We’ve known for a while, but the finally day is here. Obama is stepping down as President of the United States. Not many people get to say that their families resemble a mini-United Nations. Barack Obama is one of those rare individuals. He is often described as America’s first black president. Yes, he’s black. He’s also white. His mother Ann Dunham was largely of English ancestry. His step-father Lolo Soetoro is Indonesian. From ages six to ten, Obama even attended local schools in Jakarta and speaks some basic Indonesian.
I talk to an old friend of mine Nadia Bulkin about her thoughts on Obama’s heritage. Nadia and I met when she was an exchange student at the University of Melbourne. Of American and Indonesian descent, Nadia studied Political Science at Columbia University.
Dipa: As a third culture kid yourself, what have you learnt from Obama’s experience as the first “TCK” president of the United States? Can you relate to him on a personal level?
Nadia: I think what’s clear in Obama’s case is how much people wanted to define his heritage for him, and how much they used this to make an argument about the state of the world and the United States. Which makes sense – the U.S. is the world’s largest democracy, and who its people choose says at least something about the direction the nation wants to move toward.
For some people, Obama was evidence that the world was becoming more globalized, or that race was being transcended as a construct. For others, he was evidence that the U.S. presidency had been infiltrated by someone who was an “other.” Which demonstrates that it’s not just TCKs that struggle to understand themselves; others also struggle to understand TCKs!
I think what I’ve learned from it is how quickly people want to put each other in easily-categorized boxes. Coming to conclusions is a shorthand that everyone uses, and I think some of the conclusions people jumped to regarding Obama showed how far we still have to go as a nation in terms of accepting interracial relationships and religions other than Christianity.
As someone with a similar heritage to Obama, it alarmed me that he was accused of being a “secret Muslim,” and that people didn’t believe that he was born in Hawaii and not Kenya. It made me want to hide my own heritage as well. I think the world is becoming more globalized, which is why there are more TCKs. But it’s going to take time for our societies to catch up with that.
Dipa: Obama attended local Indonesian-language schools during his time in Jakarta. How do you think this might have shaped his worldview?
Nadia: Well, it would have definitely prevented him from being shielded in an insulated bubble of expats! Obviously he would have had to work that much harder on his communication and social skills, to say nothing of learning in a second language.
We like to at least think that going to school with Indonesian kids as opposed to expats would have exposed him to not only another culture but the sorts of harsh realities we hope make for more empathetic adults, like poverty. That would have undoubtedly broadened his understanding of the world, but I will say, though, that it probably wasn’t easy.
When I lived in Jakarta, I went to a private Indonesian-language school for two years, followed by a bilingual international school for three years. The Indonesian-language school was an extremely rigid, draconian environment that valued conformity above all else. Although I was generally well-behaved, I was so different from my teachers and classmates that I knew there was no hope in trying to assimilate.
So instead I decided to set myself as far apart as I could; to isolate myself, effectively. I was much more comfortable at the international school, but even there, the only other American student I ever knew never adjusted and ended up quickly isolating herself.
Dipa: Obama has talked about how he succumbed to substance abuse to push questions of ‘who he is’ out of his mind. Based on your experience, how do you think “third culture kids” in the US come to terms with their diverse heritage?
Nadia: Every “third culture kid”‘s experience will be different based on the “cultures” they’re combining, and what legacy those cultures have in the United States. As a half-Javanese, half-white woman who was moved from Indonesia to the American Midwest, my experience would have been very different from President Obama’s, going from Indonesia to Hawaii.
No matter what, though, I think the primary challenge facing most TCKs is finding “their people” – a group to belong to and define themselves by when they seem to be missing the piece of code that everyone else uses. Which might not seem like such a big deal until you think about how much you use that code in the navigation of daily life and regular interaction with others! It can feel a bit like you speak multiple languages, but none of them very well.
The fact that the United States practices what is mostly civic nationalism (i.e., based on legal values rather than cultural identity) can technically help in this effort – hey, anybody can belong here as long as you respect our laws! – but it doesn’t negate the fact that the U.S. has an incredibly strained, complex history of racial politics. Nor does it mitigate the psychological need for small-group belonging.
I think the instinct of many TCKs is to try to maintain identity links with all of their cultural/national backgrounds, but this isn’t always possible or practical or even safe. So other alternatives include disavowing parts of your history in the interest of assimilation, and becoming the most American American you can possibly be. Though again, how you decide what “American” means is probably going to be shaped by where you end up in it, as well as your ethnic heritage.
Others eschew cultural/national identity entirely in the interest of being a perfect cosmopolitan – which I’ve found usually is easier for rich TCKs who have the luxury of continuous travel and a network of similarly – wealthy cosmopolitans. This is a stereotypical image of TCKs, but plenty of TCKs, including President Obama and myself, are TCKs not because our parents were diplomats or executives, but because they were in education or international development.
Dipa: Everyone seems to have an opinion on Barack Obama. Myself included. Some of it is good, some of it isn’t. But one thing’s for sure – Obama will always be America’s first Third Culture Kid president. For all my fellow TCKs out there – know that you don’t have to fully ‘belong’ to leave behind a legacy.