Updated: Oct 13, 2021
author : Allan Gou
101st PCE Meeting Report
Now, before I begin, I must say for all of author Dinesh Sharma’s finely researched and argued theories on the ways in which Obama’s multicultural upbringing and background have shaped his adult life, personality, and political character, it only touched briefly the details that most interest us, as parents: what Obama’s life journey can teach parents about raising their own children. I ask you to bear with me, because in the multi-layered odyssey of our current President’s childhood lies quite a few lessons on parenting, hopefully most of which I have teased out and magnified in written form with enough finesse so that you, too, can incorporate them into your own parenting careers.
The United States of today is a far different Union than it was even just thirty years ago. Then, Washington represented the political heart of the world’s supreme and uncontested superpower, seemingly invincible, aloof and separate from the ravages of time and the world. Now, she finds herself sucked once more into a world on the verge of great and sweeping revolution; her moorings have become undone, her anchors unraveled, and her interests, both at home and at large, threatened by the rising fortunes and strengths of once-insignificant nations. Though today’s revolution is not so immediate an event as the fall of the Soviet Union or the defeat of Hitler, it is no less profound. We stand today at a confluence, the convergence of decades -long trends and patterns that have shaped, are shaping, and will continue to shape our world for years to come. Globalization, the Information Revolution, the rise of Asia and the developing world in general, the American war on terror; these are all signs of the changing times. And it was into this tumult, this turn-of-the-millennium junction of worldwide developments, that Barack Obama launched headfirst his campaign for the presidency of the United States of America.
A child of a white woman and a black man, born and educated in multicultural Hawaii, exposed to the culture and society of Indonesia, who rose from rags to riches on a trajectory that embodies perfectly the American Dream, Obama took American by storm in the 2008 elections. Yet Dr. Sharma’s book focuses not on the political career or presidential policy or adult family life of the President, but rather on how his childhood affected his decision-making, character, and global view. Of the many chapters of conjecture and proof that Sharma arrays in his book, the ones of import to us are those parts that reveal to us, as parents, some kernels of wisdom regarding how to raise a child.
Broken families long ago transcended their status as anomalies in the United States, but the purported negative effects of shattering the traditional nuclear family of mother, father, and children have remained prominent in the general consciousness. Obama’s parents separated before he had even turned one, his father going to study at Harvard on scholarship and Obama and his mother returning to Honolulu. By 1965, his mother, Ann Dunham, had married Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian surveyor, whom she had met studying at the University of Hawaii. Yet life did not settle down. Soetoro returned to Indonesia a year later, while young Barack attended kindergarten at the local Noelani Elementary School, and in 1967 he and his mother moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, to join him. He attended, from 1st to 3rd grade, a local Catholic school that taught only in Indonesian, and then moved back to Hawaii to live with his grandparents, his mother and stepfather remaining in Indonesia. He would interview for the Punahou School that summer between 3rd and 4th grade, and would go on to attend Hawaii’s largest and most lauded private school in the 5th grade.
As you can see, Obama’s childhood was anything but settled. Some would have expected this tumult, this constant shifting of environment, this lack of a stable family structure or strong anchor, to have caused significant damage to his mental and emotional state; obviously, he was not. Obama spent his early, formative years on a whirlwind journey across the Pacific and back, through three family settings and back, things that we would view with the utmost wariness and worry were they to happen to our own children, and yet Obama emerged, perhaps more matured, perhaps not unscathed, but altogether healthy, happy, and in no way damaged. How?
Many of you who read this are and will remain fortunate enough that your child or children will never know the pain, uncertainty, and loss of self that are incurred when their parents’ marriage is smashed to smithereens, and while Obama was, of course, too young to comprehend his birth parents’ fragmentation when it happened, growing up he would certainly understand and feel the hole left in his life by his father. Asian Americans do, after all, rank as the most stable demographic group in the nation; according to the Kids Count Data Center, only 16% of Asian/Pacific Islander children live under single parents, versus a 34% average for all races. In New Jersey, it is only 7% versus a 29% overall average (the causes of which can be found elsewhere). Yet I have seen more than my fair share of broken and breaking households, and Obama’s life serves as an overwhelming success story in the face of what we would consider.
Sharma argues that despite the dysfunctional state of his family, the Dunham women, his maternal family, gave him the support, provided him the strength, and granted him the intellectual, emotional, and social stimulation that would end up propelling him ahead of the pack instead of dragging him behind. Every stage of Obama’s childhood saw its needs addressed by one or more ardent supporters or events: though he lost his father, he gained a stepfather who fulfilled the role by the time he entered school; though he and his mother and stepfather separated after 3rd grade, his maternal grandparents stepped in to provide Obama a loving and supportive environment.
What Sharma emphasizes again and again, are the strength and inspiring effect that Obama’s mother and grandmother had in such ample supply. To understand part of Obama, you must know of his mother. Ann Dunham was not an indelible extrovert, but was, as described by her daughter, Maya, “naturally shy, bordering on being innocent and nerdy”. But she had great strength of her own. Ann took great risks in her life, formed and defended her own strong convictions on all manner of topics, loved to analyze and debate and challenge, and cared not one whit for fitting into “the matched-sweater-set crowd” of her high school. She had an idealistic streak and pursued a lifelong career in helping humans, in elevating the poor and the downtrodden out of economic deadpan. Her non-conformity and idealism let her further embrace the sister tenet of diversity, which Obama, of course, shares now as President. In fact, an enormous part of Obama’s current personality, moral groundings, and beliefs stem from his mother. Among all the influential people that touched Obama’s life in his early years, he still identifies his mother as “the dominant figure” of his childhood and who he describes as a parent “who was the single constant in my life.” In his words, she was “the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known, and that what is best in me I owe to her.”
I am not detailing the enormous role Obama’s mother played in his formative years to make some tangential conjecture on his decisions and successes as president, but am instead trying to show just how important and influential the single mother can be (not to say that fathers are or cannot be influential, but the vast majority of single parents are mothers, not fathers). Ann Dunham formed Obama’s anchor, his moral model, the woman he admired, loved, and respected. The strength of Obama’s mother, her lack of fear in tackling whatever problems lay in her path, divorced and separated or not, were crucial in guaranteeing that Obama’s child development did not stray. But be aware that I do not use the word “strength” in the sense of a “Tiger mom’s” strength. Between Ann Dunham of the 1960s and Amy Chua of the new millennium exists an enormous disparity in parenting method, mode, and attitude. Amy Chua, like Ann was, is highly-educated, determined, and strong in her own right. Both are the type to defend, tooth and claw, their beliefs and decisions to the death (how else could Chua have withstood the firestorm of controversy that erupted after Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’s publication?). Yet Ann was often out of country, out of sight, out of reach, helping the poor, the needy, the crippled in faraway Pacific islands, or pursuing a degree at university, while Amy Chua reigns supreme over her daughters’ lives, seizing by the reins every aspect of their education and upbringing.
Do not take my words as an attack on Tigers Moms, but rather as an attempt to broaden your horizons. The extent and intensity of Ann’s participation in her son’s life pales in comparison to Chua’s. Yet Obama’s astounding success gives credence to its effectiveness. But no evidence exists that hers was any less effective than Chua’s. And despite the more marginal role Ann played in his life, Obama still figured Ann significantly in his upbringing, still learned her moral values, still developed her analytical mind, still went on to receive a world-class education, and still rose from a poor boy in the youngest state of the U.S. to a powerful and influential man occupying the highest office in the land.
But there are different kinds of strength. There is a story about Obama’s childhood in Indonesia, in which, during a visit to the town of Yogyakarta with his mother and her friends, young Barry found himself the “object of insults and rocks being thrown at him”. When Ann’s horrified friends addressed her on this, she simply said “No, he’s okay… He’s used to it.” This is a different kind of strength entirely, one that allows a mother to trust enough, believe enough, and have confidence enough to stop herself from defending her own son in the face of such open hostility. The strength it requires is wholly different from that of a Tiger Mom, yet it can be argued that parents need both kinds of the strength. One is the strength to take charge of your child’s development and growth when needed, and the other is the strength and courage to simply let go and allow your child to learn on his own, to explore his boundaries without an adult there to coddle him or hold his hand.
Beyond the role of the mother, though, lies the role of the father. Despite their separation and divorce, Ann Dunham still idolized Obama’s father, who was purportedly as charismatic, vocal, idealistic, and intelligent as a man can be, and she, along with Obama’s maternal grandparents, likely fed him a never-ending stream of stories about his father’s “oratory and intellectual skills, projecting a larger-than-life image of his absent father.” And because of his father’s absence, Obama’s imagination had the freedom to continually reshape and expand his father’s image, constructing “elaborate origin stories”, exalting Barack Obama, Sr. in Obama’s mind. Thus, Sharma argues, Obama was never truly without a father figure; his father’s inspirational image would always serve as an untouchable idol that Obama continually strived to surpass. m
Functioning as an Asian in America
One mother brought up a very significant issue: Asian Americans (including Indian Americans) often worry that they are at a disadvantage in the Western world of the United States, where they cannot build as easily or skillfully the all-important social network as white Americans, and thus can never reach the higher echelons of the corporate world. Dr. Sharma replied that the solution is to learn how to market oneself and to learn to be likeable. Children must interact and socialize and travel to broaden their horizons.
I agree that these are useful skills, but before you go about blindly teaching your children these things you must, MUST first understand, or at least have a grasp of, where Asians stand in America. How our Eastern identity sometimes conflicts and sometimes enmeshes with white American identity. Or culture. Or society. And also you must have an inkling of child psychology. Pushing every child to become an extrovert, a personal salesmen, the most popular kid in class, is like pushing every to become a doctor, or a lawyer, or an athlete. Asian values may not match American values much of the time, but that does not mean they hold no value in America, a nation of immigrants, dominated by white culture as she may be.
Know that this mother’s question cannot be answered simply. The issues it raises extend far beyond the ways in which one president’s life was affected by global and national trends. Our Asian question begets even more questions; answering them involves the understanding the entirety of East Asian/Confucian culture, white American culture, and various subsets of psychology. I have read multiple articles, several books, and talked to an assortment of individuals about being Asian in America, and yet I have only scratched the surface. Addressing it in satisfactory detail is beyond the scope of this report, and it was the primary reason I was so delayed in putting this report out. It is a fascinating topic, and one that I spent days reading articles, watching commentary, and sifting through blogs and the library for information on. Yet I realized I would have to write far more in-depth and at greater length than what your average PCE report requires. To this end, I have created my own blog, on which I will post the some of the material after AP tests are over and done with. But I would hate to leave you hanging with such a provoking question at hand.
Thus, I would first like to refer you to an article written last May on New York Magazine, called “Paper Tigers.” It refers to the “Bamboo Ceiling”, which the author, Wesley Yang, describes as ” an invisible barrier that maintains a pyramidal racial structure throughout corporate America, with lots of Asians at junior levels, quite a few in middle management, and virtually none in the higher reaches of leadership.” Found here: [http://nymag.com/news/features/asian-americans-2011-5/] I warn you that it is 11 pages long, so do try to look for the mini-sized navigation bar on the bottom (some of my friends missed it when they read it and thus mistook it for a one-page article).
I implore you to read through the whole thing, inflammatory as it may seem, and, when done, to scroll through the comments section (what I always do after reading an online article, and where I oftentimes gain insights more valuable than that from the article itself). The article attacks many of the core values that Asian immigrants stereotypically teach their children, citing that their immigrant upbringing has left them socially neutered in the United States, where risk-taking, challenge of authority, socializing, and alpha-maleness is valued above all in executive America. I also caution you to take his rhetoric with a grain of salt; every topic has its myriad assortment of differing views, and Yang’s is just one of them. For a topic as expansive as this, it is critical to examine information across the entire spectrum of literature and opinion. Min Huang and the others are always sending out links to discussions on this topic, and those can be your starting point if you so choose, and a simple Google search will turn up a vast amount of webpages as well as YouTube commentaries on it.
Returning to Dr. Sharma’s initial suggestions, I will add that there is a large body of psychological research that addresses the very topic of networking, socializing, as well as corporate politics, etc. I have found a book that may be able to answer many of your questions regarding it. You may find it in Costco’s, if it is still there. Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain, a Princeton and Harvard Law School honors graduate who has had years of experience as a lawyer and as a teacher of negotiation skills for corporation, laws firms, and universities. (http://www.amazon.com/Quiet-Power-Introverts-World-Talking/dp/0307352145) In the book, Susan Cain devotes an entire chapter, titled “Soft Power”, to Asian-Americans and the Extrovert Ideal. One of the points the chapter makes is that America, as a part of the West, subscribes to the Extrovert Ideal, in which “boldness and verbal skill, traits that promote individuality”, are exalted, while in places such as China (and other nations profoundly influenced by Confucian values), gravitates towards the Introvert Ideal, in which “quiet, humility, and sensitivity, which foster group cohesion”, are prized. While I will not go into too much detail here (I prefer to give the book the attention to detail and breadth and depth of analysis it deserves, which is not possible here). The gist is that many introverted Asian-American children feel markedly out of place when they first butt heads with the Extrovert Ideal and continue to feel so until they come to terms with their identity as Asian Americans, however far down the path of life that is. Now, we have addressed the problem of Asian American identity crises in previous reports, and they often resolve themselves naturally once children grow up and enter high school and subsequently college, where they can broaden their social network to include people they feel comfortable socializing with. But here rises the issue in which Asian Americans often get stuck against the "Bamboo Ceiling" mentioned earlier when they try to make it in the corporate world. What Asians see as unfair is that Asian employees, mostly PhD-educated, highly intelligent, superbly skilled technicians, engineers, programmers, biologists, chemists, etc., are passed over when the corporate executive body selects for leadership roles. We see a similar trend in the demographics of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, of which 9 out of 500 are Asians. Yet minority groups in total only make up 19 CEOs out of the list's 500.
But why even care about this statistic? Asian Americans as a whole are not as extroverted, as bold and vivacious and loquacious as Caucasians, but why should they need to be? The United States is the most powerful nation on earth, with the largest economy, facts that have been repeated ad infinitum. But it is not where the future lies, if all these economic analysts, market forecasters, and other speculators and business people are right. That lies in the developing nations of the world, in China, in Brazil, in India. We face a world where so many of our jobs have already been outsourced to these nations, where for all the innovation by Apple and these great American companies, the rate of progress, growth, start-up, and social elevation in China and Brazil far surpass anything America can offer to the next generation of Asian Americans. When Cain mentions in her book the frustration that Asian American professionals often face when up against the Bamboo Ceiling, she also brings up that an increasing number of these professionals are moving back to China, joining start-ups, attaining higher positions, and achieving greater success than they could have dreamt of in America. Granted, the Chinese introvert ideal and its Confucian culture that promotes social harmony, deference, etc., are not immune to the Westernizing influence that has emerged alongside their adoption of and integration into a more capitalist economy, but countries like Japan long ago went through a similar transition period and emerged just as close to its core societal values as before. Why concern yourself with becoming more American when, across the Pacific Ocean, there exists the Middle Kingdom, the rising dragon, that still holds in high esteem the personality you developed and the values you learned growing up in an Asian family?
This question has many, many more layers and angles to it; to discuss them all would require a book of its own. Understand that these Asian values are necessarily not weaknesses, or signs of weakness, as Wesley Yang would have you believe in "Paper Tigers". They simply do not align with American corporate culture, nor with American society in general. Does that mean we give up on the task of imparting the values we learned as children to our own? Assimilate into Western society? Push them to be more social, more extroverted, more American? That is a question I cannot answer for you; you, as parents, must decide for yourself. Read online articles, read books, read scientific literature, read and learn and read and learn. There is a world of information out there that you can explore, if you only try to look. You have already pored through phonebooks, websites, and contact lists to discover the best piano and art teachers in the area, you have spent hours upon hours teaching your children Chinese, you have dedicated your work nights and weekends to attending meetings and lectures on child-rearing. You spend thousands of dollars and countless hours on educating your kids in the fine arts, in letting them play sports, in teaching them and tutoring them. But go the extra step to teach your children about real-world skills, to develop their personality, teach them morals, values, good habits; take them with you, involve them in your conversations, talk to them, hold their hands at times, let the go free at other times, help them push their boundaries, learn their manners, and above all make their childhood happy. This will be of far greater use to them, as human beings, working adults, and later parents, anything else. And you can give them nothing more valuable, except for your limitless love and support. If you are still reading by this point, know that I believe in you, as parents. You will raise the next generation of this world, a greater responsibility than perhaps any other, and I write all this for you.
I bid you good luck.