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Where Obama "learned to be cool": profiling Obama's mother in Indonesia

This 1960's photo provided by the presidential campaign of President Barack Obama, shows Obama with his mother Stanley Ann Dunham. AP/Obama Presidential Campaign

The New York Times Magazine this week features an excerpt of a new biography of President Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham -- a complex woman whose unique life and personality shaped Mr. Obama's character more significantly than even Mr. Obama himself initially seemed to realize, according to the story.

Dunham moved with her six-year-old son Barack Obama to Indonesia in 1967 to live with her new husband, Lolo Soetoro. (Her marriage to Barack Obama Sr. had ended not long after she gave birth to Barack Obama in 1960. She met Lolo Soetoro in 1964 and followed him to Indonesia three years later.) Mr. Obama lived there for four years, and the article "The Young Mother Abroad" focuses on that formative period. The article is adapted from New York Times reporter Janny Scott's book, "A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother."

"Our ambassador said this was where Barack learned to be cool," Kay Ikranagara, one of Dunham's closest friends, says of Indonesia.

She was referring to Indonesia's strong emphasis on self-control -- a quality that Mr. Obama is known for now as a political leader. It applied particularly to Mr. Obama as a child in Indonesia because he was expected to tolerate and ignore racists taunts from his classmates - rather than respond - if he wanted them to stop.

"If you get mad and react, you lose," Ikranagara said. "If you learn to laugh and take it without any reaction, you win."

Yet Mr. Obama was shaped by more than just Indonesian culture at that time. It was a period, Scott writes, in which Dunham "impressed upon him her values and, consciously and unconsciously, shaped his emerging understanding of the world. She made choices about her own life too, setting an example that in some ways Obama would eventually embrace, while in other ways intentionally leaving it behind."

She taught him to be tough and fearless, but also disciplined and respectful. She also did her best to give her son a set of moral principles.

"She wanted Barry to have a sense of obligation, to give something back," Scott writes.

Dunham was a hard-working woman, Scott writes, who expected her son to work hard as well and saw great potential in him.

"Sometimes when she talked about Barack, she'd say, 'Well, my son is so bright, he can do anything he ever wants in the world, even be president of the United States.' I re­member her saying that," says Benji Bennington, a friend of Ann's from Hawaii.

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