Six Degrees From Barach Obama: How I Knew His Mom

Six Degrees From Barach Obama:  How I Knew His Mom

As I listen to Barack Obama giving his farewell address to our great nation, I am taken back in time…

Actually, I have been transported back in time during these entire eight years. During the first Obama campaign in 2008, I had the privilege to shake Barack’s hand.  I said to him, “Masi bisa Bahasa Indonesia?” (Do you still speak Indonesian?) He answered, “Masih bisa.” (I still can.)  Then I said, “I knew your Mother.”  That got me a doubletake and a second handshake.  I mumbled something about the Ganesha Museum, but the reality is I did not remember how I met her, only that I knew her.

Today is the last day of Obama’s administration and still, I have not uncovered the mystery of how I met Anne Soetoro.  Nor have I finished this article.  Two things happen when you write memories from a distant past.  Remembering the past brings on a nostalgia and yearning for days gone by.  It also awakens one to the fact that our memories have holes — areas where the memory is not complete, where the surrounding details are lost.  All I really have are impressions of the past.  The following are my impressions. I don’t promise to be accurate.  Memories are never accurate.  The most important thing is that the impressions are a reflection of the impact events create.

In 1981 my first husband, Vinod, and I moved to Jakarta, Indonesia.  In the first six months house-in-kuninganof arrival, I gave birth to my youngest son.  I managed my time taking care of him, but immediately jumped into learning and living within the culture.  I enrolled my daughter in a Balinese dance class.  I looked for opportunities to meet Indonesian women and to learn from them. I was also active in the American Women’s Association (AWA), singing in the chorus and at the American Club, learning tennis (a lesson was just a dollar).  I often sat for tea with other expat wives or read voraciously from our book club collection of books.  Still, I longed for a deeper connection to the country I who was hosting me.

I had already experienced many admirable moments during that time.  I had, as an AWA singer, sung for events held by Martha Holdridge, the American Ambassador’s wife.  Our group also was invited to sing for the President of Indonesia and his wife, Ibu Tien Soeharto.  We posed for a picture behind Ibu Tien as she sat in her chair at the Palace.  I remember lightly touching her chair with quick reminder’s by her guards that it was inappropriate to touch Madam First Lady’s chair!

Sombrass-flyetime in those first few years, I heard about an informal interior decorating course taught by a wife of a key embassy personnel.  (I do not remember her name and never knew his position.  I could only guess that it was key by the house they were assigned.)  The woman who opened her home to our small group of six was a beautiful and welcoming person.  Her lessons resonated with me.  I learned the importance of focal points and especially ones with a bit of humor or that invite laughter.  Her’s was a stuffed cat with its leg up and head bowed as if licking itself that sat on her beautiful, stylish sofa.  Another that we used during lunch was a brass fly that one of our members brought.

It was in this course that I met Anne Soetoro.  Anne was the one who brought the brass fly.  The above picture is not the one she brought, but a similar brass fly.  They sold brass flies in the marketplace.  Often, they were ash trays in disguise.  We used it as a focal point or centerpiece for a dinner table arrangement.

Anne was an interesting person in our group.  Quiet and softspoken, but full of fascinating information about Indonesian culture, she enchanted us with her stories.  Some stories were what I called “Indonesian ghost stories”. She talked about a tree that needed to be cut down and nothing anyone did would release the tree from its place in the ground.  After many frustrating tries, the government changed the road to let the tree remain in peace.  The belief was that this tree had a powerful spirit and therefore should not be cut down.  Another story was about someone who had problems with their electricity.  They called a dukun (a kind of medicine woman or man) to see what the problem might be when the electrician could not fix the problem.  The dukun had them dig a hole in the backyard and they found a box that looked like it was floating in the hole.  After it was removed and prayers said, the electrical problems disappeared and never bothered the family again.

But Anne had a wealth of information about Indonesian art and culture.  I always looked forward to Anne’s stories at our meetings.  I also marveled at the “finds” our hostess received from Anne.  Once Anne found a beautiful ebony board that our hostess used to create a room divider.  It was exquisite!  We usually had to coax Anne to talk.  She was generally quiet and reserved at our meetings.  Because Anne worked, she was not always present at our meetings.  We missed her on those days.

Our interior decorating class developed into a kind of interest group that met for almost a year.  We started doing regular activities like visiting each other’s homes and sharing our decorating interests.  I remember visiting Anne’s home.  I believe Anne lived near the American Club in Keboyaran Baru.  It was a modest home compared to the large homes provided to us by the oil company my husband worked for.  The home had many plants outside lining the veranda.  The interior was full of interesting cultural artifacts from different areas of Indonesia.

Later, Anne arranged for us to visit the home of one of her friends, Halimah Brugger (at least I believe it was hers).  Halimah lived behind the Cilandak campus of the Jakarta International School.  I believe she taught art and music. When we visited, she was not at home but had provided us with entry.  I remember the living room having ten or more large batik pillows lining the living room floor.  No furniture, only pillows.  I loved the concept and how this minimalist look was so inviting.  It was fun to see how others decorated their homes so creatively with local flavor.

I was so happy when the class came to my home.  Anne was there as well and I shared my collection of Indian saris and batik sarongs.  This singular visit changed my trajectory in Indonesia.  One of the women in our group said, “You love textiles.”  Before this, I had already become inspired to learn Indonesian culture by joining a study group on Balinese art and culture through the Ganesha Society (an Indonesian museum volunteer group).  This single comment made me want to study Indonesian textiles and learn more about the history of textiles.  Anne told me there was also a textile study group.  I joined the textile study group and presented a paper on Patola Influence on Indonesian Textiles.  Somehow, I also managed to contact Iwan Tirta, a prominent batik designer, and borrow his antique textiles.  He also asked me to write about this topic for an India-Indonesia exhibit of textiles.  I am proud to say my article was published in an official book about textiles.  I also think that Anne was the person who translated my article.  Though, I have to admit she told me she did not get my copy in time to translate the difficult concepts I had included.  The translation is not exact in my edition of the book, Cindai, Pengenbaraan Kain.

During those days, Anne also told us about a great art exhibit by a Balinese up and coming artist, Dewa Nyoman Djati, that her friend, Kay Ikranagara, was sponsoring.  I was very excited to attend.  I fell in love with the large painting I bought that is in my living room today.  Looking back,  I think it’s funny how I never realized that Anne Soetoro had influenced so many small shifts and changes in my life and yet she did not play a central role.

Here is the painting which I have often said is a representation of who I am:


The most important memory I hold and the one I first remembered about Anne was a conversation we had outside the gate leading to her home.  I was waiting for my driver to bring the car around.  I remember Anne leaning on a cement wall with her long, thick hair and batik kaftan.  We talked for a long time about our backgrounds.  She shared her first and second marriages to an African and then an Indonesian.  I shared my marriage to an Indian.  We talked about what it felt like to live inside a culture — to experience it as a wife rather than as a typical expatriate.  I told her how much I wanted to experience more of Indonesian culture from the inside and not as the wife of an expat.  We shared our deep interest in culture and the values we brought.  I shared how out of place I often felt with the wives of other expatriates.  I seem to remember her telling me her son was going to go to Harvard.  I was so impressed because my son at five or six wore a Harvard T-shirt and proudly exclaimed he was going to go to Harvard.  (He did not, at least not yet.)  At the end of the conversation, we both agreed that a closer friendship would be right for us, but we also realized that her lifestyle and mine wouldn’t allow it.  She worked during the day and I made it a point to be with my family.  My family was everything to me.  There was no time for us.

Looking back I am amazed at how deeply I was touched by the brief and fleeting moments in Anne’s company.  We knew each other, but barely.  And yet, we respected one another and recognized in each other a camaraderie and connection as two people with similar values, goals, and lifestyles.  This is why I look at Barack Obama as the son of a friend.  Someone who is not unlike my own sons.  I admire Anne and all that she did in her life and I understand her. Because she is me.  I too have a life that drifts like tumbleweed on a wide plain.  I, too, have a love for Indonesian culture and Indian culture, and any culture that I touch.  I, too, have a deep love for my family and have experienced the inability to fully give them all that I would wish.

There is really too much to talk about.  Barack Obama is moving on tomorrow.  But, the memory I have of him, his family, and Anne will be deep and enduring.


It took me forever just to write these few paragraphs.  Every time I would start to write, I would check out if I was correct or confused.  I left out dates because I know during the time I knew her I would hear reports of her visiting India or Pakistan and that we met only a few times during the nine years I lived there.  Still, we knew the same people and walked in the same circles.  Much of my experience was influenced by the few exchanges we had.  My Indonesian experience is deep and enduring and one that I hold dear.

The pictures in this article were taken from the internet.  The fly was downloaded from eBay and is of one reportedly made in Italy.  The painting is my own and taken with my phone.  The house is a similar house in the neighborhood where I lived. 









Enemies of Understanding

Enemies of Understanding

“Anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding.” –Mahatma Gandhi

Today’s word prompt:  Understanding

This is yet another word that relates to the work I do in not only conflict resolution but also intercultural communication.  This is yet another word with lots of different connotations.  On the one hand understanding is simple comprehension.  On the other, however, it implies an awareness of feelings and a tolerance of others.  On another note, it is also used to connote insight and good judgement.

With regard to comprehension the solution should be simple:  pay attention to the words that are spoken.  Yet, with regard to awareness and tolerance, understanding reveals a relational aspect.  To really understand indicates that we “get it”, that we are aware of what is being said or done.  The tolerance part of understanding is questionable.  How often have you heard people say, “I understand, but I don’t agree.”

Understanding is the first step, though, in finding a way back to a relationship that is broken due to conflict.  It is the one thing, also, that people feel is lost when in the middle of a conflict.  How many times have I heard my husband tell me, “I get it. I understand what you are saying,” but I felt, “Hey, you don’t get me at all!”

So, understanding needs agreement, then?  It can’t be one person saying, “I understand,” and the other saying, “No you don’t!”  Understanding implies both people in a communication agree that understanding has been reached.  This is the most important part of understanding.  Being able to agree that there is a true awareness that is supported by the other person’s agreement that “you got me”.  It doesn’t mean you have to agree, but the miracle of real understanding where agreement is reached is that then tolerance is reached.  When I see two people in a conflict conversation suddenly shift their perspective towards understanding, I watch them agree to disagree.  I watch them willing to understand the perspective of the other and become empowered to say, “I get it.  It may not be something I want to agree with, but because I now understand, I can honor your perspective as well as my own.”

So, that brings us to the final definition of understanding:  insight and good judgment.  When understanding is reached, especially in the midst of a conflict, that shift or change leads towards a recognition and “insight” that really does change the way we communicate with each other.  The amazing thing to me is that we get along and love so many people who are different from us.  The secret ingredient to those successful relationships is understanding.

In intercultural communication understanding is the key towards being able to build effective relationships across cultures.  Cultural differences in understanding include different values, beliefs, and perceptions that challenge communication.  Assuming we understand the other is a mistake many people make when living and working in other cultures.  The “ah-ha” moment comes when we suddenly realize a difference that has perplexed us.  Once we reach an understanding of the different perspective or way of being in the world, we generally find it easier and more enjoyable to build closer relationships.  This, again, brings new insight moments as we truly reach an understanding.

I think I am in love with this word!  I love that it has so many nuances and ways to discover!  Reaching understanding seems like a true gift!

So, this word of the day is coming a day later.  But, can understanding ever really come too late?


The image at the top of the page reminded me of understanding in the intimacy of the puppies.  That connection and need are a part of understanding to me.  The image is a painting by Tricia Calvert.  You can see more of her images on Instagram.

Please feel free to leave me a message or just say hi!  I love to hear from you!!

Being Intentional: aka living life with purpose

Being Intentional: aka living life with purpose

I think being intentional is the most powerful thing we can do for ourselves.  Being intentional, living with purpose, means choosing our own direction, deciding our own future, designing the gifts from the past, and living in our own present.

I love the concept. It requires a little more effort than reacting to events every day.  It required a lot of self-reflection and decision-making.

I am constantly balancing my life between a number of passions.  I love the work I do in intercultural communication and in conflict resolution.  I love all the creative and innovative projects I work on.  I love being able to give back to my community.  I love the diversity that comes from all the interesting people I meet and interact with.  I love the scientists, the artists, the struggling, and the accomplished!

All the above passions are highlighted by the fact that I try to live an intentional life.  I intentionally seek out diverse people.  I intentionally open myself to new experiences and ideas.  I intentionally decide to do work that helps others.  I intentionally decide to learn and grow.

To get to where I am now, living and enjoying the present, I had to review my past.  Every time I see myself at a crossroads, I revisit that past for clues about what to plan for the future.  I don’t attach myself to my future plans. Rather, I enjoy my present state and put things in place for my dreamed future.  If it happens, I will be grateful. If not, I will redesign the future, reviewing the past, listening to my internal self, and paving a pathway towards a new future.

That is life with purpose.  Because to choose the future, I also partner with my values and beliefs.  The most important inform my plans and dreams.  The least important are noticed and saved or discarded depending on what I feel needs to be done.

The most important realization for me is that being intentional means I have much more control about how I feel and react in this world.  I have the control to let go of past injustices or circumstance and make my life a positive example for others.  Or, at the very least a positive example for me!


This post was written for the Daily Prompt:  Purpose.

The featured image is a sketch by Tricia Calvert.  She is a Dayton artist whose work I enjoy.  You can see more of her work on Instagram.

Please leave a comment or let me know what you thought about today’s post!  I look forward (REALLY!) to hearing from you.

Culture Shock: A Journey to Oz

Culture Shock:  A Journey to Oz

Culture shock is an experience that many expatriates (people who live abroad for a period of time) experience.  The Wizard of Oz is a wonderful metaphor for the feelings that are typical of an expatriate sojourn.  Dorothy was whirled away from home to find herself in a land so foreign, so enticing, and so forbidding.

The storm of change comes…

I will start the journey with Dorothy living life as usual in Kansas.  She has a loving family, acquaintances, and friends.  Life is not perfect.  It has its positives and negatives, but it is home. There is, however, an incentive and desire to experience something more.  Many overseas assignments begin with the desire to experience a new culture. An overseas assignment may provide professional development opportunities as well.  The desire to experience a new culture is often the catalyst that begins the internal and externOklahoma tornado.jpgal struggle, especially in an overseas assignment.

After the spark has been ignited, the struggle begins.  The anticipation of change is like the clouds forming before the storm. This first anticipatory stage is often accompanied by an emotional roller coaster. Emotions move from excitement to concern contemplating the inevitable change. Many international assignments also require a flurry of activity such as securing visa’s, deciding what to pack, selling or leasing a home or car, and preparing friends and family. So many decisions have to be made that it often feels like one is being swept up by a storm, just as Dorothy was when she was transported to Oz.

And then you arrive…

Once a person arrives, he or she is introducedbeautiful_flower_red_266128 to new experiences, surroundings, people, culture.  It all seems so exciting!  We call that stage the honeymoon stage or the tourist stage. Dorothy felt so welcomed when she landed.  She was met by strange looking people in an enchanting land.  Her journey on the yellow brick road was just beginning.

Along the way, Dorothy begins to make new friends.  They remind her of those she knew back home — but they are different.  The friends we make and the way we make friends are similar across cultures.  It may feel as if the new friends are familiar versions of our friends back home. Each new friend we meet will have some special trait or attraction for us.  Just as each new friend of Dorothy’s had a different skill or gift. That skill may be displayed so differently, however, that it may be hard to recognize.  That is, it may appear to us that the skill is not even there.


Simon Wijers Venray, Nederland.jpgAnd living in a new culture is scary…

The uncertainty and differences that become a part of this new terrain also become overwhelming and scary.  There are two many dangers that lurk unknown.  Dorothy had to face new creatures and behaviors. She eventually finds her yellow brick road.  Her new friends serve as cultural ambassadors to the new environment, helping her find her way. Finding friends in a new country also helps us understand the uncertainty and difference we experience in a new culture.

Dorothy has to confront the witch and the winged beasts to find her way to Oz.  Similarly, the expatriate has to find a way through the strange customs and expectations of others in the new environment.  Dorothy’s ultimate confrontation with the witch is much like an expatriate learning how to negotiate the new culture.  In the end, Dorothy figures out, by accident, how to vanquish the witch.  Our most poignant discoveries overseas often happen as if by accident.  When they work, they give us a renewed sense of comfort knowing we can persevere in our new home. Once most of the hurdles are crossed, living in the new land becomes more routine and easier to manage.

Henry McIntosh Auckland New Zealand.jpg

Finally, when it seems there is nothing but green pastures and living in another culture becomes comfortable, it may be time to go home.  Currently,  expatriate  assignments are approximately three to five years.  By that time, the typical expatriate has become accustomed to day to day living but is ready to go home.

During the worst of the struggle, that desire to go home was strong. It exhibited itself as homesickness. Once adjustment begins, however,  the pull to return home decreases and a renewed sense of enjoyment and relaxation in the new environment begins.

There is no place like home…

Ultimately, it may be time to go home.  Returning home may feel as easy as clicking one’s heels: one, two, three. Once home, however, it may feel initially like walking on air. Seeing Redd Angeloold friends and reconnecting with family is rewarding.  Dining at our favorite restaurants and visiting our favorite spots are another joy we may have missed.  Dorothy’s journey didn’t tell us what happened after she got home.  For the typical expatriate returning home, however, there may be some surprising readjustment.

Dorothy’s journey didn’t explore her experience beyond the first few weeks home. We don’t know how she may have developed over the next year or several years.  We do know what many expatriates share concerning their experiences. For the typical expatriate, returning home can add an additional roller coaster ride.

After a few months at home, the pendulum may swing downward again.  The welcome home eyes glaze over and the message in other’s expression is, “I don’t care about where you have been!” It takes almost a year to get accustomed to being home again.  Having a similar experience is shared by few.  You have changed. They have changed. They have built new relationships and engaged in new activities in your absence.  It takes some time to readjust and find your place again.

After all is said and done, though, the experience is something that will never be forgotten and always appreciated.  It provides new skills and new perspectives. Like Dorothy, you may have had an unforgettable journey to your own Oz.


Writing this reminded me of the fun I had learning so very long ago.  It is difficult to put into words the joy of having lived abroad.  I will never forget the wonderful experiences I had.  They shaped me and provided me with a wealth of skills and abilities.   

I created the diagram under the heading to illustrate the journey of culture shock with references to The Wizard of Ox.  All of the other pictures come from Unsplash.  

Ruminating on Pensive Wings

Ruminating on Pensive Wings

I am ruminating about today’s word prompt, pensive.

On the one hand, it leads me to meditate on one of my favorite topics, the intercultural way.  Why, you might ask? Part of understanding how we as cultural beings navigate this world is to be pensive.  When we travel and live in a different culture, we are constantly being met by different ways of thinking, different ways of expressing the same values, different value systems, and a host of obvious and not so obvious difference.  The best way to negotiate the differences is to become introspective.  By thoughtfully reflecting on our own values and ways of thinking and doing, we begin to notice more about where the differences lie and we also have more power to decide which changes we want to conform to and which changes are a part of our core.

So, pensiveness is important.  It is a gift.  It also reminds me of sitting outside on a spring day (like today), feeling the cool breeze against my cheek and listening to the birds sing.  At those moments, thoughts come and go like water in a gentle brook.  The best part of a quiet moment is contemplation.  The opportunity to reflect as if seeing oneself for the first time from the deep waters of a cool pond.

Ruminating on pensive wings

I fly

Unencumbered by gravity’s pull

Nothing becomes everything

Gliding on smooth currents

of my mind’s imagination

How cool the air as it sails beneath me

How deep the waters that carry my form

I reach past the apex

A gate beckons

And my invisible form breezes through

no barrier exists to keep me there

or here

Pensive, I fly.


The featured image is one by Tricia Calvert, a Dayton, Ohio artist.  You can view some of her collection on Instagram.  

The Intercultural Way

The Intercultural Way

When I first started this blog I wrote a post about listening and the intercultural way.  I thought I would write a little more about what I consider to be the intercultural way. I came to this way of thinking through my years of living abroad and through my study of Intercultural Communication.  As a professional in the field of intercultural communication, I have not wavered from this view.

The intercultural way is a way of being that involves many different skills or personal assets.  First and foremost is an appreciation for the different ways we as human beings see the world. Then we need the ability to listen with the expectation that we might learn a new way of thinking or a new perspective on old idea so to speak.

The intercultural way is the way one learns about different cultures and/or different viewpoints and subcultures within our own culture.  One has to be able to set aside the desire to judge difference and listen to understand.  To be someone who practices the intercultural way is to be someone who loves to learn, is excited about traveling and living in different cultures, and loves the diversity around us even when we are in our own home country.

I know living the intercultural way is not for everyone.  Just as Zen Buddhism is not for everyone.  But, it is a special path that some choose to be on.  If you want to be on that path, here are some tips:

  1.  Be ready to be surprised.  When you start to open up to asking questions and discovering others, you will inevitably be surprised.  Embrace it!
  2. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake.  You will.   It can’t be helped.  It is impossible to learn in a short time what a culture has learned in a lifetime.  Think of yourself as a child learning how to be in the world and enjoy the freedom of innocence.
  3. Enjoy the new relationships you will be building.  You will have stories to tell later.

Two stories that influenced me when I was living in Indonesia and studying the culture of my gracious hosts.  The first was about Clifford Geertz, a well-known anthropologist. He was studying cockfighting practices in Bali. While watching a cockfight, the police arrived.  Miguel and his wife went scurrying to hide like all of the other attendees.  They found themselves under a bridge with one of the men.  A policeman came to ask questions and that man covered for them.  He found himself laughing with the others.  From that day on, he was accepted into the community.  The lesson is that we are all human and we all have similar fears and desires.  Geertz was surprised that this simple sharing of an experience lead to such a strong bond with the community.

A second story was from Colin Turnbull, another well-known, British cultural anthropologist.  He wrote a number of books on African cultures.  But, what stood out in my mind was the story he told in the beginning of one of his books (I think it was his book on the Mbutu called The Forest People).  He described a neighborhood in New York city where he often walked.  Many days a woman would hang out of her window and yell at him or passersby.  Colin called her someone who was most alive.  He saw a lot of love of life in that woman hanging out the window.  He had similar insights in his book.  That, to me, is the intercultural way because it illustrates a love of people, who they are and what they do.  It shows how we all share humanity in an important and meaningful way.


The picture at the top of the page was downloaded from Unsplash.  The photographer is Pahala Basuki.  He took this picture in Ubud, Bali in Indonesia.

Listening Across Cultures: Using the Intercultural Way

Listening Across Cultures:  Using the Intercultural Way

Listening is like a bridge from one individual to another. When we listen, we open the other person to feeling received and accepted by us.  In turn, we often find a mutuality in listening.  The other person is then open to listening to us as well.

I have been thinking a lot about listening lately.  Not only because I am always intentionally looking for new ways to improve my skills, but also because it is a skill I share with others.  Last night, laying awake listening to the sound of cold wind shaking the window, as if knocking to enter, I thought about the differences in listening across cultures.  The skills for listening across cultures is part of the Intercultural Way, a model I have developed living and working across cultures.

The Intercultural Way is a system of behaviors that enhance communication interculturally.  Behaviors that are good practice for anyone working with cross-cultural teams or moving to live in a different land.  To me, listening is a first step in the Intercultural Way.  If you can listen interculturally, you can listen anywhere, anytime. Listening across cultures is the penultimate skill.

Below are a few of the skills needed to listen across cultures:

  1. Listen in context.  Listening in context means paying attention to all of the details of the communication.  Pay attention to not only what the person is saying, but also what they may not be saying, but implying.  Pay attention to body language, facial expression, voice tone, and word placement.  That is pay attention to ALL the non-verbals communication.
  2. Be familiar with the variables.  The variables are the different cultural dimensions such as individualism vs. collectivism or universalism vs. paticularism.  Every culture has a general dimension which may effect the connotation and expectation of meaning.  Awareness of what dimensions you are talking to will influence how you listen to what is said.
  3. Don’t be afraid to clarify.  When in doubt, ask.  That is the number one rule.  When you are talking across cultures, ask clarifying questions like, “When you say management, what do you mean?  What are typical behaviors of managers.”  You can follow up by explaining that you are just checking to see if it is the same in their culture as yours.  Everyone understands and appreciates clarifying questions.  Don’t be afraid that they make you look bad.  In fact, they highlight your desire to listen well.