President Obama Wanted to Be Prime Minister of Indonesia

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Photo: Courtesy of Barack Obama

New York Times scribe Janny Scott went away in 2008 to research and write a book on the life of a woman who would have never expected to ever become a topic of such intense curiosity: Barack Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, who died in 1995. This week, the Times Magazine is running an excerpt of the book, A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother, which not only illuminates the life of Stanley Ann during her time in Indonesia, but provides new insights into the childhood of the man who would eventually become president.

We learn that the Indonesian children would throw rocks at him and call him racial slurs, but that the experience may have shaped Obama's calm demeanor.

The Java­nese, especially the Central Javanese, place an enormous emphasis on self-control .... 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.”

Obama wasn't always so reserved: In one anecdote, a household servant, Saman, tells of an 8- or 9-year-old Obama hitting him twice in the chest for not turning out a light as he'd requested. Perhaps Obama learned to dole out such punishment from his mother, who, according to two sources, would spank Obama with her hand or a belt if he misbehaved or failed to finish his homework. (Obama denies his mom used such parenting tactics.)

Then there's this anecdote:

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” [Obama's stepfather] Lolo asked Barry one evening, according to Saman.

“Oh, prime minister,” Barry answered.

It would seem that at that point in his childhood, Obama assumed his stay in Indonesia was permanent and envisioned his future there. But concerned about his education, Stanley Ann sent Obama back to Hawaii when he was 10, and he would have to settle for becoming president of the United States instead.

Obama’s Young Mother Abroad [NYTM]