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A president who understands Asia

Sen. Barack Obama in Hawaii during the caucus.

Hawaiian-born President Barack Obama, back home during his 2008 caucus (George Waialeale, Obama Campaign)

Barack Obama visited his family in Hawaii last week, and Hawaii is America’s state with the closest ties to Asia. His visit reminds us that the Democratic nominee-in-waiting would be the first non-white U.S. president in history, one with close ties to Asia, and not due only to his much-discussed schooling in Indonesia.

While the idea of the 21st Century as China’s century is a long way from reality, America’s links with Asia have grown ever stronger in the last half-century despite a nasty, hot war in Vietnam and a prolonged, cold one with Maoist China.

Little attention has been paid in the campaigns to Obama’s Asian links, which go beyond the boyhood years he spent in Indonesia and include formative years as a prep school student in Hawaii, where his grandmother still lives. While Obama was only in Indonesia four years (from age six to 10), he graduated from high school in Honolulu, at the state’s most prestigious private school, Punahou, where he was one of the few students (black or white) without Hawaiian or Asian forebears.

You cannot live in Hawaii without being conscious of Asia; when Obama lived in Honolulu in the Seventies, Honolulu was still an air connection between North America and Asia for many business people. Many of Hawaii’s business, political, and educational institutions are owned or headed by Asian Americans.

Additionally, Obama’s family had close connections to the island’s two most important institutions of higher education, the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the East-West Center, the latter a federally funded think tank and research institution opened in 1960. According to the Center, Obama’s mother, stepfather and brother-in-law all had EWC connections, with his mother holding two advanced degrees in anthropology from the University of Hawaii through EWC grants. (Disclosure: I was a fellow at the EWC on two occasions in the Eighties)

Students at Punahou, University of Hawaii and the East-West Center are overwhelmingly of Hawaiian or Asian heritage, and the university and EWC enroll large numbers of students from Asian countries. A curious and bright young man such as Obama would have ingested Asian culture and appreciation for the diversity of its nationalities.

Any American who is not of Asian background and lives for a time in Hawaii becomes acutely aware of the importance of Asia, not only economically but also culturally. In the aftermath of Vietnam, and with wrenching changes already evident in China, a student at Punahou with a mother at the East-West Center and University of Hawaii would have absorbed a liberal education on Asian values and culture.

Negative campaigners have attempted to paint Obama as Muslim because he lived in Indonesia from age six to 10, but regardless of any “feel” for Asia he might have picked up in Indonesia, the eight years Obama spent in the cultural stew of Hawaii amid its premier educational institutions is certain to be more important to his worldview today. His formative years were not the Eurocentrism of those of past presidents.

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