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Saki Balm


Nara, Japan

by Lara Callaway
backpack girls

              On the way to her house in Nara, Japan, Yuki had told me in broken English that her little cousin would be there waiting for us. I nodded, but I was most excited to sit down and talk one on one with Yuki about her home-life and schooling in Japan. I worried that the language barrier and both of our propensities for shyness would get in the way, but I was determined to push through it.

        Waiting in the tatami room for Yuki to bring tea, I notice a little head peer tentatively around a pretty rice-paper door, as two dark eyes zero in on me. Instantly, bounding into the room is this little girl who proceeds to throw herself on the zabuton opposite me, bouncing up and down as her two sleek black pigtails spring cutely on either side of her head. Her eyes are wide as she stares directly at me and announces, “Hello. My name is Saki.” Her bangs are pinned back with pink clips designed to look like little bear ears, and she’s so precious I almost don’t notice how well she just spoke English to me. “Hello, Saki. My name is Lara,” I respond. “Rala,” she repeats. I smile at the attempt. I can tell that she’s practiced for this, and in this moment wants to make sure that we have identified with each other. “How old are you?” I try to ask. She throws a nervous glance at Yuki, who has just appeared in the doorway, and she whispers to her in Japanese. She’s translating the question, I assume, because Saki then concentrates on her fingers, ticking off until there’s only two left down. I realize then it’s not necessarily her English that is so good, it’s just the similarity of her timid little-girlish voice to those of American children. “Eight.” She beams at me, and pushes her tongue through the gap in her front teeth.

Yuki had told me earlier that Saki was eager to see me because she’d never met an American before. I thought the concept was cute, but hadn’t considered that similarly, I had never met a little Japanese girl before. So rather than scrutinize Yuki in her inhibited reluctance, I switch my subject to the ever-willing ball of energy who is currently bouncing in my lap explaining (in rapid Japanese) the mechanics of a game called “janken hoi.”  Like Theodore Bestor discusses regarding choosing the right network to study in his article Doing Fieldwork in Japan; my network had chosen me.  I change my attention focus to Saki, doing my best to keep up with her.

            I can’t imagine who I am in Saki’s eyes; an adult to earn the affection of, an exotic new icon, or just another playmate. Sometimes I think she believes that I understand her words, and other times I think she knows I’m just mimicking her. At these times she grows silent and focuses on our body language, but it never takes long for her to become so pleased with our interactions that she seemingly forgets my position and begins to chat with me again. When we’re both quiet, I see out of the corner of my eye that she’s still looking at me, not secretly, but earnestly. She’s the only person I’ve met all day who has no reservations about blatantly staring at me, and I take solace in Saki’s relentless watching. The watcher being watched, the ceaseless observer, observed. There is comfort in realizing this, though I know not what she sees. In the name of cultural anthropology I study, and in the name of curiosity, little Saki does too.

yuki's family

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