Harry Shum Jr. on what it means to be Asian American
In a time when the racial identity of America is as increasingly multiracial and multiethnic as it is ambiguous, university campuses foster conversations for students to explore what their racial identity means to them, and how to use their voice where they are underrepresented. So, what does it mean to be Asian American today?
For three years in a row now, the Northeastern University Pan Asian American Council has had this question answered by different Asian American speakers. As part of the Northeastern sisters of Kappa Phi Lambda’s Spirit of the Phoenix week and in collaboration with five other organizations – the Multicultural Greek Council, the brothers of Pi Delta Psi, the Latin American Student Organization, the Asian American Center, and the Latinx Student Cultural Center – the 2018 speaker was none other than Costa-Rican born Chinese American celebrity Harry Shum Jr.
In a 45-minute speech accompanied by a 20-minute question and answer portion, Shum Jr.’s presence brought together an animated and diverse audience that nearly filled Northeastern University’s Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex auditorium the Saturday evening of St. Patrick’s Day.
The accomplished actor, dancer, singer, and choreographer touched on a range of topics as he shared the poignant experiences within his immigration journey from a third culture kid to a successful celebrity: “My parents were completely unaware of this journey I was on to fulfill this hopeless dream of mine…I eventually figured it out.” His whole life was a metaphor of that statement – just figuring it out. There were many life lessons Shum Jr. held on to as he figured out how to navigate “issues [he] faced living in the land of the free”; he shared with the audience some of them in conjunction with pivotal moments in his life.
These moments he described as “dots” of “struggles, failures, pain, heartache, [and] obstacles” that he had to “own all of in order for them to connect” into success. The word “dots” was taken from a quote in Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford University – a quote that Shum Jr. has adopted into his life and recited for the audience: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward, only looking backward. All these failures and experiences become a tool for your future. You just have to learn from those mistakes and hope that it will come in handy when the time is right.”
The crowd audibly reacted enthusiastically to the twists and turns that connected all these “dots” – from the inspiration of seeing a single Asian dancer in a Missy Elliot music video in high school, to the random chance Shum Jr. was given to fulfill a vacant spot as a background dancer years later which was, in fact, for Beyoncé’s tour with Alicia Keys and Missy Elliot. Shum Jr. spouted lines in both Cantonese and Spanish amidst his English (eliciting laughs from all sides of the room) and danced to emphasize humorous events throughout this journey of his life.
Comfortable and relaxed, the setting felt informal – as if he was speaking to a group of friends even as Shum Jr. recounted the events in his life that made him who he is. As Shum Jr.’s speech came to a close, he had one final message that strung “all the small steps” of his journey together to answer the very question his presence had been chosen to answer: “…Reflect and embrace your past experiences and failures to connect your own dots, be comfortable in your own skin, respect the generations that came before you but do not let it define you – be proud to share your own unique story. Because to me…that’s what it means to be Asian American.