17 December, 2008

Everyone's Son

"It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get to where we are today, but we have just begun. Today we begin in earnest the work of making sure that the world we leave our children is just a little bit better than the one we inhabit today." - Barack Obama

“Barack Obama?”

These words are just as often posed as a question as they are formed as a statement.

At home, in Dubai, people often ask me where I am from. Prior to the election, after I said the United States, I often received a perplexed look, mainly because I do not look like what they expect from someone who gives that answer to that question. Then if the person somewhat knew me or we had an extended conversation, they would beat around the bush (no pun intended) to politics to figure out who I was voting for.

The parents of my students, for instance, would get around to the election, and hint at the possibility of change – almost as if it were a code word. A few of them would come right out and ask, in a sort of hopeful tone of voice “Barack Obama?” I would slowly nod, do a little head bob and say “we hope so” and usually the person’s face would break into a smile - or she would grasp my hand or he would join in the nodding as well. If the person was gregarious, we would continue our conversation on the elated emotions of hope.

During the political conventions, I encouraged my AP Language and Composition students to watch one of the speeches and complete an informal poster analyzing the speaker’s rhetorical devices. I hung up the better posters in my room, and ended up with at least one analysis of speeches by Hilary Clinton, Sarah Palin, John McCain and Barack Obama. The McCain poster had a large title that clearly said “McCain’s Tools.” On parent-teacher conference day, one of my student’s parents, (from India) were in my room and her father glanced around, pointed at the McCain poster and asked what it was for. I told him, and he responded by telling me I should be unbiased and that students should have been allowed to cover both sides. I knew at that moment that he judged me, first, as a McCain supporter, and second as “bad.” I quickly pointed out the other speech analyses around the room and the elaborate one up front which illustrated how Obama used Aristotle’s model of classical argument. I hoped that by the time he left the room he was satisfied that I was a supporter of change as well.

Another parent and I had an extended conversation about our hopes; she is from Palestine. Another mother, who happens to be European, overhead us. At the end of our conference, she mentioned that she shared our views, and asked if her son had told me they knew Barack Obama. I was shocked. The next day in class, her son handed me a pair of black and white Obama bracelets, and explained the family's connection. It was a good one, but not for these public pages. I did not take the bracelets off until well after the election.

Since the election, when people ask where I am from, I first state that I live in Dubai, but then add that I am from the U.S. I get the opposite reaction than I expected when I first left the States to live abroad. People are surprisingly happy. “Ah, Barack Obama?” they will ask, or “Ba-rack O-bama” they will say, enunciating the consonants in the first part of our president-elect’s name and quickly and confidently stating his last name.

I boarded my Air India flight last Tuesday evening, and the man in my row quickly struck up a conversation. After I told him of my native country, he quickly said “Barack Obama.” I said “Yes. January 20.”

At that point the conversations begin to blur. Someone makes the statement about Mr. Obama, and then they say “he is good?” and I say “yes.” “Bush?” they will ask. “Bad.” I reply. Or they will make the judgment themselves. They may imply that Obama has already been installed in office, and we reply, not yet, but soon. Often they will ask about his religion and his middle name. Generally, people are overwhelmingly happy and hopeful.

On the plane, I got out the book I began reading prior to leaving for my trip. The first week of December, I received two packages – one, the ultimate gift package for every holiday from October to January from my friend Rachel, and the other, three books from Amazon.com I had ordered in November, all authored by the same man. I began with Dreams From My Father.

“Barack Obama!” my aisle-mate, Sameer, said excitedly since my reading was by the same man about whom we initiated our conversation.

He asked to see the book, and I passed it to him.

He read the quote on the bottom of the cover: “Perceptive and wise, this book will tell you something about yourself whether you are black or white.” – Marian Wright Edelman.

“I think that will be true,” said Sameer, who is from the beach-side city of Goa in South India, pointing to the quote.

He, of course, asked if I was “like” Barack Obama – one parent from Kenya and one from the U.S. - and I shook my head ‘no’. He was confused, as many people are when I tell them I am from the U.S., and that both my parents are “American.” But, I had heard the Obama comparison before, even from my acupuncturist, and I will no doubt hear it again. Someone, I forget who, explained to me at one point that people on this side of the world will find it hard to believe that I am American because I am not blond. I found that an odd characteristic to identify as “American,” but here we are agreeing on Mr. Obama and I am calling myself an American for the first time in my life, so let us not ruin this moment.

I saw an ad on the news when I was in my hotel in Madurai for a forum to be held in Mumbai on the night I arrived, regarding what the election of Barack Obama will mean for India, and I really, truly understood. On the morning of November 6, (it was still the 5th in the States) one of the local papers in Dubai illustrated that Mr. Obama must now live up to his promises. The articles that day implied that the leaders of our region were ready for Mr. Obama to start fixing the world now, and they were going to hold him to it. Unfortunately, because of my flight arrival time I would not make it to the forum, but I liked the idea of it.

Seeing that commercial took me back to election day and all the joy of many people of the world, represented by the microcosm of folks at our school. It reminded me that the hopes of many people, clearly in India, and undoubtedly in other parts of the world, have the highest of hopes for our newly-elected president and for their own corners of the world after his inauguration.

In those two words they utter to me when they learn where I am from, are not a man’s name, but the hopes of a large portion of people around the globe for something bigger and for something greater than the man or our country itself. Barack Obama.