From the month of October I was sent to a “small” city in China called “Shijiazhuang.” I filmed the 14th Wuqiao International Circus Festival.
I think to start, I need to eliminate the predisposed idea of the “circus” involving elephants and other exotic mammals. In fact, most circuses don’t involve animals. It’s only the “traditional” ones that do. Having been born in the “Big Apple Circus” as a kid, I grew up answering a lot of questions what the circus was like. I’ve always countered with the question, “What’s it like to have an electrician as a father?” The truth is, I don’t know how to answer the question, because it’s the only family life I’ve ever had.
Back in China, it was neat to follow the different performance artists around, and in some ways comforting to be back “home” in the circus once more. We were all lost and confused how the culture in China works. In all my travels abroad, China has by far been one of the most culturally distant experiences I’ve ever had. For the first few days nothing made sense. It’s hard to describe. I remember thinking I was trapped in a bubble.
The pollution outside was what I imagined stepping onto another planet with a harsh atmosphere must be like. Everything was so hazy you began to question whether your eyesight was getting worse, or the pollution prevented you from seeing. It was comforting to know all the other foreign artists were just as lost as well. But then, something changed for me.
When my father performed on stage the audience smiled. The smiles grew into chuckles, and by the end of his act, the crowd was left roaring with laughter. I had never seen my father so happy on stage before. In many ways, it was a huge achievement for him. He could finally say he made every culture in the world laugh. Pantomime is such a universal language. It shouldn’t come off as a surprise that it transcends the barriers of communication. But I finally realized that no matter what the cultural differences we have, we’re all human.
We’re often afraid of what we don’t understand. And our fear sometimes prevents us from exploring and learning more about others. But when you realize that we’re all human it certainly lifts the blanket of fear we’re all predisposed of having when encountering something new.
As I was filming on my last week in China, a little girl came up to me and wanted to look at my camera. I was left pantomiming what the buttons did on my camera. Though I don’t think she understood, it was clear she understood that I was explaining something. It’s funny that children can be the most straightforward when meeting new people. It makes me believe that our tendency to be shy towards other cultures is an acquired one.
I asked her family if I could photograph her which they agreed to. As I counted in my broken Chinese she lifted her arm and held a piece sign.
We’re all human in the end.