How 'Shang-Chi'' s Simu Liu Went from Unemployed Accountant to Marvel's First Asian Superhero

The star, who immigrated from China to Canada when he was only five, overcame a language barrier and high academic expectations by his parents to make history

For the first five years of his life, Simu Liu slept with his grandparents each night, six thousand miles from his parents.

"My parents (his dad Zhenning and mom Zheng) had gotten the opportunity to study at Queen's College in Kingston, Ontario, so [they] made the decision to leave me in the care of my grandparents," Liu tells PEOPLE in this week's issue, on newsstands Friday.

"As full-time students, it would have been really, really difficult to be able to support me," he says. "And so I grew up in the care of these wonderful grandparents, in Harbin, China. I loved it. I wasn't really aware of what I did or didn't have. I had two amazing guardians in my yeye (grandfather) and my nainai (grandmother)."

Liu says his transition to Canada was difficult.

"It was tough for a lot of reasons, least of all the language barrier," he says. "I really struggled to learn English at first. I remember being at my first daycare, just bawling my eyes out because I couldn't understand what anybody was saying to me."

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Simu Liu in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Marvel

For more about Simu Liu, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

Those days are far in the past for the 32-year-old actor. Next week the star makes history as the first Asian superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe when Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings hits theaters on Sept. 3.

"When I say that this is a dream come true, that is such a huge understatement," he says. "I used to love watching Marvel movies when I was a kid, even before, pre-MCU. If there was a superhero, I wanted to watch it. This is all I've ever wanted."

This seemed like an impossible dream just nine years ago. Liu was laid off as an accountant by the consulting firm Deloitte.

"It was just so disheartening," he says. "I felt like my life was over and like I was at rock bottom."

It also meant he would have to tell his parents, aeronautic engineers who strongly encouraged their son to focus on his schooling in the hopes that one day he would gravitate toward medicine or law.

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Simu Liu. Marvel

"My parents were academics, so it was the only path to success," he explains. "But I wanted to play sports and chase girls, that's all I was really interested in. I wanted to be the high school quarterback. And it led to a lot of tension in our family."

But when he told his parents he wanted to pivot to acting, he recalls, "Initially to their credit, they were sympathetic. I think they knew that I was going through a lot with the loss of my job. But they became more and more panicked as they realized that I was actually serious. We had a lot of arguments about it. My parents felt like I was throwing my life away."

They watched their son nab his first acting job in Guillermo del Toro's 2013 sci-fi film Pacific Rim by responding to a Craigslist ad. He appeared in a number of small roles before breaking out in 2016 when he was cast as one of the leads in the Canadian comedy Kim's Convenience, about a Korean family that runs a convenience store.

As his fame increased, he began to speak out about issues that were important to him. "I saw so many people who grew up like me, feeling invisible or as somebody who didn't belong," he says.

This spring, he wrote in Variety about anti-Asian hate, recalling his parents being mocked for their accents and him being told to "go back to China."

More recently, when Disney CEO Bob Chapek said on an investor call that Shang-Chi would be an "interesting experiment," Liu tweeted, "We are not an experiment. We are the underdog; the underestimated." (Disney has since clarified that Chapek was referring to the 45-day theatrical release window before streaming on Disney+.)

Liu says, "I wanted the world to know how incredibly excited I was to share this with them. I'm really fired up."

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And, so are his parents, who Liu brought to the movie's premiere last week. "When we turned onto Hollywood Boulevard and we saw the fans, everything, we looked at each other, and it was clear that none of us had ever expected in a million years that our family would be here," he says. "They're very proud."

The three of them have come a long way.

"Now they're my best friends," he says. "I can't wait to experience whatever's next with them."

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings hits theaters on Sept. 3

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