Slogging his way through Washington over the past couple of years has certainly demystified Barack Obama. The thoughtful writer with a complex identity and exotic upbringing has gradually morphed into just another an embattled president caught up in tedious Capitol Hill battles with the capital’s usual suspects. But Obama’s remarks up his return to Indonesia today, where he lived for four years as a boy, are a good reminder that the White House really hasn’t ever seen the likes of Obama before:
Let me begin with a simple statement: Indonesia is a part of me. I first came to this country when my mother married an Indonesian man named Lolo Soetoro. As a young boy, I was coming to a different world. But the people of Indonesia quickly made me feel at home.
Jakarta looked very different in those days. The city was filled with buildings that were no more than a few stories tall. The Hotel Indonesia was one of the few high rises, and there was just one brand new shopping center called Sarinah. Betchaks outnumbered automobiles in those days, and the highway quickly gave way to unpaved roads and kampongs.
We moved to Menteng Dalam, where we lived in a small house with a mango tree out front. I learned to love Indonesia while flying kites, running along paddy fields, catching dragonflies, and buying satay and baso from the street vendors. Most of all, I remember the people – the old men and women who welcomed us with smiles; the children who made a foreigner feel like a neighbor; and the teachers who helped me learn about the wider world.
Because Indonesia is made up of thousands of islands, hundreds of languages, and people from scores of regions and ethnic groups, my times here helped me appreciate the common humanity of all people. And while my stepfather, like most Indonesians, was raised a Muslim, he firmly believed that all religions were worthy of respect. In this way, he reflected the spirit of religious tolerance that is enshrined in Indonesia’s Constitution, and that remains one of this country’s defining and inspiring characteristics.
I stayed here for four years – a time that helped shape my childhood; a time that saw the birth of my wonderful sister, Maya; and a time that made such an impression on my mother that she kept returning to Indonesia over the next twenty years to live, work and travel – pursuing her passion of promoting opportunity in Indonesia’s villages, particularly for women and girls. For her entire life, my mother held this place and its people close to her heart.
So much has changed in the four decades since I boarded a plane to move back to Hawaii. If you asked me – or any of my schoolmates who knew me back then – I don’t think any of us could have anticipated that I would one day come back to Jakarta as President of the United States. And few could have anticipated the remarkable story of Indonesia over these last four decades.