Obama returns to Indonesia, and for some that's all that mattered

The majority of Indonesians saw the visit by Obama, who many former classmates and friends there knew as 'Little Barry,' as worthy of celebration.

Achmad Ibrahim/AP
President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama visit Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Nov. 10.

The tinkling of a traditional Indonesian gamelan orchestra filled the air as President Obama and around 200 guests sat down to a dinner of his favorite Indonesian dishes – fried rice and meatball soup called bakso. It might sound like a familiar diplomatic dance – meeting and greeting and speechmaking. But with Mr. Obama's ties to Indonesia, the general feel around the local shops and markets in Jakarta was one of mighty anticipation at what might come out of his long-awaited trip.

Many observers say Obama’s ties to Indonesia, where he spent four years of his childhood, would usher in a new era of friendship between the two nations. But a decision to cut short his trip due to travel threats posed by an erupting volcano made some doubt the sincerity of the speech he gave Wednesday morning.

“It’s good that now people in the US may know where to locate Indonesia on a map,” says Noor Huda Ismail, director of the Institute for International Peacebuilding. “But that Indonesia will play a heavy role in the world simply because the US president spent four years here, no way.”

Those who saw Obama’s visit as a homecoming didn’t seem to care. They were more interested in hearing memories of his boyhood and making sure he was surrounded by Indonesian hospitality.

Obama lived in Menteng Dalam, a quaint neighborhood that has changed little since the 1960s, even as high-rises have sprung up around it. Away from the wide streets, glitzy shopping malls, and sparking glass office towers of today, city alleyways are still lined with small outdoor markets and street vendors selling bakso.

But, much to Indonesians delight, Obama says he remembers the people the most: “The old men and women who welcomed us with smiles; the children who made a foreigner feel like a neighbor; and the teachers who helped me learn about the wider world.”

Those teachers are now educating a new generation of young Indonesians, some of who were hoping they might get to meet him. At Obama’s former elementary school, children clad in white and maroon uniforms practiced songs they had prepared for the president, and spoke of Obama's ability to speak Indonesian.

But excitement about Obama’s trip has been tame compared to what it was last March, when he cancelled a planned trip to deal with the fallout of the BP oil spill. Even as the country prepared for his arrival on Tuesday, some Indonesians were skeptical.

While there was much fanfare upon Air Force One's arrival, a group of young Islamic hard-liners held a long, white banner that read “Obama, the real terrorist.” Others said it was not the right time to visit, since Indonesia is still reeling from a tsunami and volcanic eruption that hit separate parts of the country last week.

Still, the majority of Indonesians saw his visit – however brief – as a worthy of celebration.

The Friends of Obama, an eccentric group of Indonesians and expatriates that includes former classmates, neighbors and teachers, and friends of his half-sister, gathered at a Tex-Mex restaurant to share stories about the boy they knew as "little Barry."

And in the end, perhaps the most important thing to Indonesians was having the world spotlight show a bit of commonality between it and the US.

“We all rely on each other together, like bamboo and the river bank,” Obama said upon receipt of an award for his mother's work in the country. “We are all stronger and safer when we see our common humanity in each other.”

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