I was in Indonesia a few years ago with a non-profit organization that partners with churches in impoverished communities to offer supplemental education, medical care, and skills training. We were in Bali and they wanted to take us to one their centers in the rural mountains. They said that because of the remote location, the community there rarely receives visitors and it would mean a lot to them if we came. So we did. We left the tourist magnet of Denpasar on the southern end of the island and winded our way north into the rural heart of the ancient Hindu island. When we arrived, the smiling faces of children greeted us as their proud parents and teachers stood close by. It was later, when I was kicking around a soccer ball with a group of teens that I discovered the pictures painted on the wall. It was my old pal Mickey Mouse.
I love these pictures for so many reasons. I love that they are not perfect. I love that they are faded and cracked. I love that the tools of a caretaker drape the walls. But more than anything, I love the mystery of it. How in the world did Mickey Mouse get here? Who brought Mickey Mouse and his friends to this remote, resource-strapped community so geographically and culturally removed from the western civilization that created him?
I would have thought it an isolated and coincidental mystery had it not happened again.
A few months ago I was in Kolkata, India visiting a community nestled on the Ganges River about a two-and-a-half hour drive northwest of the city. I walked into an old Anglican mission that dated back to time of British Raj. And there it he was again. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
The walls of the mission were adorned with pictures, most were of Jesus, some were of Mickey Mouse... with a mustache.
In retrospect I wish I had grabbed the priest and asked my questions: Who painted the images? How long have they been there? Why Mickey Mouse?
I didn’t get an answer, but I did get a clue. Later on that same trip I met a charming and bright young Indian woman who was raised in the slums; a child of poverty, but through education, hard work, and faith she is now in college studying to be a teacher. (Her name was Cinderella, no joke.) I asked her if she knew who Mickey Mouse was. She smiled and said, “Oh, yes, I know Mickey Mouse. I watched the cartoons as a child.” Even the poorest of the poor enjoy their Saturday morning cartoons. (For the record, her favorite cartoons were Mr. Bean cartoons because they were “so funny.”)
Much has been written about the globalization of the Disney brand. But when the images of the brand appear in communities that hold no purchasing power, any cynicism regarding the consuming reach of western capitalism can be suspended.
Instead, what I see is the power of a story. The story is of a mouse and his band of loyal friends who always seem to find themselves in a whirl of trouble, but through cleverness, resilience, and sometimes a little mischief, they overcome. They always overcome. And that is the genius of Mickey Mouse. He is not just an American symbol. He is a story of the human spirit. And those kind of stories reach beyond borders and languages and customs. And sometimes, like ancient cave drawings, we paint them on walls, so we can remember.
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A WRITER AND TRAVELER KEEPING THE FAITH IN LOS ANGELES