Simu Liu on How He Made Peace with His Parents After Childhood Trauma: 'We've Come So Far'

The Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings star opens up about healing his relationship with his parents after a lifetime of living in the shadows of their expectations

simu liu we were dreamers personal photos my own convocation, fifteen years later. my mother appears to have found the elixir of youth in this time. 2011
Simu Liu with his dad Zhenning and mom Zheng. Photo: courtesy Simu Liu

For nearly all his life, Simu Liu has been chasing happiness and the feeling of security.

Raised in Harbin, China by his paternal grandparents until he was 4, the Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings star, 33, was abruptly uprooted by his parents — who had been pursuing graduate studies abroad — to join them in Canada.

"With my grandparents, I felt completely safe. To me that's what home is," Liu, who writes about his experience growing up in an immigrant household in his new memoir We Were Dreamers, tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week's issue.

While his parents, dad Zhenning and mom Zheng, were thrilled to reunite with their son, "it was very clear to me early on that [they] wouldn't be able to provide that environment," says Liu, whose favorite childhood memories include snuggling every night between his grandparents, who both died in 2021. "It was a shock."

As Liu got older, he battled with his parents over their expectations of perfection and cultural differences, and rebelled by forming a boy band, flirting with girls and attending late-night parties.

His grades slipped to a B-average, leading to screaming matches and beatings. "I remember thinking, 'I've got the worst parents in the world.' I felt so alone," he adds. "Nobody could understand what I was enduring at home."

When he graduated from Western University's Ivey Business School in Ontario and landed an accounting job at Deloitte, Liu's parents helped him purchase a new condo and were notably proud for the first time in years.

For more on how Liu found healing with his parents and his incredible journey to stardom, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

Simu Liu we were dreamers memoir 2022

But eight months later, the star — who dreamed of working on film sets — was laid off.

While Liu's since said the setback was the best thing to happen to him, his relationship with his parents deteriorated further as he pursued an acting career.

It wasn't until five years ago, when he landed his first main role as Jung Kim on CBC's Kim's Convenience, that Liu and his parents began their path to healing.

"We weren't fighting, but at the same time we hadn't collectively chosen to dive back into our trauma and how we were all individually affected by it," he says of the turning point in 2017.

When his mom turned 60, Liu poured his lingering feelings into a "heartfelt" letter, which he presented to Zheng on her birthday.

RELATED VIDEO: Simu Liu Talks 'Dream Come True' on Playing First Asian Marvel Superhero

"It was eight pages, and I remember being so nervous as I was handing it to her," he says. "I said, 'I want you to know it comes from a place of love.'"

When Zheng, who had been moved to tears by her son's emotional letter, called Liu later that day, "it was the first time we really talked about those issues," he says of their mutual trauma. "We both acknowledged that we were flawed human beings trying to do our best."

Today Liu considers Zheng one of his "closest friends," and it's his parents he chose to call as he faced extreme anxiety on the eve of his Shang-Chi audition in 2019.

As he's shot to international stardom, he's determinedly brought them along for the ride. Zhenning and Zheng starred with him in a recent Google Pixel 6 commercial, which poked fun at their high expectations.

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Simu Liu. bill Chen photography

"I try to keep them close and make sure they have enough of a taste of what I do so it's not so foreign to them," says Liu, who speaks Mandarin in the spot.

As his career continues to grow — Liu will star in the upcoming Ones True Loves and Barbie films — he's deliberate about the roles he takes and how it impacts the Asian community.

"Our parents worked incredibly hard, but the gift they gave us was the permission to make something of ourselves, to do something with our lives and to shape our destiny," says Liu. "I just hope that everyone growing up in an immigrant household can approach their lives with the recognition that their parents worked so they could do something meaningful."

Liu's early mentor, actor Ken Jeong, says his friend "is fearless, unafraid to speak his mind and stand up for what he believes in."

"He has evolved into my role model, my hero. And in my career, there are times I now ask myself, 'What would Simu do?'" adds Jeong. "His future is unstoppable. He always rises to the occasion, and it's truly breathtaking to witness his incredible journey."

Whatever Liu tackles next, he knows his parents will be cheering him on.

"As I've gotten older, I've found empathy as to what they were going through at the time. We've come so far," he says. "When we're young, we think of parents as just monolithic, all-powerful beings that don't change. It's such an incredible thing watching our parents change and grow and mature in their own way."

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