“I’m sorry, what was your name again? Kaisj?”
“No, it’s Gijs. It’s a Dutch name. Yes, I know that it’s pretty difficult for foreign people to pronounce. You know what? Just call me whatever you want.”
“Ok, I’ll call you Jarwo then.”
And there I was, after an 18-hour-flight, with my Dutch pale (wooden shoeless) feet on Indonesian ground. I’d left my beloved western little country for the big unknown eastern world: A totally different world with another culture, habits, another language, and where people are not even able to pronounce my name properly.
“I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien”, Sting once sang. Nice lyrics mister Sting, but hey, I’m not even an Englishman in New York. I’m a Dutchman in Jakarta. A “bule!”
Was I sure about this new adventure? Of course.
After my graduation last November, I was determined to experience something totally different before entering the Dutch labor market. And as a fresh graduate in Communication and Digital Media, working at the Red Nose Foundation was really that different … remarkable at the least. There was no chinrubbing geektalk about too expensive Apple computers and no tongue twisting jargon spitting around a fancy office, but rather simply flip-flopping through the dirty streets of the poorest areas of Jakarta, spreading education and entertainment among children living in underprivileged circumstances.
So, yes, something totally different it was!
Since the moment I decided to do this internship people had tried to support me by giving me the best of advice and sharing well-considered thoughts and questions.
“Do you think you can handle the cultural differences?” “How are you going to deal with a possible culture shock?” “Are you able to adapt to such different circumstances?”
Actually, the answer was: “I don’t know.”
I have to admit that my first impressions of the slum areas (especially Cilincing) were quite overwhelming. The people are obviously poor, the streets are dirty and the terr… uuh… unpleasant smell is hard to get rid of.
In the middle of the narrow alleys of Cilincing, an inconspicuous brown door opens and a colorful room appears like a rainbow in a dark sky. A bunch of excited children greet me with a big smile and a high-five. Then the floor is covered with mats and the music starts. The contagious enthusiasm of the children attracts several people in the neighborhood. They watch how the youngest kids sing and dance to the Hokey Pokey song.
“Put your whole self in, put your whole self out, put your whole self in and shake it all about. You do the Hokey Pokey and turn yourself around, that’s what it’s all about.”
Well, eat your heart out mister Sting. It may sound beautiful when you chock your songs up with poetic phrases and devious metaphors, but let’s keep it simple this time. As simple as a children’s song. Let’s not fuss about cultural differences, inconveniences, uncertainties or expectations. No profound musings, but instead let’s take it easy, take the plunge, and see what happens.
I decided to choose the Hokey Pokey method.
Gonna put my whole self in. That’s what it’s all about!
Red Nose Foundation from Gijs Daemen on Vimeo.
The weeks passed by in no time. Teaching English mainly filled my schedule, but now and then I also found myself doing a dance with the kindergarten kids, playing a game with the youngsters or even trying to juggle in circus class. There was no time to miss the Netherlands. In fact, I was more concerned about how much I was going to miss Indonesia when I would be back in my cold snowy home country. The tropical weather in Jakarta almost made me forget that it actually was February. In the Netherlands, February is the month of the cold, snow and… carnaval!
This probably needs some explanation.
Six weeks before Easter, the grey winter view of the south of the Netherlands changes into a shiny colorful stage of the most sensational celebration of the year: Carnaval! For five days people clear their minds and forget about their daily business, sorrows and troubles. Everybody dresses up in silly costumes, dances like goofballs and parties like the Maya-calendar is coming to an end. The “carnaval-effect” is difficult to explain, but impossible to resist. Obviously, I had to miss the celebration this year. I had to make my own party at the other side of the world
Firstly, I didn’t need a silly costume to get attention. As a “bule” I was an interesting carnaval’s costume myself. Dancing like a goofball was no problem either. I could just join the Red Nose kindergarten class when doing the Hokey Pokey. Clearing my mind, on the other hand, was quite difficult. My luxurious spoiled western mind got triggered all the time by lots and lots of impressions, situations and questions.
When driving through Cilincing, I couldn’t help staring at the streets, the people and their houses. Every time I stepped out of the car, the heat and the smell of Cilincing hit me right in the face. Bam!
Recovering wasn’t actually necessary, because just a few moments later I was surrounded by a dozen smiling children. Time and time again, the question popped up: how is it possible that these children can be so happy, sweet and optimistic in these poor circumstances?
I refuse to believe that they just don’t know any better. I can’t imagine that they are not aware of the rich, luxurious life of others just a few kilometers south of their district. As a Dutchman, I’m used to people complaining. Because, besides soccer and building dams, complaining is in fact one of our national specialties.
But how come, here on the other side of the world in the poorest areas of Jakarta, I hear nobody complaining? I only see smiling faces and happy children. They must have their own sorrows and troubles as well, right? Is it just part of the Asian culture to hide these emotions for others? Or is it the presence of Red Nose that puts a smile upon their faces?
Maybe it’s a little pretentious to fully assign the beautiful positive mindset of these people to Red Nose. But, especially in the case of the children, I’m convinced that Red Nose has a major role in it. Red Nose gives the children and youngsters an opportunity to forget their situation, to dance, to play, to learn, to sing, to have fun.
Actually, something quite like the carnaval-effect.
No sorrows, no troubles, even if it’s only for a little while. I think the need for such a (temporary) escape is universal. Ways of escaping may differ between cultures, countries, or even individuals. But besides the educational and development part of the Red Nose program, I think Red Nose is also the answer to this universal need. The kids can escape their poor circumstances and just be kids, even if it’s just for a little while. Call it the carnaval-effect, call it the Red Nose effect, but without a doubt it’s very important and indispensable. Especially in poor areas like this. And that’s what makes Red Nose important and indispensable. Without a doubt.
I’m back home. Trying to summarize and order my thoughts and memories. I think the Hokey Pokey method turned out pretty well for me. I put my whole self in. That’s what it was all about. I’m glad and thankful that I could be just a little piece in this big beautiful Red Nose puzzle. In return, the kids, my colleagues, the city, the circumstances and the experience as a whole gave me a thousand puzzle pieces back to broaden my own puzzle. Not all of these pieces have found their rightful place yet, but with a mindset as optimistic as the people I’ve met, I’m sure they will soon.
Text, photos and video by Gijs Daemen