Maya Soetoro-Ng



Maya Soetoro-Ng is a breath of fresh air. Born to an Indonesian father and American mother, she spent most of her childhood traveling to the farthest corners of Asia, India, the Middle East and Polynesia. Now settled in Hawaii, she talks to Asia Dreams about her childhood in Jakarta and what it felt like on re-election night.

Asia Dreams: You were born in Jakarta and attended Jakarta International School before moving to Hawaii in your teens. What are some of your fondest memories of Indonesia?

Soetoro-Ng: Indonesia shaped my first vision of humanity and my first understanding of community.  Family was extended and complicated.  People informally adopted or took care of one another’s children and there was very little privacy. Aunties and uncles – related by choice, not blood – were always around, and home life was loud. It was loud outside too:  the art, music, dance, food, and language offered me a richly textured childhood.

When our mother moved to Indonesia with my father in the late 1960s, she got to know the craftspeople who made things like woodcarvings, batik, and shadow puppets, and she learned to care for them very much. She wanted to help, and she also wanted to learn, and so with curiosity, cultural sensitivity, and perseverance, she honed a nuanced understanding of Indonesian culture.
Later, she worked alongside Indonesians to build microfinance programs designed to give rural people small loans that would help them develop their businesses and provide more tools for coping under often-difficult circumstances.  My best memories are of spending time with her in villages all over Indonesia as she did the work that she loved.

Asia Dreams: Is there anything in particular that you learned from your childhood in Indonesia that you try to incorporate in your children’s lives today?

Soetoro-Ng: Indonesia is a place where storytelling is valued, and I work to make our kids’ lives rich with stories from around the world. I teach history and infuse a lot of storytelling and historical fiction into the teaching of history.  I think history is important, because it teaches us how to be more brave and humane in the face of wrongdoing, and it shows us how high people can climb, even out of dark, low places.

I try to make our kids’ world very wide wherever we reside.  Indonesia widened our mother’s perspective immensely and ensured that I would interact with people from every socioeconomic background, and that I would have exposure to the biggest cities and the smallest villages. I try to work so that our kids have a similarly diverse set of encounters. I was born in Jakarta, but raised in Jogyakarta and Semarang too, with summers and high school years spent in Hawaii, India and Pakistan. We were very fortunate to be able to know so much of the world in our youths. Mom embraced many communities within and outside of Indonesia with wide arms, appreciating their differences and connecting cultures to one another.  And because of her respect for Indonesia and Indonesians, she never lost faith in the notion that it was possible for people from far away corners to get along, work together, and love one another. Indonesia taught our family about humility too and prevents my brother (U.S. President Barack Obama) from being arrogant about the rest of the world at the same time that he works to make the United States stronger.

Asia Dreams: Do you and your husband ever dream about living in Asia for a year or two to give your children an international experience? If so, what country would you choose and why?

Soetoro-Ng: I have enjoyed hearing the stories of Okinawan people and feeling the warmth of the Okinawan culture.  I can see powerful cultural similarities between my home in Hawaii and Okinawa.  Both places contain great artistry, peaceful energy, and spiritual strength.  I am also powerfully drawn to South Asian philosophy and spirituality.  That said, Indonesia and Malaysia are the only places we have been tempted to relocate, because we want the children to have a sense of their roots and the cultural riches that helped to shape their families – my husband Konrad’s parents are peranakan and were born and raised in Sabah, Borneo.  I was delighted to take my children to Indonesia and Malaysia for the first time last summer. I hope their connection to and enjoyment of both places will continue throughout their lifetimes.

Asia Dreams: In 2011, you authored the lovely children’s book, Ladder to the Moon. Can we expect a reunion with main characters, Suhalia and Grandma Annie, anytime soon?

Soetoro-Ng: Thank you for your question’s kind descriptors. We will always study the moon, the girls and I.  We look at lunar calendars.   We read of moon goddesses’ visits to the Pacific.  We write about the qualities of moonlight and visit the planetarium, but I don’t think that there will be a sequel to “Ladder…”

I have written a picture book entitled “Like a Herd of Turtles in a Cloud of Peanut Butter”, which is a playful book about mindfulness and the value of slowing down.  My family is in there, but their names are “Rat”, “Monkey”, “Tiger”, and “Dog” – corresponding to their Chinese horoscopes.  This book has yet to be illustrated.

First, I am trying to finish “Yellowood”, my Young Adult novel about a 16-year-old peacemaker, named Savita, who works to reduce suffering in a world torn apart by a thirteen year war.  It has taken me years to finish this YA novel, because I have been working full time at the University of Hawaii with a lot of nonprofit obligations as well, and looking after the kids can be a challenge with my husband working at the Smithsonian in DC much of the time.

I do love being able to write fiction, and hope that I can always continue to do so while I teach. I would say that my stories lend themselves to empathy, inner peace and conflict reduction.

Asia Dreams: Can you describe the family scene as your brother’s re-election victory was announced?

Soetoro-Ng: It was wonderful to be back in Chicago for the first time in many years on that powerful night.  Many of the friends and family members were nervous together while watching TV during the earliest reports.  Ultimately, we were all profoundly relieved that the hard work of so many people yielded positive outcomes. My brother was cool, of course, and comfortingly himself throughout. I think that one of the most remarkable things about my brother is that this man who now belongs to the world is still the same man I knew before he ever became famous.  He has a strong core, and sensing his sturdiness put me at ease on election night.

I felt nostalgic throughout the evening, remembering as a teenager how I joined him in Chicago neighborhoods where he worked, and he taught me about the importance of service and activism.  I was remembering those summers and marveling at how far he has journeyed. I’ve been so proud of his ability to raise the level of civic engagement in the United States. I hope that he will have a very successful second term. I know that when people beside him work to tear down, he’ll respond by working to build up. We can count on him for that, and I hope the rest of us do the same.