Name: Ayumi Nagano
Hometown: Long Island, NY
Where do you live? Brooklyn, NY
What does it mean to have a voice? Having a voice means that you have truly found yourself.
How did you find your voice? I found my voice by defying the Asian girl stereotype and expressing myself without caring about how others will perceive me.
What event or series of events led to you finding your voice?
I was born in Japan, but raised in South Hempstead in Long Island, NY. From age 5 to 12, I attended Japanese school every Saturday. Since most sports had practices/games on Saturdays, this meant that I couldn’t participate throughout my elementary school years. I genuinely yearned to play soccer since it was my favorite sport but I lacked the training and skills that my classmates had to be able to play properly. I tried to play sports with the kids in my neighborhood, but they got easily frustrated with me since I wasn’t as good as they were. This meant I was usually picked last when it came to choosing teams, both in and out of school. I was bullied in Japanese school because most of the kids spoke fluent Japanese since their parents worked in business and were only sent to work overseas for 4 years. I didn’t speak as fluently, which made me stand out. In elementary school, I was bullied because I was Asian. I was always the “other” no matter where I stood.
In 7th grade, my friend Megan asked if I wanted to join the Cross Country (XC) team. I agreed not knowing what it really was. She told me it was long distance running, which to me meant that I didn’t need as much intensive training to be able to join. The stereotype for Asian girls are that we are petite, fragile, subservient, and uncoordinated. I think this stereotype affects our performance, especially when it comes to the level of confidence we have in ourselves while participating in sports. This stereotype can also affect how individuals perceive our performance. My middle school coach for XC and Track & Field (T&F) always treated me the same as everyone else: he supported me and cheered me on throughout my middle and high school running career. My high school XC and T&F coach was the polar opposite. I always felt that he was harder on me than he was on the other girls: he was meaner, less patient, and cared less. He lacked confidence in me, which in turn led me to lose confidence in myself. I was the only person of color on the Girls XC team, and one of the few Asians in my school. I can’t say that my race/ethnicity had to do with this treatment but he definitely always made me feel like an “other.”
As a result of these experiences, I adapted a personality that countered the Asian girl stereotype. I am loud, aggressive, competitive, strong, and athletic. Being a first generation immigrant, I learned from my mom to be strong, to have grit, be diligent, and to give 100% in everything I do – otherwise, people will trample you. I carry this voice in every interaction in my life.
Tell me about when you finally found your voice.
I finally found my voice in my mid-to-late 20s, after college years. I went to Bowling Green State University, in the middle of nowhere, Ohio, with the majority of fellow students being white, and I was one of the few minorities. My roommate once said that I wasn’t “really Asian” because I didn’t have an accent and didn’t eat with chopsticks all the time. She meant it as a “compliment” but it still stung. My freshman year, I was more aware of the ignorant, racist comments people said to me. It made me angry and frustrated and forced me to begin speaking up against such comments. In college, you can say I talked the talk, but I didn’t walk the walk. It was through various points of trial and error that I began to walk the walk too.
It was about 5 years ago that I finally decided not to care about what other people thought and that came with teaching and coaching. Teaching can be tough at first. You want the kids to like you and you want to ensure that you know the content so you can educate well. But a good teacher and coach can’t obsess over what others think because sometimes we’re going to have to do things that the kids don’t like or want to do, but we have to do it anyway because it’s all part of the learning process. Once I overcame the want or need to be liked, I felt empowered and free. That feeling flowed into all aspects of my life. I know I’m not exactly a likeable person. I can be very blunt, ask awkward questions, give very honest answers, and sometimes give way too much information because I don’t like beating around the bush or ignoring the elephant in the room. I don’t follow social norms or rules, which can put a lot of people off. With my voice, however, I am free from obligations and the burden of doing things quite simply to appease others. The people I have in my life accept me for who I am and don’t judge me, and even if they did, I couldn’t care less. It’s empowering and liberating, and I am the happiest I have ever been.
Define “voice” and why is it important?
“Voice” is my morals and beliefs expressed in a way of self-respect. My voice is important because it is proof that I am a person of value who deserve to be heard. Having a voice means that you have truly found yourself. Not only do you finally know what makes you happy and how to make yourself happy, but you also have the strength and confidence to make your own decisions and express yourself in ways that lead to happiness without caring about what others think.
What advice do you have for someone trying to find their voice?
Don’t ever regret or resent the bad times because those experiences teach you more than what the “good times” can teach you. The good times are there for you to enjoy and for you to want to work towards having more of them but it is the bad times that make you stronger, more resilient, wiser, more empathetic, and more resourceful. Be thankful for the bad just as much as the good.
My experiences gave me the strength to speak up and share so that others don’t feel isolated in their experiences. I was excruciatingly insecure throughout my childhood. I remember looking in the mirror knit-picking my physical features and wishing I was white. I know that I have students who also feel the same way. I can empathize with my students and team members, especially if they are a person of color and/or from low-income backgrounds. Many of my students and team members have insecurities and/or lack confidence but they don’t know what to do from there. What do people do to become and feel more secure with themselves? What do people do to gain confidence? What can they do and how do they cope when they feel like an “other?” I speak openly about my experiences so when they hear it, they know there are others who feel the same way. Only then can we open the conversation to discuss things they can do to feel more secure with themselves, to figure out ways to be more confident and find constructive ways to stand up to our bullies.
Ayumi Nagano is a teacher, coach and an activist. She taught ESL in Japan for 5 years, and is now in her 6th year of teaching Research at Millennium Brooklyn High School. Ayumi also shares her passion for running with her students as the high school’s Cross Country and Track Coach. In 2018, Ayumi became an Ambassador for Run 4 All Women, an organization that promotes empowerment through physical fitness and spreads awareness of women’s rights issues.