Barack Obama: New Kid in Town, Born 1961
When elected in 2008, Barack Obama made history. He was the first black man, and the first “skinny kid with big ears and a funny name,” as he put it, to become president of the United States. Being the first anything is never easy, as Obama would learn during his two terms in office. But he was prepared for it. After spending his boyhood in Indonesia, he knew a little something about being the new kid in town.
The moment he walked through the front gate of his new home, little Barry Obama knew one thing for sure: he wasn’t in Honolulu anymore.
For starters, a huge hairy animal was ready to hop onto his shoulders. The creature was high in the treetops of Barry’s new front yard, perched on a branch and howling at him. Amazed, Barry turned to his mother, who was equally surprised.
“His name is Tata,” explained Barry’s stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, who owned the house and the swinging simian guest.
Stepping into the ape’s enormous shadow, Lolo paused to feed it a peanut from his pocket. Then he turned to his stepson. “I brought him all the way from New Guinea for you!”
Barry knew that his stepfather had a job drawing maps for the Indonesian army, and that his work took him to some strange and faraway places. But he had no idea that Lolo had returned from one of his trips with such an unusual welcome-home gift.
Barry leaned forward to examine the ape. Tata, however, was not in a welcoming mood. He looked like he was about to lunge forward, so Barry backed away.
“Don’t worry,” Lolo reassured him. “He’s on a leash.” He gave Tata another peanut and then gestured for Barry and his mother to follow him into the backyard. “Come,” he said. “There’s more.”
This new place was a big change for Barry. Back in Hawaii, he had lived with his grandparents in a four-bedroom home in one of Honolulu’s prettiest neighborhoods.
His new house, on the volcanic island of Java, was in a ramshackle neighborhood on the outskirts of town. Half the people in the capital of Jakarta lived in old bamboo huts. Electricity had come to the residents only a couple years earlier.
To get to his new house, Barry had to cross a narrow rickety bridge over a wide brown river. Below he could see children riding water buffalo and villagers washing their clothes in the muddy water.
Barry felt like he had traveled to an exotic and distant land. Things went from strange to stranger when he followed Lolo into the backyard.
From the looks of the place, you might have thought Lolo was a zookeeper. Animals emerged to greet them from all corners: chickens and ducks, a snake, an iguana, even a turtle the size of a cookie tin. A large yellow dog howled. A big white cockatoo screeched. Two brilliantly colored birds shook their long tail feathers. Barry would soon learn they were called birds of paradise and could be found all over New Guinea. Lolo explained that his travels allowed him to pursue an unusual hobby: collecting unusual animals.
The strangest creature of all resided in a concrete tub, about a foot and a half deep and a yard long that was half submerged in a small pond fenced off by chicken wire. Green and scaly, it looked like a cross between a dragon and a crocodile. The Indonesians knew it as a biawak, or monitor lizard, a venomous meat eater that liked to feast on crabs, squid, and fish. As Barry peered into the tub, he made a frightening discovery. There wasn’t just one lizard. There were two!
As the only foreign child in the neighborhood, Barry was teased more than any other kid. His appearance also made him stand out. He was chubby, with dark skin and curly hair. At school, he was known as “the Little Duck” because of the way he waddled when he ran.
It didn’t help that Barry couldn’t speak the Indonesian language. For the first few months, he spent most of his time sitting by himself in the back of the classroom, drawing Superman and Batman in his notebook. But after just six months, he had learned the language and could communicate with the other children.
Sometimes the other kids would play pranks on Barry. They’d offer him something he was familiar with from America, like chocolate. But when he bit into it, he found that it was shrimp paste. Another time they gave him red hot cayenne peppers and told him it was candy.
One day Barry tagged along with a group of his school friends on a visit to the local swamp. When they arrived, some of the other boys seized him by his hands and feet. They picked him up and began to swing him back and forth. “One…two…three!” they yelled, and threw him into the water.
What they didn’t know was that Barry had learned how to swim in Hawaii. Paddling furiously, he managed to escape the murky waters by himself.
Barry never felt totally comfortable living in Indonesia. It would always remain a somewhat scary place where he didn’t quite fit in. But he learned to adapt, finding ways to make it feel more like home. Learning to speak the local language was one way. Standing up for himself when teased was another. Barry joined the scouts, taught himself to sing local patriotic songs, and even studied karate.
He also stopped hiding in the back of the class and moved up front, where he became well known among his teachers for always shouting out the right answers.
Whenever he encountered an aspect of Indonesian culture that puzzled or surprised him, Barry would write a letter to his grandparents back in Hawaii. He would tell them about the people he met or the unusual foods he ate—like roasted grasshoppers and crispy fried crickets. In return, they would send him packages of familiar treats from America, like peanut butter and chocolate. But not every detail made it into his letters. Some things he saw, like the extreme poverty and disease that afflicted many villagers, were just too difficult for him to put into words.
After four years in Jakarta, Barry was no longer the new kid in town. He had learned to survive new surroundings. But he was still homesick. His mother, Ann Dunham, realized that he would be happier back in Hawaii. She also worried about his future growing up in such a poor and turbulent country. So when Barry was ten, Ann and Lolo put him on a plane to Honolulu and sent him to live with his grandparents. It was just the next stop on a long journey that would take Barack Obama on to Los Angeles and New York, then from Boston to Chicago, and eventually all the way to the White House.
Sometimes you have to leave a place before you really begin to appreciate it. In later years, Barack Obama would remember his time in Indonesia as “one long adventure, the bounty of a young boy’s life.” He always cherished the memories of his childhood, even when he became president of the United States.
Copyright © 2014 by David Stabler, illustrated by Doogie Horner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.