Given the clean-cut style of Mike Chang, a character on the television show “Glee,” Gleeks wouldn’t guess that Harry Shum Jr., the actor behind the role, had cornrows at the beginning of his career in 2002.
Shum spoke to Northwestern students Saturday about using differences as an advantage and cited getting cornrows as a phase he went through to find his identity after moving to San Francisco from Costa Rica.
NU’s Taiwanese American Students Club chose Shum as its fall speaker to attract students normally uninvolved with the Asian community. About 300 students came to the event in Fisk Hall.
“We feel like Harry has stories that he can share to not just Asians,” said Sophia Hsu, president of TASC. “He can talk to everyone on campus, and we wanted to bring everyone together.”
Shum, 30, shared his diverse background to show how he navigated significant changes in his life that constantly put him in unfamiliar territory. His parents moved from China to Costa Rica, where he was born, in search of better job opportunities, so Spanish was Shum’s first language.
When he moved to San Francisco in third grade, he did not know how to speak English or Chinese, and he said he was bullied in school.
“I got bricks thrown at me,” he said. “I actually got pretty good at dodging things.”
On a whim, he said he decided to take a drama and improvisation class that brought him out of his shell and helped him stand up to peer bullying.
“It was an (out of) body experience,” he said. “It allowed me to reinvent myself … embrace being different and find ways on how to make it work for you as an individual.”
He said he picked up dancing by watching videos online and eventually dropped out of high school to pursue an entertainment career.
After performing in small projects, Shum got his first “big break” in Hollywood after auditioning for “Glee” two days after his grandmother passed away. He read “Glee” character Finn Hudson’s lines for the pilot episode and sang “L.O.V.E.” by Nat King Cole. He was called back a week later, he said.
“I went onto the stage with the New Directions, and it was the start of something crazy,” he said. “The next thing you know I was doing a whole season … It was a crazy process of not knowing.”
After his 30-minute speech, Shum answered questions from the audience. One male student asked him about the portrayal of Asians on “Glee.”
“In ‘Glee,’ no one is safe,” he replied. “That’s the nature of television. You want to see how far you can go. … At least we have some voice.”
Many audience members said they came to see a celebrity and were surprised to hear his multifarious history.
“It was really exciting to meet someone you see on TV a lot,” SESP freshman Maeghan Murphy said,“and also just to hear that he felt a lot of things that a lot of people feel about not fitting in.”