Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times

June 17, 2010

At L.A.’s Japanese American National Museum, hosting a photo exhibit on multiracial children, Maya Soetoro-Ng talks about her long journey from feeling that she didn’t fit in anywhere to feeling like a citizen of the world.

Growing up in Indonesia, Maya Soetoro-Ng often felt too American. Although she adored her native land’s traditional gamelan music and shadow puppets, spiced cuisine and Hindu epics, her manner was too loud, too irreverent—hallmarks, she said, of being raised by a strong American mother.

But when she entered the Jakarta International School at age 12, the only student of Indonesian ancestry, she felt too Indonesian. She was more reserved than the confident, boisterous Americans she met there and later in Hawaii, she said.

“Wherever I was, I felt somewhat inadequate in terms of the purest expression of culture,” said Soetoro-Ng, a Hawaii-based writer, educator and half sister of President Obama. “I wished I completely belonged somewhere.”

Her older brother Barack never seemed to struggle with his cultural or racial identity in the same way she did, Soetoro-Ng said. Son of the same white mother but a Kenyan father, Obama identifies as African American—choosing to check that box exclusively and not also the one for white on his 2010 U.S. Census form.

“There has never been much ambiguity for him,” said Soetoro-Ng, 39. “He was able to claim his identity as he made his commitment to community organizing, to being a leader and lawyer.”

But Soetoro-Ng’s early struggles over identity, a “mild but persistent discomfort” amid an otherwise happy and carefree childhood, gradually eased over time. Today, she embraces all aspects of herself—and urged people to do the same in an interview and program on multiracial identities Saturday evening at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.

“We can do much to help our communities loosen their boundaries and begin to welcome a multitude of ways of being—to make sure that individuals of mixed race, religion or ethnicities don’t feel the need to choose one or the other but see their layers as a gift, something that adds beauty,” she said.

The program was pegged to the museum’s current exhibit, “Mixed: Portraits of Multiracial Kids,” which runs through Sept. 26. The photo exhibit of 80 children ages 12 and younger, along with a companion book,was created by Kip Fulbeck, a Santa Barbara photographer, filmmaker, athlete and art professor of Chinese, Irish, Welsh and English descent.

The photos feature children making funny faces and scowling ones, carrying basketballs and guitars, blankets and stuffed bears. They are Filipina, Puerto Rican, Korean, Hawaiian, Irish, Italian, Cambodian — you name it.

Asked who they are, the children don’t necessarily identify themselves by their race. Or if they do, they claim multiple identities in what Fulbeck and Soetoro-Ng say reflects wide-open, flexible minds that adults should learn from.

“I am me. I am an animal lover. I am also a dream but I am real,” wrote Jada, an 8-year-old girl of African American, Puerto Rican, Dominican and Italian ancestry shown in her photo with a guitar and wide grin.

Keyan, a smiling boy of African American, Indian and Irish descent, scrawled on his page: “I am Brown like Barack Obama. One day I will be a pro football player and the President.”

Fulbeck said his exhibit was prompted by the birth last year of his own multiracial son, Jack, and a desire to make a better world for him. “I wanted to question the whole idea of race and let kids have their own voice,” Fulbeck said.

Nationwide, 7.3 million Americans identified as mixed race in 2000, the first year the U.S. Census allowed people to check two or more racial categories. The number is expected to rise in the 2010 census.

But Fulbeck told the 200 audience members that race is more of a cultural construct than a biological one because all people are descended from a common ancestor in Africa.

Soetoro-Ng and her husband, Konrad Ng, have two daughters of Malay, Indonesian, Scottish, Irish, Hakka and Cantonese descent. Already, 6-year-old Suhaila has begun to claim multiple identities, both ethnic and religious—embracing both Christ and Buddha with no compulsion to choose, Soetoro-Ng said.

“We do a much better job today making kids feel fine just as they are and welcoming different traits,” she said.

“But I do think we still have a ways to go,” she added. “The fact that my brother was asked during the campaign to be more ‘black’—and the presence of clear voices of antagonism or fear directed at him are evidence that we still are not free of either prejudice or narrow cultural expectations.”

The early tensions over her Indonesian versus American identities eased after she moved to Hawaii at age 14. She said she enjoyed being seen as an exotic beauty from a mysterious land few Hawaiians knew much about.

When she moved to New York with her mother at age 18, she was perceived as a Latina—Puerto Rican when her hair was curled and Mexican when it was straightened. In turn, she embraced Latin culture as she learned Spanish and became enamored of salsa, merengue and the literature of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende.

She studied Mughal and Thai dance when she visited India and Thailand with her cultural anthropologist mother. And in her far-flung travels with her grandparents at age 20, the dark-haired, olive-skinned Soetoro-Ng was assumed to be South Asian in London, Turkish in Turkey, Italian in Italy and Egyptian in Egypt.

“Being told that I looked like I belonged everywhere and to everyone helped me feel my fledgling pride in my own multiracialism,” she wrote in the foreword to Fulbeck’s book.

She dreams in English and politically identifies as American. But she sometimes finds herself with a huge hankering for things Indonesian—the taste of spiced fish wrapped in banana leaves, the sound of gamelan music, the smell of incense. She still connects with Latin culture but also adores the music and dance of Senegal.

“I ended up very American and very Indonesian and a little bit of a lot of things,” she said.

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