“Sai-sho-wa-gu, jan-ken-pon.” Girl repeats the words to “Rock, Paper, Scissors” in perfect rhythmic Japanese as she busies about our kitchen, transferring magnetic alphabet letters from bowl to fridge and back again. She drops a letter, which skitters beneath my feet, and I pick it up and pass it to her. “A-ga-to,” she says, dropping the “ri” in her emphatic toddlerese, and bows deeply as she receives the letter with two hands.
Her birthday was just a couple weeks ago, and I can’t believe my youngest child is already 2. Or that, in this single moment, she reveals layer upon layer of deep Japanese cultural training: the ubiquitous game of chance used to decide everything from schoolyard to corporate dealings, the ever-important verbal offering of gratitude, the two hands of focused attention, and of course the respectful bow closing an exchange. Only her blue eyes and strawberry blonde hair suggest non-Japanese origins.
For me, the viewer, the outsider, I tend to see her actions through an ethnographer’s lens, as so much of what she does is not grounded in my own cultural experience. Maybe, even, I notice more because her actions are often — though not always — foreign. But then again, I am also simply a parent, and perhaps mothers and fathers can’t help but to be fascinated by their own children. And also: maybe a parent is an ethnographer of sorts — one that has let go of the Prime Directive for the sake of a different set of ethics.
Either way — parent or ethnographer — here’s what I’ve noticed lately: through constant practice, Girl is learning how to be.