Becoming Beautiful Within

Narumi Lilian Okayama Nekpenekpen awakens to her mission to break the cycle of racism built on ignorance.

Photo: Debra Williams

by Narumi Lilian Okayama Nekpenekpen

Being born to a Japanese mother and a Nigerian father has always been a treasure with many struggles.

While living in Japan for the first six years of my life, I was surrounded by very fair-skinned kids with silky black hair that swayed in the wind whenever they rode on swings. At that time, I didn’t really see color or any differences between myself and the other kids other than that my nose bled a lot, that my hair was very thick and puffy, and that a lot of the teachers treasured me because they saw something very special in me.

But one day in preschool, as I was playing house with a few of my “friends,” one of the girls pushed me aside and said, “You can’t play with us because you’re black!” My mind went blank and fuzzy. Her words seemed too bizarre for me to understand. I felt as if I were being stapled onto the wall with nothing to do but just take it all in.

Although I grew up in a big bowl of love, it wasn’t always easy accepting myself. Having naturally thick and curly hair was a struggle for my mom and me. We fought every time she combed my hair; the comb would go on an everlasting adventure inside my hair, and it was just hell. We decided that I would get my hair straight permed, and that was probably the happiest day of my life as a 5 year old. After all the salon work was done, I shook my hair left, right, up and down. Like a dog chasing its tail, my hair followed my every move and finally danced in the wind.

It is my mission as a Nigerian-Japanese youth to break the cycle of racism built on ignorance.

I had completely forgotten about the racist comments thrown at me as a kid and thought it was all behind me—that is, until my family and I moved to the United States. I was 6 years old.

Before I even learned to count from 1–10 in English, I was thrown into a classroom full of English-speaking students and teachers. The other kids would make very hurtful comments about me being black and Asian.

Despite my mom and I having a very strong bond, I was never satisfied by her answer of why we had to move to America: “It’s for your education!”

Until she was introduced to this Buddhist practice, it was very obvious that she was also seeking something. One day, at my little brother’s friend’s birthday party, my mom met an SGI member, and they instantly became friends. The rapport between them was visible to the point where I became curious as to what she practiced. Soon after, I followed my mom to a district meeting. I was 11 years old.

My mom’s eyes glowed as she chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to the Gohonzon for the first time, which truly inspired me. In 2009, my mother and I received the Gohonzon together. A turning point for me was seeing my mom cry for the first time in front of the Gohonzon as she was chanting—but she wasn’t crying out of sadness; it was from her determination to break through her struggles, no matter how thick the waters. I was truly empowered to clearly see the transformation my mom was going through as she turned poison into medicine. This was when I also decided to challenge my own struggles.

The more I chanted, the more I started to see myself, understand myself and realize that I am here to make a change, and that it is my mission as a Nigerian-Japanese youth to break the cycle of racism built on ignorance. For such a long time, I held grudges as to why we had to move to the States. But being introduced to this practice has helped me put my struggles into perspective.

SGI President Ikeda says we do not wait for someone or something to bring us happiness; rather, we create our own happiness. Buddhism is not about molding ourselves into different shapes, but staying close to our true forms while polishing our own mirrors, our own selves and truly sprouting from the bottom of our hearts.

I am proud of who I am and embrace every aspect of my life every day. I finally let my natural curly, thick hair out again. With this, I was able to say thank you to my parents for deciding to move to the U.S. Without their courage, I would not have been able to fully embrace myself.

I am now a senior in high school and will start college this fall. My dream is to become a mycologist, which is someone who studies fungi and their use to humans as a source for tinder, medicine and food.

My Japanese first name, Narumi, means “to become beautiful within,” while my Nigerian last name, Nekpenekpen, means “to live a long and peaceful life.” With my Buddhist practice, I am determined to live up to this mission for the rest of my life.