After leaving Chicago, I took a short detour through the northeastern United States to work with America’s premier youth circus, Circus Smirkus. Getting away from the hustle-and-bustle of the big city was a nice retreat to begin planning and focusing for Indonesia. I organized several small fundraisers with performer buddies, raised enough money to buy a plane ticket and cover some basic costs for the expedition and boarded the plane back to the place I had grown up.
When I first returned to Indonesia after a six year hiatus, things were different than they were when I left. I was different. I arrived home to this scattered gathering of islands knowing that I wanted to help. I had an idea of what I thought the children of Indonesia needed, and I was set on giving them just that! I spent three months touring through the city under the auspices of the international comic relief organization, Clowns Without Borders USA.
I performed for thousands of children and their families in poor villages, orphanages, homeless shelters and hospitals. It was wonderful to learn that children in Indonesia were basically the same as children in America. Yes, they were more poor and they looked different, but the characteristics that make you innately childlike are the same in any culture or country.
It was during one of my first village visits to a North Jakarta fishing village called Cilincing that I discovered the name of my expedition and future organization. Cilincing was my first sight at the poverty behind the curtains. It was a face of poverty that you don’t see driving in your car or stopping at traffic lights. I was shocked and a little scared. The smell alone was overwhelming. I tried to hide my feelings of discomfort and focus on what I was there for: To perform and bring joy to children in need of a laugh.
During my first trip through the labyrinth of make shift houses with recycled tin rooftops and bamboo walls to the performance space, I was greeted with scowls, stares and some sarcastic “hey mister” attitudes. Watching up to dodge the low hanging awnings and watching down to avoid stepping on the dead rats or piles of human waste, all I could think was, “How am I supposed to be funny?”
Once I’d seen the location where I was supposed to perform, I returned to the car to get into my minimal clown gear. I put on the oversized clown shoes loaned to me by a good friend back in Chicago, tied my overgrown hair in a ponytail and glued the clown nose to my face. As I tried to remember which small alley connected to the next, ducking and often colliding into the low hanging rooftops, I noticed that people’s attitudes towards me had changed. I was no longer this oversized foreigner staring at them as though they were in a zoo, but now I was a clown! Old men literally rolled off their benches in fits of laughter as they all pointed and screamed, “hidung merah! Wah, hidung merah!” My Indonesian was a little rusty, but I could tell by the tones in their laughter that whatever “hidung merah” was, it was a good thing.
The show I put on was different than anything I’d ever done in the past. In the corner of a family’s shanty home, with the heat seeping through the bamboo grass walls, I began to goof and joke. The room was jam-packed. Children were climbing on top of each other in the back to take turns looking at this goofy foreigner with a red nose. After the show, the children took turns learning how to spin a plastic plate or throw and catch a few scarves. And when I couldn’t handle the heat any longer, we packed up and headed home.
On the way home, I asked my friend, who’d brought me to the village, what “hidung merah” meant. She smiled and replied, “red nose.” I learned that day that a red nose might just be what brought us as people together. A red nose is not Indonesian or American. It’s not from a wealthy family or a poor family. It’s just red. And if we all wear red noses, then we are all the same. Everything that made us different didn’t matter. We were just a bunch of clowns. Everything began to make sense and my program had found its name.
During this 10-week expedition, I also began teaching informal circus lessons to the children who attended my shows. My philosophy, which I adapted from a combination of CircEsteem’s mission and Clowns Without Borders, was to bring the children on a journey far away from their actual lives for a few hours; teach them to be superheroes before they had to return to their unfair lives. To call these children at risk might not do justice to their actual situations. Yes, they are at risk: At risk of child labor, at risk of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, at risk of having their human rights to food, clean water and education being denied to them. But their situation goes beyond the standard western understanding of “at risk.” These children were in need of so much, I didn’t know where to begin. So we laughed and smiled together. We created positive memories among the plethora of negative ones.
I was proud of my work in Indonesia and I loved watching the faces on the children and their families as they laughed at my clown acts, jumped for joy at their successful spinning of a plate and joked with their friends wearing the red noses that I’d passed out. But somehow, I couldn’t help but feel like I was 16 again, sitting in my car, only reaching my hand out to give them a few coins and then driving off.
As I began to say goodbye to the children I’d worked with, I realized something that I found profound. Giving them emotional relief was great — comic relief tours are important. But, if I really wanted to help these children, it was going to take more than a 10-week performance expedition. After spending time getting to know the children of this city, I found myself left with an uncontrollable desire to do more. I knew it would be hard, but when asked why I wanted to help so badly, my response was always, “Because I’m young and I can. If I can help and I don’t, who is going to?”
And it was with those thoughts I returned home to begin fund-raising for what I would later call the Red Nose Foundation.
Finding My Nose, Part 1
Finding My Nose, Part 2