Thursday, February 02, 2006

Circus, Circus

When last we met, I was disparaging the circus industry and their tendency towards connivance. I failed to mention a circus experience I once had that touched me deeply, and no, it didn’t involve a bearded lady.

While in college, an authentic Chinese circus came to town and I was on the student activities committee assigned to the event. The performance was truly astounding, what with the flipping and the balancing and the contorting and the Kung Fu fighting.* But the thing that is etched in my mind about that evening occurred as we were assisting the troupe in loading their equipment back on the bus.

The performers were expressionless as they scurried to and fro, resembling an army of ants hard at work on a hill. They were silent and did not make eye contact with us, the Occidental college students, or each other. Occasionally, instructions were barked out, to no one in particular, but nary a response or affirmation was heard.

Could it be that the ability to balance themselves atop a stack of chairs stretching 50 feet in the air instilled in them an arrogance that one would expect from a Manhattan debutante? They certainly didn’t seem the snooty type.

Once all of the equipment was stowed upon the bus and the troupe began to board, the scene suddenly transformed itself. Several of the performers stopped in their hurried tracks. They turned toward us students, smiles beaming across their faces, and waved and gestured their well wishes across the language barrier. They weren’t stuck-up after all.

It occurred to me, as the departing bus shrouded me in diesel fumes, that one of two things had accounted for what I had just witnessed.

Either the performers had been allowed a brief moment of time, once their work was through, to be themselves and interact in a way that befits their social nature.

Or, the “Fond Farewell” was all part of the act. Those that had stopped and waved perhaps had been selected for that duty because they had exhibited a pleasant demeanor as children, before they had been whisked away to join the circus and serve as representatives of the motherland’s rich culture.

Either way, it was rather sad. Despite the color they exhibited on stage, the performers seemed joyless afterwards, save for that one brief moment. I felt sorry for them, in the way that people do when they project their own percepts of happiness onto others.

That evening had a profound effect on me. Not so much so that I went out and joined Amnesty International. But later that night at a party, I do recall sharing the experience with a young lady who mistook my humanitarian concern for a lame attempt to pick her up. Man, some people are just too . . . perceptive.

*For maximum enjoyment, try to imagine the Simpson’s Professor John Frink File reciting this sentence.

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