that I could only be happy once I found the love of my life. Sure, she definitely should not have asked me to go into that bathroom—but my love-life issues were mine alone, the result of a total absence of intimacy in my home life. I made myself into a victim and blamed everything on May, using her to justify my anger just as I had used her to justify my love earlier. In trying to undo what my parents had done, I had become just like them—vindictive, hurtful and cruel.
“On my first day of classes I could immediately tell that I was dealing with a vastly different breed of student. Incumbent Ivey kids were not at all like the dumb, borderline illiterate eighteen-year-olds that I’d wiped the floor with during my freshman year—these guys read the Wall Street Journal every morning and monitored the stock market religiously. They were alphas, who strode around campus with the absolute conviction that they were the literal white knights at the vanguard of a capitalist society just ready to be exploited for all it was worth, and they were ready to make it go their way. Most of them came from considerable wealth—some were scions of multibillion-dollar corporations. You could mock their American Psycho–level douchery and harp on their arrogance, but there was no denying that these were men and women with goals. Unfortunately, the same could not be said about me.”
“was actually right in my wheelhouse. You see, as shitty as I was at the technical courses like Finance that required tons of prep work, I was actually very good at the ones that focused on developing soft skills, like leadership and public speaking. I was a strong, articulate speaker, which helped me in interviewing and networking scenarios. I’m not entirely sure where this came from, but I always just had a knack for making things sound good. I was often the designated copywriter for group projects, having parlayed my writing prowess so that I could be spared from any of the technical work.”
“My most memorable day, though, was when I was invited onto the set of a commercial shoot for D’Italiano. It was an early morning start at a beautiful mansion by the lake in Port Credit, an affluent suburb just outside Toronto. I knew I should have been observing what my brand manager was doing, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of the actress that we had hired—not because of how she looked (although she was very pretty), but because she was the first “working class” actress I had ever met. I was endlessly curious about the life she had. Throughout the day, I kept asking her questions. How did you get into this? Is it glamorous? Do you have an agent? Can I have an agent? Which agencies are best in Toronto?! She was a phenomenal sport and entertained all of my inquiries. I had only ever been exposed to the straight-and-narrow way: go to school, get a degree, graduate, get a job, make money, buy a house and then die. For me, this woman was my first exposure to a completely different career path—one in the arts. This day on set would stir something up in me, a curiosity that is still burning bright over a decade later.”
“Accountants were generally incredibly detail-oriented and meticulous, as their job requires them to analyze financial statements line by line; I, a staunch ENFP, was free-spirited and relied on emotion and instinct. Accountants relied heavily on historical precedent in order to maintain consistency from year to year; I loved creating things that were new, fresh and innovative. Accountants were structured and regimented, functioning with a machinelike efficiency; I was free-flowing and open, preferring to spend large amounts of time pondering abstract concepts such as the meaning of life, or which flavor of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream I liked the best. Finally, accountants definitely didn’t aspire to be the center of attention, whereas I constantly craved the validation of others, performing in talent shows, dance battles and singing competitions just so I could be seen.”
“Before that day, I had never understood what “do work that you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” meant. We were paid minimum wage for our work, less than half of my hourly rate at Deloitte. Of course, that didn’t matter—hell, I would have paid for the opportunity. After a grueling fourteen-hour day, still covered in spray paint, Jason and I got on the bus and waited eagerly for our next shoot day, as if we hadn’t worked a single second.”
“I was the worst kind of con artist—I had convinced my parents that I belonged at a private school that cost tens of thousands of dollars each year for six years, fooled them into believing that I was worth the exorbitantly expensive business degree, and then somehow duped them into thinking that I should have a condo all to myself in the city. Perhaps worst of all . . . I made them believe that I was worthy of their sacrifice. Every step of the way, I gave them just the faintest glimmer of hope that I could turn things around and truly make something of myself; in turn, they wanted so badly to believe in my potential that they kept throwing more money into my education like suckers in a pyramid scheme. Now, I would finally be exposed as a fraud.”
“Jeff loved the take, letting out a huge guffaw as he cut, and I felt like a million fucking bucks. I feel idiotic saying it now, but I was so goddamn proud of myself; it was the affirmation I badly wanted, some sort of validation that I could be a good actor. For what it’s worth, Jeff was a consummate professional. Sure, his sense of humor was more than a little misguided, but I genuinely don’t think he meant any ill will; he was just a white guy who thought accents were funny. Needless to say, I booked the role.”
“As much as I want to go back in time and slap the shit out of my younger self, I think it’s worth mentioning that, back then, nobody was having conversations about Asian representation in mainstream media—not even Asian people. As far as I was concerned, playing into stereotypes was an occupational necessity.”
“Little did I know, the shoot would be wildly successful, and the images would end up being used for everything from pamphlets and brochures to corporate ads and billboards. I even saw myself on the cover of an accounting textbook, an irony so palpable I swear I could taste it.”
“Professional Craigslist Actor Those who know me at all know that I am not great at moderation. I read the seventh Harry Potter book in one sitting. I saw The Force Awakens three times in twenty-four hours when it first premiered in theaters. When Mass Effect 3 came out, I took the day off work and played it for sixteen hours straight, pausing only to order pizza and to pee out the horrifying amount of Diet Coke that I had consumed. My approach to my new career was no different; I knew I was starting later in life, so I had to work ten times as hard as my peers in order to catch up to them.”
“I would never encourage anybody to be as reckless as I was . . . but with a little bit of the street smarts I clearly did not possess, I do believe that the full-court press is the way to go. I was a person of color in a pre-Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians landscape, and I wasn’t anything special in the looks department; my work ethic was my only X factor, my secret sauce. Without that hustle, I’d still be in Toronto flirting with the poverty line, waiting for someone to give me my big break. As time went on, my attempts to hide my career from my parents were growing increasingly more futile; family friends who had tuned in to watch my national commercial were asking questions, and my parents didn’t have any answers. They pressed me for details, asking how I was doing all this stuff. When I speak at colleges and events in Canada and the US today, the question of parents comes up constantly. How did they feel about my decision? Was it hard defying their wishes? How much money did it take for them to love me again? I look into the eyes of the students asking these questions and I see how scared they are of disappointing their own parents. The pressure to conform to their parents’ will is so strong that many openly admit to pursuing fields of study they weren’t passionate about simply because it was what their parents wanted.”
“To them I would say that there’s no harm in tasting different things—you never know what part of yourself you might awaken. Your parents did not defy destiny and settle halfway around the world so you could live a miserable and empty life. They want you to be happy doing what you love . . . they just might not know it yet.”
“During this time, I was cast in a couple of projects that were absolutely instrumental in forming my mentality toward the industry today. I feel like I could easily have adopted a passive mindset, simply waiting by the phone for my agent to call and give me my big break. Had I done that, I guarantee you I would not be here today. Thanks to these projects, I learned the value of being a multi-hyphenate and a hustler.”
“Jared himself radiated a different energy than anybody else I had worked with; as a young film-school grad in Canada, he directed a fan film based on a popular video game franchise that caught the attention of various agents and executives in Hollywood. It was a smart move, piggybacking off of existing IP to get your name out there. A subsequent cease-and-desist order from Microsoft only fueled his hype train more. He was incredibly entrepreneurial and had a commercial sensibility that resonated with my business school background. He would show me his pitch decks and series bibles, and then encourage me to start creating my own.”
“You have to create opportunities instead of waiting for them, Simu.” I got to work immediately, creating a show in which I would play my dream role—a Marvel superhero.”
“To say that I was a competitive person would be the most titanic understatement in the history of understatements. I once forced Peter into a Super Smash Bros. marathon and refused to stop playing until I had won. Unfortunately, he was objectively much better than me. It was three hours before my Pikachu would taste sweet, sweet victory, our dinner plans having long since evaporated. Maybe it was playing sports from a young age or constantly being compared to other kids by my parents, but I always had a hard time with accepting defeat. I manifested many rivalries in my life, be it with my peers in academics or popularity or sports. If I surpassed them, I would look up and find another rival to beat.”
“I made Patrick and Shannon my rivals and vowed that I would soon get to their level.”
“If this is the quality and dignity that you like after 16 years of school, then this is your choice. I fired back that it was; I was building toward a career that brought me happiness. I made a last-ditch impassioned plea: You know what’s worth it in this life? Doing something you can be truly proud of. Pursuing the things that matter. That’s the ONLY thing that matters. Too many people today “trade” their ambitions and dreams in favor of a substandard life. Do you want to know why they wake up unhappy, why they find life meaningless and monotonous? Because they made the wrong trade. I wake up every day full of purpose. It’s so exciting I can’t even begin to describe it. The rest will fall into place, because true wealth and true happiness are reserved in this world for the people who are willing to risk it all in order to capture it.”
Shelley and I were both going through transitional periods in our lives when we met, and we gave each other the love and understanding needed to take our next steps forward. She loved me at my most unlovable. Her family was also extremely supportive and nurturing in ways that my parents were not; they came to every screening I invited them to, bought tickets to every play, and donated to every crowdfund campaign I ever launched. Shelley and I would ultimately grow in separate directions, but I remain endlessly grateful for our time together and for all the times she shouldered the baggage I carried.”
“As time went on, my investment in classes began to pay off. I became more confident in the audition room, even edging out my nemeses Patrick and Shannon on occasion. My work was evolving beyond simple one-dimensional roles—playing a character that was “mad,” or “sad,” or “happy”—to playing fleshed-out characters full of nuance and subtext. Up until that point I, like so many new actors, believed that my job was to present feelings and emotions.”
“My biggest breakthrough came with the realization that in life, we often go to extreme lengths to hide how we feel. We go through life putting on different masks, only breaking our composure when something truly challenges us. Great actors can move us to tears barely moving a single muscle, because we naturally understand all of the emotions that are bubbling just beneath the surface. Conversely, we often roll our eyes at actors that we deem are “overacting” or “trying too hard.”
“I would not simply be waiting for someone to give me my next break. I was and am the master of my own destiny, with full ownership and accountability. I would have made more short films, written more scripts, or found more programs and classes and conservatories to be a part of.”
“The experience cemented in me perhaps the most important lesson I’ve ever learned; that it is one thing to have a dream and another altogether to own it—boldly, fearlessly—in its entirety.”
“Owning a dream to me consists of two key components—declaring it to the world, and taking action.”
“When you put your dream out into the universe you will attract those who dream the same thing, and who understand its struggles. These people will become your allies, your collaborators, your mentors and your guides. But it’s not enough to simply pay lip service to your dreams—you’ve got to walk that walk and act on your ambitions. You’ve got to DO. Without taking action, your best ideas are just random neurons firing in your brain, like lost ships passing through an endless ocean of consciousness, doomed to be forgotten.”
“Working with Diane made me feel like I was much more than just an actor brought in to say some lines; she placed a tremendous amount of trust in me and made me feel like a creative equal. Diane would also call me into her office after watching my superhero short film to offer me a job as a writer for the show’s second season. Paul had thrown himself off of a bridge in the first season climax, so I really wasn’t expecting to come back. Thanks to Diane I got to participate in a writing room, pitch ideas and even write an episode of the show. What she did for me went beyond just paying me to do a job; Diane saw something in me, and her belief in me helped me believe in myself.”
In life, I’ve come to realize that all big breaks come from a small handful of people who are willing to stick their neck out for you. You can’t control how or when they come into your life; you can only control your own professionalism and preparation level.
had the five of us running and diving around like soldiers caught in a massive firestorm of love. One by one, my costars were “taken down” by unfair dating stereotypes associated with Asian men. In a climactic moment, a “small-penis grenade” is thrown onstage and one of the characters bravely sacrifices himself by falling on the exploding weapon with his groin. The remaining soldiers look on in despair; “Is there no hope for us?” Suddenly (and I’m not making this up), I emerge from the bottom of the stage completely topless with a cocky smirk on my face. Bullets ricochet off of me as I flex my muscles, implying that some of us were capable of transcending the stereotype. It wasn’t Shakespeare by any means, but tell me a time when an audience erupted in howling laughter and cheers at the end of a scene in The Tempest; I’ll wait.
I had some very rudimentary understanding of the importance of representation in media and arts before, but watching Kim’s Convenience really hit home the value of seeing yourself reflected in the world you live in. I promised that I would write something of my own one day that I could share with the world, and that is why you’re reading this book right now.
At the end of the day, I learned that—contrary to what most actors would like to believe—it really wasn’t about us. So, why not try to have some fun instead of worrying about things we couldn’t control?
“He said you were a good actor . . . but you just didn’t have that it factor.” Boom. And there it was, a ton of bricks being dropped right on top of me. Well shit, I thought, that’s gonna be inside my head for a while. Chris would go on and say that it was just one opinion, and that I shouldn’t get too hung up on it—but I could already feel the truth in the words. The mental dams that I had constructed to keep my insecurities at bay finally collapsed, and my mind was overcome with a wave of anxiety and paranoia. I replayed my auditions endlessly in my head, dissecting them and feeling bad despite there being nothing I could do. I thought back to all of these lost opportunities and found a way to pin the blame back on myself. I was, after all, the common denominator in all of this. Maybe if I had been better, I would have turned some of those nos into yesses. If I had been better, maybe the networks would have been more willing to take a chance on me, and maybe Linda Williams would have stayed to chat. There was no end to my downward mental spiral.”
“In order to survive, I had to learn how to embrace something greater than just myself. It all started with the kindness and generosity of one man: the incredible Ken Jeong. When I landed in LA in 2017 for my first pilot season, I didn’t know a single soul aside from my manager Chris. Ken had heard about our show—before we even got a US Netflix deal, no less—and had followed all of us on Twitter, which meant his DMs were open to me. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I shot him a message and asked if he’d be down to meet for a coffee or something (advice for any DM-sliders out there—keep it as easy and noncommittal as possible). I was not prepared for the tsunami of generosity that was about to hit me. Ken responded within minutes: Ken Jeong (@kenjeong): Hey Simu! My email is [redacted] let’s figure out a time to hang I am working on Dr Ken all month at Sony in Culver City My brain exploded; someone as famous as Ken wanted to email with me?! I quickly obliged and, within minutes again, I received parking instructions and a drive-on pass to the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City. I was told to visit anytime—whether it was a rehearsal, a table read, or an episode taping.”
“I realized that the reason any of those people gave me the time of day was because they knew firsthand the struggle of being Asian in this line of work. Like me, they had wrestled with identity their whole lives, constantly fighting to be seen as equal to everyone else. Having laid down roots in a city that exports culture all over the world, they understood that representation on-screen did not come easy, and needed to be supported. I had wanted to meet Philip Wang from Wong Fu Productions for many years before I ever became an actor. Phil had started Wong Fu as a hobby while he was still in college at UCSD with his friends Wes and Ted. The three of them made lip-sync videos and funny sketches that went viral, leading them to build a massive YouTube channel that boasts over three million subscribers today. At a time when there were very few Asian people in the traditional system, Phil went ahead and made his own system. Wong Fu became a household name among Asian kids raised in the West, and I was beyond excited when we got connected through a mutual friend.
“How about being home alone at a far younger age than was legally permissible because our parents worked so much, and actually loving it because it meant we got to watch cartoons without guilt? Or having a dishwasher at home that never ran because your parents weren’t accustomed to using one? I could do this all day.”
“As I began to shift my social messaging to become more outspoken on issues of culture and race, I received invitations to speak at corporations and colleges across North America. Often, I was brought in by culturally specific student unions or AAPI employee groups.”
“Early on in January, a few days before I was set to travel down to LA for another pilot season, my friend Clement asked if I wanted to meet Jeremy—THE Jeremy Lin, who scored 38 on Kobe, dunked all over John Wall and sparked a global phenomenon in 2012 forever known as Linsanity. Every Asian person remembers where they were during this crazy two-week stretch, and they sure as hell remember the way Jeremy made them feel: like they were finally seen. Jeremy was more than a prolific basketball player—he was a cultural hero.”
“I answered in a manner that was appropriate for any grown-ass man, which of course meant screaming yes and then immediately bursting into tears of happiness. Clem ran a community organization in Toronto called the Chinese Canadian Youth Athletics Association (CCYAA), which provided athletics programs for Asian youth in the Toronto area, and frequently worked with Jeremy to organize meetups and fan events when he came into town to play games. I had spoken to his kids and his volunteers in the past, and we became good friends through our recognition of our shared goals. Knowing that Jeremy was perhaps my biggest hero of all time, Clem organized an on-camera roundtable discussion with the two of us where we would talk about our paths in our respective industries.”
“It seems like such a paradox to me that human beings are both great adapters to change and terrified by it at the same time. So often we drift through life bound by the poor decisions we’ve made in the past, too afraid of the uncertainty that comes with challenging our status quo. We find ourselves stuck on a ship that is headed full speed to a place we’re pretty sure we don’t want to go, but we also don’t want to deal with the discomfort of jumping. So we say nothing, watching helplessly as we sail toward our doom like silent prisoners of our own past. Luckily I didn’t have a choice—rather, change was forced upon me against my will, in the form of a pink slip from my employers at Deloitte. Only when faced with nothing else to lose was I finally able to muster up the courage to make the decision to pursue acting. Thanks to the lucky fluke of losing my job, I became the person I was always meant to be. The thing is, once you detach yourself from the status quo, whether by conscious effort or sheer stroke of dumb luck, you kind of develop a knack for it. The more I learned not to take my world for what it was, the more I saw the way things should be. Sometimes you have to rock the boat a little bit, and other times . . . well, you’ve just gotta ditch the boat and find a new one. It took thirty years, but I finally knew that I was on the right ship.”
“At dinner with my parents one night, I confided in them that life was getting busier than I could keep up with. “Your eyes look tired.” My mother, once my greatest adversary, regarded me now with great sympathy. “I feel like every three months my life shifts into another gear. I don’t know how much more of this I can handle.” “You push yourself this hard because it’s what we taught you,” she responded. “Please don’t forget to be good to yourself.” Of course, it made sense that I would inherit my parents’ words as my internal monologue. I was extremely hard on myself all the time, constantly berating myself for taking too much time off, or being distracted by social media (to be fair, I am constantly distracted by social media; it’s a problem). I placed my personal well-being dead last on my list of priorities, behind my career—something I had most definitely inherited from my immigrant parents. I wish I could tell you I’ve since resolved to be kinder to myself, but undoing my programming has proven to be difficult; it’s definitely still a work in progress.”
“The community is with you, brother.” Those words meant the world to me. I woke up the next morning with the adrenaline from the game still coursing through me. I had initially thought that my hectic schedule would put me at a disadvantage for my audition, but I was so wrong—everything that had happened had cemented in me the belief that I was going to do this. On the plane, too amped to sleep, I closed my eyes and listened to the Avengers: Endgame soundtrack on repeat. I felt the heroic notes permeate through every cell in my body, preparing me for the task at hand. It’s now or never, Simu.”
books coaching Favorite quotes from Simu Liu's book We are Dreamers
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Davidson Hang is currently in Sales at Cheetah Digital which is a Marketing technology company located in NYC.
Davidson is an avid networker, personal growth- life and business coach.
He loves spreading the love and regularly helps people create and design the life they want for themselves.
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