Sunday, May 1, 2011

Growing up in Indonesia - and how I relate to President Obama

ann-dunham-soetoro-barack-obamaLast week there was an  article on Obama's mother in the New York Times. It was fantastic.  She fascinates me, and every time I read about Obama's childhood I find myself rather emotionally relating him and his transient childhood.

Read this:

To describe Dunham as a white woman from Kansas turns out to be about as illuminating as describing her son as a politician who likes golf. Intentionally or not, the label obscures an extraordinary story — of a girl with a boy’s name who grew up in the years before the women’s movement, the pill and the antiwar movement; who married an African at a time when nearly two dozen states still had laws against interracial marriage; who, at 24, moved to Jakarta with her son in the waning days of an anticommunist bloodbath in which hundreds of thousands of Indonesians were slaughtered; who lived more than half her adult life in a place barely known to most Americans, in the country with the largest Muslim population in the world; who spent years working in villages where a lone Western woman was a rarity...

A timeline of her life is here, complete with photos. The article told a number of stories and relayed a number of interviews from Obama's time in Indonesia, which of course is most interesting to me.  I spent time in Jakarta, but the Jakarta of Obama's time is so much like the three years I spent in Ujung Pandang. This... is exactly what I remember:

The Jakarta that greeted Ann Soetoro and her son was a tapestry of villages — low-rise and sprawling — interwoven with wooded areas, paddy fields and marshland. Narrow alleys disappeared into warrens of tile-roofed houses in the rambling urban hamlets called kampungs. Squatter colonies lined the canals, which served as public baths, laundry facilities and sewers, all in one. During the long rainy season from November through March, ca­nals overflowed, saturating cardboard shanties and flooding much of the city. Residents traveled mostly on foot or by bicycle or bicycle-propelled rickshaws called becaks. Power outages were common. There were so few working phones that it was said that half the cars on the streets were ferrying messages from one office to the next. “Sec­retaries would spend hours just dialing and redialing phone numbers trying to get through,” Halimah Brugger, an American who moved there in 1968, told me. Westerners were rare, black people even rarer. Western women got a lot of attention. “I remember creating quite a sensation just being pedaled down the street in a becak, wearing a short skirt,” Brugger said. Letters from the United States took weeks to reach their destination. Foreigners endured all manner of gas­trointestinal upsets. Deworming was de rigueur.

Yet the city had a magi­cal charm. People who were children in Jakarta in that period, including Barack Obama, reminisce about the sound of the Muslim call to prayer in the days before public-address systems, and the signature sounds called out by street vendors wheeling their carts through the kampungs. Tea was still served on the veranda of the old Hotel des Indes. Ceiling fans turned lan­guidly in the midafternoon heat, and kerosene lamps flickered in the houses lining the narrow alleys at night.
Barack Obama in Indonesia with family

My parents, like Obama's mother, intentionally tried to live in the real Indonesia among Indonesians instead of being sucked into a mini-Western world. I love that about her. When I read about her life, I totally get the Ann that was in Indonesia. I knew people like her - people that had transitioned between cultures and had left their own quite intentionally, people passionate about justice and development, people who seem to effortlessly move amidst Indonesian culture and yet were unmistakably Western and outspoken. It's the young Ann that I am truly amazed by - what made this average American girl move into this cross-cultural lifestyle?
Ann Dunham

The thing is, by choosing that life, she may have been giving Obama more than she bargained for. Indonesia really has been quite racist against black people - I lived on an island populated by black people and the rest of Indonesia thinks they're practically animals and can't believe I lived there. There was a story in the article about Obama being mocked by Indonesian kids and Ann telling a friend that he was "used to it".
“We were floored that she’d bring a half-black child to Indonesia, knowing the disrespect they have for blacks,” Bryant said. At the same time, she admired Ann for teaching her boy to be fearless. A child in Indonesia needed to be raised that way — for self-preservation, Bryant decided. Ann also seemed to be teaching Barry respect. He had all the politeness that Indonesian children displayed toward their parents. He seemed to be learning Indonesian ways....“I think this is one reason he’s so halus,” Bryant said of the pres­ident, using the Indonesian adjective that means “polite, refined, or courteous,” referring to qualities some see as distinctively Javanese. “He has the manners of Asians and the ways of Americans — being halus, being patient, calm, a good listener. If you’re not a good listener in Indonesia, you’d better leave.”
There are indeed some of the characteristics of Obama that I relate to that I think both of us of us were at least partly given by the Indonesian culture we lived in. Indonesians are taught not to brag, not to react with outward anger, not to be overly emotional.

Self-control is inculcated through a culture of teasing, Kay Ikrana­gara told me. Her husband, known only as Ikrana­gara, said, “People tease about skin color all the time.” If a child allows the teasing to bother him, he is teased more. If he ignores it, it stops. “Our ambassador said this was where Barack learned to be cool,” Kay told me. “If you get mad and react, you lose. If you learn to laugh and take it without any reaction, you win.”
And then there is the fact that life as a child of a global nomad leads to much transition. I can relate so much to this part.
Ann uprooted Barry, at age 6, and transplanted him to Jakarta. Now she was up­rooting him again, at barely 10, and sending him back, alone. She would follow him to Hawaii only to leave him again, less than three years later.....When we spoke last July, Obama recalled those serial displacements. “I think that was harder on a 10-year-old boy than he’d care to admit at the time,” Obama said, sitting in a chair in the Oval Of­fice and speaking about his mother with a mix of affection and critical distance. “When we were separated again during high school, at that point I was old enough to say, ‘This is my choice, my decision.’ But being a parent now and looking back at that, I could see — you know what? — that would be hard on a kid.”
Obama, 6 years old, smiling

1 comment:

Lisa McKay said...

So interesting, and as a fellow TCK I feel there's a story there I can definitely relate too!