We Were Dreamers is not just the story of Simu Liu’s journey to stardom, but a tribute to his family that is equally heart-wrenching and beautiful.
We Were Dreamers: An Immigrant Superhero Origin Story by Simu Liu, William Morrow
If you look at my author bio on this website, you’ll notice that, after listing my job role here at Porchlight, I identify myself as, “The youngest daughter of a high school history teacher and a local business leader.”
This is the first time I’ve given my immigrant parents a permanent shout-out in a professional biographical snippet. In other roles, I’ve usually touted my academic laurels or past job experiences, but this time around, being the child of book-loving parents is easily the greatest credential that qualified me for this role.
This is a sentiment that any child of immigrants will recognize—that we are not self-made, but a part of something greater—and it’s the same sentiment that imbues the pages of Simu Liu’s memoir, We Were Dreamers.
Liu rose to fame for his role as Jung Kim in the CBC Television sitcom Kim’s Convenience and became the first actor of Asian descent to land a titular superhero role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The prologue of the book kicks off with Liu receiving the phone call from producer Kevin Feige and director Destin Daniel Cretton with the news that he’s landed the lead role in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Immediately, Liu recognizes the broader significance of this role:
That fateful day, the 16th of July in 2019, a single phone call would change my life forever. 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.
For anyone expecting a behind-the-scenes look into the making of a Marvel superhero movie, this book isn’t it—and if you really need that itch scratched, Disney+ has got you covered. As the subtitle on the cover notes, this is “an immigrant superhero origin story.” We Are Dreamers is not just the story of Simu Liu’s journey to stardom, but a tribute to his family that is equally heart-wrenching and beautiful.
Being here, and making history with this movie that we should have had a long time ago, was a product of more than my own personal struggles; it was also the culmination of everything my parents had fought for. Our stories are one and the same, our destinies forever intertwined and defined by our sweat, our sacrifices and our unyielding dedication to defying the odds and achieving the impossible.
That is why I’m writing this book. This is the story I want to tell—a story about our little family of three that crossed the ocean from China to North America in the relentless pursuit of a better life.
While reading Liu’s memoir, it’s surprisingly easy to forget that he’s a world-famous Hollywood movie star and bona fide Marvel superhero. The story of his casting in Shang-Chi bookends the memoir but it is not the focus of the story he tells. When the trappings of fame fade into the background, we’re left not with Simu Liu the celebrity, but with a Simu Liu—or Máomao, as his family calls him—that is brilliantly ordinary.
In the nearly 300 pages the reader spends with Liu, he comes across through the warmth of his writing as deeply relatable. He weaves in humor, vulnerability, and a copious amount of nerdy pop culture references throughout, transforming the act of reading his book to feel more like hanging out with a close friend. To the credit of his spectacular writing ability, the moment I finished reading the book, I went online and snapped up tickets to the We Were Dreamers book tour, thrilled to witness the magic in action.
The book is split into three acts. In Act One, Liu introduces us to his paternal grandparents—his yéye and nǎinai, who raised him through the age of four—and gives us a glimpse into his idyllic childhood in Harbin, China. I found myself delighted to spot the little details in which our families were so similar, even though we hail from opposite ends of the planet. To put it colloquially, “If you know, you know.”
In Eastern medicine, there was no greater enemy than the cold—I was always tucked under layers and layers of covers before I went to sleep and scolded for leaving my hands or toes exposed. If I was sick in any way, the number of layers would double.
By 1993, his grandparents are preparing him for an impending move, and for the first time, Liu meets his father—who has arrived to take him to Canada—in person. Here, Liu pauses his own story to tell the story of his parents, Zhenning and Zheng, from their childhoods in Northern China through to their immigration to Canada. He writes:
[You] can skip the rich family backstory that pays off beautifully at the end and advance to chapter seven—just know that you’ll miss some juicy insights that will definitely move you, and may even affect the way you view your parents. Also, you’d totally be committing the cardinal sin of immigrant families: wasting money.
And it absolutely pays off. This section is the kind of tribute that any child dreams of offering to their parents and grandparents, a preservation of the ancestral stories that so often get lost when our loved ones leave us.
By Act Two, Liu has reunited with his parents in Canada, where he must adjust not only to being raised by near-strangers he’d only ever known via phone calls, but also to a new Western culture.
Ask any young immigrant or child of immigrants, and I’m sure we can all identify, to some degree, with the feeling that we exist in a liminal, in-between space—not quite belonging to one culture or the other, and yet being equally and wholly part of both, all at once. In Liu’s case, there’s a clash between his Chinese customs and his new Canadian values. As a teenager, he begins rebelling against his parents, letting his grades slide and at one point running away from home as he begins to explore his budding identity not as an Ivy League-bound science whiz, but—to the horror of his engineer parents—as an entertainer.
This part of the book is the most painful to read, as Liu speaks openly about the physical and emotional abuse he suffered as he and his parents grew more distant from each other.
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.
And yet, while Liu is forming his Canadian identity, he also finds comfort and safety in his Chinese heritage:
I didn’t deliberately set out to be a part of all the Asian cultural clubs on campus—since all of my friends were in the same clubs, I never really gave it much thought. Looking back, I feel like there was some level of comfort in being around people who had very similar lived experiences as I did. We all had our different friend groups from class, or intramural sports, or otherwise; in our Asian bubble, though, we didn’t have to worry about being judged, or discriminated against—we could simply exist.
By Act Three, Liu has crashed and burned from his short-lived career as an accountant. Even knowing where his trajectory is destined to take him, Liu’s writing transports you into the moment to relive the highs and lows along with him. You can feel the palpable pain as he is escorted from the premises when he gets laid off from his job at Deloitte; the secondhand embarrassment when he takes minor acting roles laden with Asian stereotypes and racist accents to bolster his portfolio; and the rising joy as he begins carving out his own path, getting closer and closer to his dreams of stardom.
This path is never easy or straightforward, and he never pretends it was otherwise—his career at this point alternates between dressing up as Spiderman for children’s birthday parties and tentatively returning to his accounting career, where he literally falls asleep during a conversation with his boss. (Seriously, who among us can’t relate to that?)
But he is determined, and it's clear that this determination is his inheritance from his parents, who like him chased dreams of a brighter future and succeeded in bringing them to fruition.
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.
In the final pages of the book, we get to see Liu, fresh off his success starring in Kim’s Convenience, shoot for his highest star yet. Upon hearing that Marvel Studios, in light of the “wildly successful premiere of Black Panther” would be gearing up to produce a movie featuring an Asian superhero, Liu sends out a fateful tweet:
Simu Liu (@SimuLiu):
Ok @Marvel are we gonna talk or what #ShangChi
7:54 AM—Dec 4, 2018
We know how this story plays out, of course; still, it’s impossible by this point not to root for Liu as he goes through the casting process, being so intimately familiar with just how much he and his family have gone through to get to this point.
Again, though his casting in Shang-Chi bookends the memoir, by the time you get to the end of the story, this will feel like a minor victory compared to the triumph of his family finding wholeness, with Liu and his parents finally finding solace in each other.
“I know that you’ll lose sleep over this and I’m sorry for putting that on you, but I really need you,” I said. “This is the most important audition of my life.”
“We understand. We will always be here to support you,” my dad replied.
“No matter what happens, we will be by your side,” my mother emphasized. “Whether it is this opportunity or another one down the road, it’s just a matter of time.”
As Liu prepares for his first screen test as Shang-Chi, his thoughts aren’t on the fame and fortune that will come his way, but on his family.
Every step of our shared journey that spanned two continents and sixty years has led me to this moment. This was the point that my parents and I, despite our insatiable ambition, had never dared to dream beyond…until now.
Now, together, we would take the next step forward, and make history.
Careers are in constant flux. In the seven years since I’ve graduated from college, I’ve cycled through a handful of jobs: some good, some bad, all of which are now over and behind me. I love my current job—it's the best one yet—but the greatest feeling is knowing my parents are proud of me, and that their efforts to raise me in a country they hardly knew amounted to success we once merely dreamed of.
Simu Liu’s story is not my story, and yet, in so many ways, it is. “This book,” he declares, “is for all of us.” And it's true. It’s comforting to find this kind of unexpected universality in our stories as immigrants and as children of immigrants. It's dazzling to know that our superheroes can be people just like us, who proudly carry their families’ legacies with them wherever they go. We Were Dreamers is an affirmation that any one of us can aspire to be heroic in the eyes of those that come after us, just as our parents have been to us.