Harry Shum Jr. has come a long way ― from wrestling with his own identity as an Asian American to completely owning it.
The “Crazy Rich Asians” star, who’s part of a Panda Express campaign for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month called “Asian-American Originals,” spoke to HuffPost about his relationship to his Asian identity.
When he was growing up, Shum said, he internalized the absence of Asian voices and faces in the entertainment world.
“With Asian Americans, especially those from past generations, we’ve dealt with being ashamed of even our parents’ stories ... you almost lead two identities,” he told HuffPost.
“The fact that the world, society makes you shameful is what was problematic. ... When I was growing up ― to not hear those voices or see these stories was really difficult because at that point, if you can’t relate to anything, then you feel like something’s wrong with you.”
Shum has ties to multiple cultures because of his unique upbringing. The actor was born in Costa Rica and spent his earliest years bouncing between Latinx and Asian cultures. When he was 6, he moved to the U.S., adding another layer to his identity.
“I was dealing with different identities outside the Asian and American side. I also had a Latin side. Growing up there, I never felt I fit in anywhere. When I finally felt comfortable with the Latin culture, then I was exposed to Chinese culture and then American culture,” he recalled. “It became this snowball effect where I started understanding and seeing everything through the lens of different cultures and realizing, ‘Well, I’m all these things.’”
The actor noted that he did become proud of the cultures he was exposed to, but not without hardship along the way. He said he’s experienced bullying because of his “Asianness” and had to develop a tough skin in response.
But Shum also remembers the moment he realized how powerful proper Asian representation could be. He told HuffPost that when he was 11 years old, he saw a production of a play called “Exit The Dragon.”
“It was a small production, but it was the most Asian Americans I’ve seen in one place,” he explained. “This was a play about Asian Americans, three men from all different backgrounds who are trying to be actors and how hard it was, but also, it touches on identity, and I had never seen that.”
He added: “There weren’t any movies that did that. At that point there was basically ‘Joy Luck Club’ and that was it. So that was big for me.”
I was dealing with different identities outside the Asian and American side. I also had a Latin side. Growing up there, I never felt I fit in anywhere.Harry Shum Jr.
Shum, who had a professional dance career prior to acting, explained that without a wealth of Asian faces around him, he was able to find refuge in dance and hip-hop. The actor explained that the art form spoke to “many who feel like they don’t belong.”
“Dance has a way to put aside people’s differences while celebrating the love for the art and the ability to focus on skills,” he said. “I credit dance, specifically the many forms of hip-hop styles, to feeling like I belonged in a group. Being different was a plus. I would get lost in steps with friends and it also became a sort of therapy for me.”
He said that while it was rare to see an Asian American dancing on screen, he didn’t feel out of place when he’d perform. Shum recounts a tour he did for BET’s “ComicView,” where a dance crew would open up the program. Though Shum was the sole Asian in the room and on screen, he “never felt like an outsider during the tour and felt welcomed.”
“This was when I knew the power of dance.”
Times have changed since Shum got his start. And he says that with the rise of diverse voices in media and entertainment, young people of color today might not suffer the same shame and identity issues that affected past generations.
“Now, this generation is having a lot more to digest and to consume. They might not even see the issues that we’ve had, even though the culture’s still dealing with [the lack of representation], but it’s starting to change more, and I think that’s a big plus.”