JAKARTA, Indonesia — Somewhat bluntly, Barack Obama‘s former teacher sums up the neighborhood thinking when the future American president turned up with his family in Indonesia’s capital more than 40 years ago.
“His mother was white, his father was Indonesian, and here was a black, chubby boy with curly hair. It was a big question mark for us,” said Israella Pareira, who along with most Indonesians at that time had little experience with foreigners.
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But if the neighbors were initially curious, it didn’t take long for them to accept Obama, his American mother and Indonesian stepfather. They now speak with pride and affection about the child who left a big impression here, before going on to make an even bigger mark in history.
Memories of the four years Obama spent in Jakarta will be stirred further next week when he returns to Indonesia, his first visit to the country as president.
The trip will also highlight Obama’s multicultural upbringing, his early exposure to Islam and his lasting family connections to Indonesia, a mostly Muslim, Southeast Asian nation of some 230 million people.
Obama’s childhood and family history would be an interesting start in life for anyone, but are all the more striking in an American president.
The first black American head of state, he is also the first to spend a significant part of his childhood abroad since Theodore Roosevelt, who traveled widely in Europe and the Middle East with his family.
“He was exposed to American black culture, American white culture and Indonesian culture,” said Kay Ikranagara, who worked with Obama’s mother in Jakarta and knew the family well. “He learned that people in all groups should be listened to.”
No schedule of his trip has been released. which was delayed a few days so as not to clash with a crucial moment in the U.S. health care debate. As a result, his wife and children, who were originally going to join him during their spring break, will not be accompanying him.
Born to a black Kenyan father, Obama moved to Indonesia when he was 7 after his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, married her second husband, Lolo Soetoro, whom she met when they were studying at the University of Hawaii.
His half-sister, Maya, was born in Indonesia, but after four years Dunham — her marriage slowly breaking up — sent him back to Hawaii, where he lived with his maternal grandparents and attended school.
His mother had “learned the chasm that separated the life chances of an American from those of an Indonesian. She knew which side of the divide she wanted her child to be on,” he wrote in his autobiography “Dreams from My Father.” ”I was an American, she decided, and my true life lay elsewhere.”
Dunham became fluent in the Indonesian language and her career as an anthropologist and development worker would often take her back to the country for long periods until her death in 1995. Last year, a book based on her dissertation on blacksmiths in Indonesian villages was published.
Obama and his mother first set up home in the Menteng Dalam neighborhood. Now a jumble of houses and narrow streets in the shadow of tower blocks, at the time it was on the edge of the city and fruit trees were landmarks.
Many families still live there, and they shared memories of the boy they knew as Barry. Slipping his way to school along muddy lanes, holding onto his mother’s hand; trying salted fish from a neighborhood shop and mistaking it for cheese; playing with the pet crocodiles that were kept in the back garden.
“He went to everyone’s house, played kites with local kids, got stuck in swamps,” said Coenraad Satja Koesoemah, who allowed Dunham to use his front room to teach English — for free — to locals. “He was a Menteng Dalam kid, what more can I say?”
The family’s life in Indonesia came less than a year after one of the most traumatic and bloody periods in the country’s history — the massacre of up to 500,000 alleged communists by forces loyal to the American-backed Gen. Suharto, who took over the country on the back of the purge.
During the presidential campaign, Obama’s team had to fight back against false reports that he attended a hard-line Muslim boarding school while in Jakarta.
His father was raised a Muslim, but abandoned his faith before he met Dunham. His stepfather was a secular Muslim who was rarely, if ever, seen in the neighborhood prayer house, according to locals.
Obama’s first school in Jakarta was a Catholic one a short walk from his home that had been built just two years earlier by a priest from the Netherlands, the country’s former colonial rulers.
For the first five months, Obama struggled with the Indonesian language but soon became proficient. By all accounts, he quickly became a favorite of the teachers and the pupils there, but endured some teasing on account of his looks.
Those early experiences have been cited as key moments that shaped his view on life.
“One of the reasons that he is so cool and noncombative is that he learned to deal with this teasing culture,” said Ikranagara. “It is a game here, and the trick is not to show you are bothered.”
Soetoro got a job working for an American oil company. Dunham found work teaching English at the American Embassy and shared company with a mixed Indonesian, expatriate academic and artsy crowd.
“After these years I can still see her clearly among the people at the party,” said John McGlynn, a long time Jakarta resident. “More than anything she was a person who stuck out from the crowd.”
After three years, the family moved to a better neighborhood on the other side of railroad tracks that divide that part of Jakarta. There, they rented a colonial-era house in the garden of a large villa.
When Obama returns next week, he will find that this part of his past has remained much as he left it, right down to the “Beware of the dog sign” on the fence, the bench where he used to do his homework and the art deco stained-glass windows on his old house.