I am a shy person at my core, but no one believes this because for almost 40 years, I made my living as a TV news anchor and reporter.
It’s true. When I was little, I was so shy that I wouldn’t go trick-or-treating. My brothers and sisters would come back with huge bags of candy, dumping them on the floor and running out again for more. I can still see them, breathless with sugar-charged excitement, trying to get me to come along, but the idea of knocking on the doors of strangers or even neighbors was just too terrifying.
Having to sell Girl Scout cookies door to door was torture. At one home, the lady made my sister and I come inside to kvell over our little uniforms. I wore one of those little Brownie beanies. I still remember the kvelling– INSIDE A STRANGER’S HOUSE. It was mortifying.
What I enjoyed most was playing by myself in our small backyard. My dad made me a bird feeder and in the spring the birds would nest in the Hawthorne trees next to my bedroom window. My favorite childhood memory is watching the whole nesting process, from the egg laying all the way to that amazing day when the chicks fledged on unsteady wing, with their nervous parents shrieking hysterically.
I was a living stereotype of the nice little Japanese girl: quiet, polite, and obedient. My mom worried that I would spend my life being stepped on like a doormat. She told me that she spent much of her own life as a doormat, and the idea of me repeating that experience saddened her. My poor mom raised five kids, pretty much on her own. One of my brothers is disabled and one sister had emotional problems and my dad could never really handle it. If one of us did something wrong (and you know how kids are), he would go nuts, yelling, and often hitting my brothers.
This had a huge affect on all of us. I learned not to do anything wrong. I learned how to avoid conflict.
Staying under the radar was actually something the whole Japanese American community did. The WWII Internment Camps had only closed down in 1946 and our parents were busy trying to reestablish their homes and businesses. We lived with this unspoken truth: you could lose everything in a moment because of your race. There was less chance of that if we avoided conflict and studied hard. We set out to prove that we were good Americans.
All of this made me even less willing to take gambles and just reinforced my need to seek approval. Add being shy to that mix and you get the picture.
At some point though, I began to see that being shy, quiet and obedient meant you usually didn’t get what you wanted. Sometimes you didn’t even KNOW what you wanted because you were so used to being obedient.
My disabled brother and sister NEVER got what they wanted. Neither did my mom.
All of these quiet realizations led to THE MOMENT. I don’t personally remember this moment, but my mother did, and she has recounted THE MOMENT in vivid terms:
I was about 10 years old, and quietly (as usual) sitting at the kitchen table with Mom and her friend. My mom was talking about how worried she was about my siblings, when suddenly, as she tells it, I hit my fist on the table and announced, “I’m not going to be like that!!”
She was stunned. Such a dramatic pronouncement was totally out of character.
But in fact, after THE MOMENT, I began to change.
I don’t remember thinking any of this through at the time, nor was I consciously aware of how badly I wanted something different for myself. What I do remember is slowly starting my own little assertiveness training program, forcing myself to be more out there. Looking back, this took some serious willpower. I ramped up those efforts when we moved to a new neighborhood and I had to meet new kids.
It was really hard at first, foisting myself on strangers. I had to force myself to say “hi” and to start a conversation. It felt almost out-of-body strange- like acting- very inorganic.
One day, I found an old copy of How to Make Friends and Influence People, among my dad’s old books. That book taught me a lot. It taught me to break the ice by asking questions. I learned to listen well, and I came to realize that I was actually pretty good at making other people feel comfortable. I think this process helped me recognize that even though I was shy, I had natural communication skills.
High school for me became all about making friends and influencing people. Our school had a large percentage of Asian students- in fact our entire top 10 were Asian. But the Asian children of tiger moms were not getting what they wanted- they were keeping their heads down and worrying about grades. I really did not want to be stuck in that box. I became loud, opinionated, and outgoing. I was a cheerleader.
During college, Asian Americans were joining the larger civil rights movement. Being Japanese American became something I felt proud of, not something I felt I had to overcome. Women were pushing for equal rights- no more doormats. I was getting outside reinforcement to break stereotypes and to reach for something larger. I changed my major from Elementary Education to Political Science.
By the time I finished college and started thinking about a career, I was a more complex person- still shy inside, but with a learned ability to push past that, and meet, greet and pursue.
A Japanese American woman had just started reporting on local TV in Seattle. When she came on, my father would yell, “BARBARA’S ON TV!” and we’d all come running into the living room to watch.
Maybe I could do that, I thought…
Someone knew her and arranged for me to shadow her in the newsroom one morning. At some point during that visit, I recognized deep in my gut, this was where I belonged. This was what I really wanted.
Shyness can end your career in a newsroom. But the best thing I had going for me, shy or not, was persistence. That was crucial in landing that first on-air job, and later, in getting information. If someone said no, I had to find a way around it.
When I got that first job as a reporter, we had to have our scripts checked by the Managing Editor. I would stand politely in line while other reporters simply jumped in front of me. “Sorry Tokuda, I’m on deadline,” or “I’m late, I have to get in here!” I would think to myself in my small, shy voice, “I’m on a deadline too…”
I had to learn to push my way in and stand my ground. I forced myself way out of my comfort zone to approach strangers and get “man-on-the-street” interviews. Again, it felt awkward and inorganic at first, but I pushed through that feeling and just did it.
Having a microphone and a photographer at my side gave me a power I’d never had. “Excuse me, Channel 5 here,” I learned to say, walking taller. The waters would part, and we’d move through the crowd.
Another thing I liked about reporting- we weren’t IN the conflict; we were COVERING it. We were trained to be fair. Not to take sides, but to find the truth. The truth would speak for itself.
Reporting involved skills that regularly pushed me out of my cocoon- asking a lot of questions was the only way to get a story, and speaking out was the only way to be heard. I found that I had a competitive, ambitious side too, which seemed to grow with success.
One day my mother asked me, which are you: the shy little girl, or the pushy broad? I thought about it, and answered, “I guess I’m both.”
The truth was, sometimes that pushy bravado still felt a little forced. It would take many years for me to find the boundaries of what I was really made of and to feel truly integrated, whole and authentic. It took successes and failures and life to develop true confidence.
I was in my 50s by then . . .
I’m retired now. As I’ve gotten older, I care less about what others think, but the shy thing never totally goes away.
I still feel shy when we go to parties with a lot of strangers or if I have to meet an important person. During the election this fall, I had to gather all my courage to hand out leaflets at the farmer’s market for a friend who was running for office. For the most part, I now accept shyness as one of the many characteristics that make me who I am.
By the way, I have several bird feeders now. I am back out in the garden and spend hours in the forest doing environmental restoration work. It’s very healing after all those years of pushing. I am enjoying a quiet peace.
Wendy Tokuda was a San Francisco Bay Area television staple for more than 30 years, as both TV news anchor and feature reporter. She retired from broadcast journalism in 2016.