Back to Home Page Weekender June 12, 2008
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Obama’s Jakarta Trail
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When Susuk Meets Scalpel
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On A Jet Plane
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This Way Out
Well Read, Well Fed
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To Do List
‘Having Money is Nothing Special’

Obama’s Jakarta Trail

The U.S. presidential campaign is well underway, and Indonesia has a horse in the race. Illinois Senator Barack Obama, a Democrat, lived in Jakarta for about four years as a child. Trish Anderton visited his old neighborhood to explore how that might shape his outlook as a politician.

The power of a teacher

I have to go to Jl. Haji Ramli in Central Jakarta three times before I begin to pick up Barack Obama's trail. I wander the narrow street's many twists and turns, asking everybody if they know someone who's lived in the neighborhood for a long time. Usually this works like a charm, but here I get a lot of blank looks.

"Things have changed a lot," one man tells me. "Most of the older people have died. New people have moved in."

It's frustrating work, and the weather doesn't help. Apparently Menteng Dalam in April has only two modes: hot as a blast oven or raining like crazy.

Then I find Bu Is, and I am saved.

Israella Darmawan is every inch a teacher, from her shiny cap of black hair to her sensible shoes. In an office at the Fransiskus Assisi School, she shows me an old register with an entry for Barry Soetoro, as Barack Obama was know then. Bu Is taught Obama in the first grade. She admits she doesn't remember all her students well, but Barry ... well, he stood out.

 "He really was different from the others. He was tall and heavy, black skin, curly hair."

Obama struggled with Indonesian, she says, but he was clearly a bright kid, especially at math. He had natural leadership qualities, she adds; other kids followed him around during playtime.  "Barack ran somewhere, they went. He ran somewhere else, they followed."

Israella gives me the number of an old classmate of Obama's, Yunaldi Askiar. I call, but he says he can't see me for the next couple of days; he has family obligations. I'm dying inside because I'm already behind deadline, but I can't bring myself to twist his arm. 

The next day, Israella and I are walking down the street when she spots Yunaldi's house. "Wait," she says with a little smile. "I'm his teacher. He has to come out." She stands at the front gate and calls his name. It's been 40 years since Yunaldi was in the first grade, but he comes out. Such is the power of Bu Is.

One long adventure

Barack Obama was born to a white American mother and a black Kenyan father. The couple split up when he was two years old. Then his mother fell in love with an Indonesian named Lolo Soetoro.  She married him and moved with Obama to Jakarta in 1967.

Obama wasn't shielded in an expat bubble. He played with Indonesian kids and went to Indonesian schools. But his mother's marriage failed, and Obama moved to Hawaii to live with his grandparents.  He grew up to become a community organizer and eventually a Democratic senator and presidential hopeful.

In his memoir, Dreams from My Father, Obama describes his Indonesian interlude as "one long adventure, the bounty of a young boy's life". But he also recalls being troubled by the poverty around him: "the empty look on the faces of farmers the year the rains never came," and the desperation of the disabled beggars who came to the family's door.

 "The world was violent, I was learning, unpredictable and often cruel," he writes. That may be the best lesson for an American president to learn. On the other hand, it may be the worst. 

Old Iron-Skull

Yunaldi was telling the truth; he did have family obligations. He's hanging out with his brothers, just like he did when he was a kid. They all remember Obama. Soon I'm sitting on the floor with them, listening to stories of childhood adventures.

Jl. Haji Ramli really has changed. Back then it was just a dirt road. The neighborhood kids played soccer and staged swordfights with bamboo in the middle of the street. They also staged fistfights, pitting boys of similar size against each other. Johnny Askiar's voice is still filled with wonder as he recalls the feeling of hitting Obama's skull.

 "Barry's head was really hard," he says.  "My hand would hurt when I hit it. It was like iron, that head."

A useful quality in a president, perhaps?

The Askiars speak about Obama with what feels like genuine fondness, but as kids they weren't above taking advantage of his status as an outsider. "Sometimes we'd say, 'Barry, do you want a chocolate?’ And we'd give him a chocolate. The next day we'd give him a chocolate again. The third time we'd give him terasi (fermented shrimp paste) wrapped up like chocolate," remembers Harmon Askiar.

Obama didn't get mad, they say. He would laugh it off.

Johnny and his brother Harmon pose for a picture outside with Bu Is. Then Johnny walks me down to Obama's old house. It's hidden behind a black gate, but he says it looks pretty much like it used to. After that he takes me on his motorbike to a little muddy pond where they used to swim. But the pond isn't there anymore; it's been filled in to build housing.

 "The water was yellow, it was river water. It was clean, there weren't chemicals in it," says Johnny. Still, they had to hide their swimming trips from their mothers, who thought the water was unhealthy.

We stand for a moment longer, looking at someone's driveway and a cat sleeping under an SUV. I imagine little kids jumping out of now-disappeared trees into the now-disappeared water. It's something I've seen before in Jakarta: proof that change isn't always progress. That's another good lesson for a politician.

 A 3-D view of the news

Other than John McCain, who was a prisoner in Vietnam during the war, Obama is the only U.S.  presidential candidate for 2008 who has lived abroad – which is a pretty sad statement on American politics, if you ask me.

How might his time in Jakarta shape him as a politician? Even though he was young, Ruth van Reken, who studies international childhoods, says he would still emerge from the experience with a broader outlook.

"He has a 3-D view of the news," says van Reken on the phone from the U.S.  She argues kids who live abroad feel a connection with that country for the rest of their lives. 

 "His life was shaped in that world. and he knew it intuitively even if he didn't know it mentally," she says. "The mental part comes later, you look back and say ‘yeah, I saw that’."

Conversely, living abroad gives you insights into your own country. Obama describes drawing on his Indonesian experience as a community organizer in Chicago. Contemplating the breakdown of social order in that city's notorious public housing projects, he remembered the indigent hawkers at Indonesian marketplaces: they were poor, he wrote in his memoir, but "there remained in their lives a discernible order, a tapestry of trading routes and middlemen … the habits of a generation played out every day beneath the bargaining and the noise and the swirling dust."

Why had the residents of housing projects lost this sense of connection, he wondered, and how could it be restored?

Sometimes you have to go around the world to see what's in front of your face.

Does that make Obama the best candidate? Of course not.  There's no simple equation to translate childhood experience into presidential performance. And living abroad is a complicated and sometimes disturbing experience. Obama clearly stuck out in his old neighborhood; he was teased because he was different, and that sense of being an outsider can have lasting impacts.

Still, I'm drawn to the idea of an American president who can wear a sarong with style, and who feels nostalgic when he hears the call to prayer. And wouldn't it be fun if the White House started serving rendang and gado-gado at state dinners?

Will voters in the U.S. find that idea appetizing, and can Obama turn his Jakarta experience into a Washington advantage? Americans and Indonesians – especially a generous handful in Menteng Dalam -- will be watching closely to find out.