plea for global harmony from Obama's
sister By Dinesh Sharma
Almost four months before the first
multicultural president of the United States seeks
re-election, Barack Obama's half-sister Maya
Soetoro-Ng last week talked about the need for
peace education and harmony in a world torn by war
The July 10 event had the
distinct feeling of a peace powwow on New York
City's Park Avenue, where mainly supporters of the
president gathered to be in the presence of his
sister. This president, who inherited two wars in
Iraq and Afghanistan, has made a concerted effort
to live up to his promise to pull US troops out of
these long-standing conflicts.
included a reading of Ladder to the Moon, a
children's book by Soetoro-Ng, at the Upper East
Side headquarters of the
Asia Society in New York
City. The sounds of Indonesian gamelan music
filled the air along with the chatter about the
upcoming election, to which Soetoro-Ng added a
mixture of lyrical tranquility, hybridity and
The interview, conducted
by the chief executive of the Asia Society, Dr
Vishakha Desai, who is to retire in September
after 22 years of service, having joined in 1990
as the museum director, explored questions about
identity, biography, policy, education, and the
politics of the upcoming election.
Asia Society provides a 360-degree view of the
Asia-Pacific region, ranging from politics and
history to art and culture. It is focused on the
rise of China and India as major economic powers.
Founded in 1956 by John D Rockefeller III, the
Asia Society showcased maestro Ravi Shankar's
sitar music for the first time to an American
audience in 1961, the year Obama was born and well
before The Beatles came to the US or the Woodstock
concert took place.
During the 1970s, '80s
and '90s, the Asia Society opened offices in
Washington, DC, Houston, Hong Kong, Australia, the
Philippines and Los Angeles. It formed the China
Council, and moved into the landmark Park Avenue
office and art gallery. The mid-'90s also
witnessed the rise of interest in Asian-American
studies and immigrant population, led partly by
the Asia Society.
In 2004, Desai became
the first woman and the first Asian-American to
head the prestigious New York-based institution.
During her tenure, it established new offices in
India and South Korea and today its global reach
extends across 11 cities in Asia and the US. This
expansion culminated in the opening of two
architecturally important multimillion-dollar
centers with gallery exhibition space in Hong Kong
The Asia Society has hosted
Maya Soetoro-Ng during previous election campaigns
to discuss wide-ranging issues. However, the
discussion has invariably centered on "a singular
woman" missing from the room, namely the mother of
Maya and Barack, Ann Dunham, whose presence is
strongly felt in their lives.
anthropologist and world traveler as well as a
mother, Ann Dunham was 52 years of age when she
died prematurely of cancer in 1995. She had lived
in 13 places around the world. "She felt at home
in all of them," said Maya, who was named after
the American poet Maya Angelou. Both Maya and
Barack credit their mother for giving them a
global perspective and outlook on life, something
much needed as the US faces the challenges of the
In addition to campaigning
for her brother, Soetoro-Ng works on global
competence, public education and peace initiatives
across different communities through various
non-profit organizations. She is making her impact
felt through her own life and work, said Desai.
Soetoro-Ng said: "The reason I like coming
to New York City is that the city makes me feel
like I am in a very intense multicultural place."
As a volunteer in the city's public schools, while
studying at Barnard College and New York
University, she traveled to all the boroughs and
learned to speak Spanish fluently. She claimed
that the city gave one the power to name oneself
however one chooses. She found herself in New York
City, she said, while living and working there as
a student for almost eight years. She was able to
discover who she was in the city, apart from
Indonesia and Hawaii, the two other places she
identifies with most significantly.
Stressing what anthropologists and
sociologists call the universal aspect of urban
culture, Soetoro-Ng talked about the value of
hybridity, collisions of different cultures, and
the way we negotiate identities in post-modern
cities that are hubs of information, technology
Are humans becoming more
comfortable with multiple layers of self both
within and without our bounded personalities?
Clearly, we are all virtual nomads in the
information age, I would agree. Have we truly
become gypsies in our minds, always moving,
traveling, pushing ahead, and fearful of staying
in one place for too long?
brother, the president, chooses to define himself
as an African-American [of] the city of Chicago,"
The president we know today
emerged from his earlier self, Barry Obama, while
living near Columbia University in the Manhattan
neighborhood of Morningside Heights. He only lived
in the city for two or three years before settling
in Hyde Park, Chicago, as a community organizer
and civil-rights lawyer.
When asked about
policy and day-to-day decision-making, Soetoro-Ng
said, "I have very little impact on policy, on
education or any other matter." She doesn't give
advice and doesn't have meetings with the Obama
administration on any policy-related matters. "I
keep [Education Secretary] Arne Duncan abreast of
things I am doing in Hawaii on education, but
other than that I don't have any input on
"I give him [Obama] support
mostly. I give him family support like Michelle
does," she said.
An audience member asked
when the president was going to change his policy
toward Cuba. Soetoro-Ng talked about grassroots
change and the people-to-people contacts between
Havana and Honolulu, for instance, as the real
bases of change.
Another attendee asked
how she balanced corporate interests with her
emphasis on global education. Soetoro-Ng gave
several examples of public-private partnerships
that can be very beneficial for educational
Another questioner wanted to know
about her Indonesian father, Lolo Soetoro.
Soetoro-Ng replied that she never knew her father
well because her parents divorced when she was
young. In some ways, "my brother, who is older
than me by nine years, got to know him better than
I did, and Lolo figures much more prominently in
my brother's book", she disclosed. Lolo Soetoro
died in 1987 at 52.
Maya Soetoro-Ng, who
was home-schooled by her mother during early
childhood, has dedicated her children's book to
her elder daughter Suhaila as a way for the
granddaughter to get to know her late grandmother,
who was truly a remarkable person for all that she
did in the short span of her life.
Dunham used to joke with her friends that her long
black hair and jet-black eyes were evidence that
she had Cherokee blood running through her family
line. Given her independent mind, she may not have
agreed with all of her son Barack's policies.
However, like many of the attendees who came to be
in the presence of Maya Soetoro-Ng, she would have
been proud of his evolution into a worldly-wise
president, albeit with some graying hair, which
all US presidents display during their years in