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S. Ann Dunham Soetoro
When her son was almost 2, Ann returned to college. Money was tight. She collected food stamps and relied on her parents to help take care of young Barack. She would get her bachelor's degree four years later. In the meantime, she met another foreign student, Lolo Soetoro, at the University of Hawaii. ("It's where I send all my single girlfriends," jokes her daughter Soetoro-Ng, who also married a man she met there.) He was easygoing, happily devoting hours to playing chess with Ann's father and wrestling with her young son. Lolo proposed in 1967.
Mother and son spent months preparing to follow him to Indonesiagetting shots, passports and plane tickets. Until then, neither had left the country. After a long journey, they landed in an unrecognizable place. "Walking off the plane, the tarmac rippling with heat, the sun bright as a furnace," Obama later wrote, "I clutched her hand, determined to protect her."
Lolo's house, on the outskirts of Jakarta, was a long way from the high-rises of Honolulu. There was no electricity, and the streets were not paved. The country was transitioning to the rule of General Suharto. Inflation was running at more than 600%, and everything was scarce. Ann and her son were the first foreigners to live in the neighborhood, according to locals who remember them. Two baby crocodiles, along with chickens and birds of paradise, occupied the backyard. To get to know the kids next door, Obama sat on the wall between their houses and flapped his arms like a great, big bird, making cawing noises, remembers Kay Ikranagara, a friend. "That got the kids laughing, and then they all played together," she says.
Obama attended a Catholic school called Franciscus Assisi Primary School. He attracted attention since he was not only a foreigner but also chubbier than the locals. But he seemed to shrug off the teasing, eating tofu and tempeh like all the other kids, playing soccer and picking guavas from the trees. He didn't seem to mind that the other children called him "Negro," remembers Bambang Sukoco, a former neighbor.
At first, Obama's mother gave money to every beggar who stopped at their door. But the caravan of miserychildren without limbs, men with leprosychurned on forever, and she was forced to be more selective. Her husband mocked her calculations of relative suffering. "Your mother has a soft heart," he told Obama.
As Ann became more intrigued by Indonesia, her husband became more Western. He rose through the ranks of an American oil company and moved the family to a nicer neighborhood. She was bored by the dinner parties he took her to, where men boasted about golf scores and wives complained about their Indonesian servants. The couple fought rarely but had less and less in common. "She wasn't prepared for the loneliness," Obama wrote in Dreams. "It was constant, like a shortness of breath."
Ann took a job teaching English at the U.S. embassy. She woke up well before dawn throughout her life. Now she went into her son's room every day at 4 a.m. to give him English lessons from a U.S. correspondence course. She couldn't afford the élite international school and worried he wasn't challenged enough. After two years at the Catholic school, Obama moved to a state-run elementary school closer to the new house. He was the only foreigner, says Ati Kisjanto, a classmate, but he spoke some Indonesian and made new friends.