How to Educate an American Child in Jakarta

I am, in truth, familiar with two cases of parents who educated their American children in Jakarta. (Readers must draw their own conclusions regarding the “how.”) One is that of an American diplomat and his wife, whom I met here some years ago; the other, Ann Dunham Obama Soetoro. The sons of both families spent their childhood in Indonesia. Now, a diplomat can easily arrange an elite school, even a bilingual school, in any country; Ann and her husband Lolo, however, were fresh out graduate school, starting up married life in an impoverished land. Ann got up at 4 a.m. to teach English to Barack. He didn’t like it very much. “It’s no picnic for me either, buster,” she said, and stuck to her agenda.

Opponents of American president Barack Obama claim that he was educated at a radical Muslim school in Jakarta. They fail to mention that Ann Dunham first sent Barack to a private Catholic school, where he was registered as a Muslim. And where he studied catechism and prayed just like everybody else. Why was he registered as a Muslim? Who knows. His mother was an atheist. His stepfather was, indeed, at least nominally Muslim. Was this decision an effort toward family integration, or a gesture toward reconciliation with the local culture to spare a child the stigma of being different? A futile palliative, perhaps, as his black skin and chubbiness made him contrast starkly with the neighbor children on his dirt street, kids who nick-named him “boy who runs like a duck.” He laughed it off and played with them anyway.

Barack Obama was once again registered as a Muslim when–perhaps owing to economic difficulties–he was enrolled in a public school. It appears that Obama may even have been adopted by his stepfather in order to afford him this opportunity—a good one, at that. SDN Menteng 1 was a prestigious Muslim-majority school where children of many faiths mingled. He was reprimanded for making faces during Qur’an class; his half-sister Maya remembers that sometimes he would go with his friends to the mosque on holidays.

One of his old teachers claims to remember Barack as a bright, left-handed boy with excellent math and language skills—one who even wrote of his ambition to become president. And what about the diplomat’s children? By his adoptive father’s account, the son was the darling of all who knew him, a happy, golden-skinned child moving easily back and forth between English, Dutch and one or two other languages as he eagerly participated in the life of their household.

Then, the winds of change dictated that Barack, age ten, would head “home,” meaning Hawaii and grandmother’s house where he would await his mother’s return from Indonesia. And the diplomat and his wife, wishing their child to grow up American, also decided that it was time to leave Jakarta for home, meaning the Southern US.

Here the stories become different. Barack moved to Honolulu where, in the 60’s, it was cool to be “hapa,” or multi-racial. In the Southern US, golden skin and almond eyes seem not to have been so favorably construed. Perhaps this was shocking to a child so sure of being a Christian and an American, and accustomed to the politesse of the rarified, embassy environment. In any case, alienation ensued and the last I knew that promising, much-loved child of two Anglo parents, had rejected a college education and was working in a muffler shop.

And Barack Obama? His life seems to have been an on-going toss from pillar to post as a result of his mother’s matrimonial choices and her penchant for counter-cultural stances. Was he strengthened by adversity? By Ann Dunhum’s unwavering humanistic values? Was he ecumenized while traversing different universes of belief? What is certain is that he did indeed become president. And in January 2016 he visited a Maryland mosque to support the cause of guiltless Muslim Americans beleaguered by their fellow citizens who have been terrified into a bigoted stance. He thus reaffirmed his inaugural observation that “[. . .]we are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers.” Perhaps we would be challenged to believe that such a patch-work assures greater strength—the contention of Obama, delivered in the best African-American religious rhetoric.

Personally, I– like Rumi–think we all need to feel that beyond our differences, beyond all our inconguencies even, there lies a grassy field where our souls can come together to be at peace. Ah, yes! A grassy field. . .

Image courtesy of [Tuomas_Lehtinen] /