Growing Up Hawaiian

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    Kristen Caldwell   Obama's childhood friend

    (Text only) She grew up and attended Punahou School with "Barry" Obama. She recalls how as a young child, Obama alternatively told classmates he was an Indonesian prince or Kenyan royalty. Caldwell also recounts how a young Obama reacted to a disturbing racial comment from a tennis pro. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 27, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    You started talking about how Michelle had said it, that, if you don't understand where he comes from, if you don't understand that he comes from Hawaii, you don't get Obama, because it's so unbelievably important to understand the guy. What does she mean by that? What are your thoughts about that?

    Well, I think what she means, we're incredibly lucky, those of us who grew up in Hawaii, to be exposed to so many different people, so many different racial heritages, so many different combinations. And that's just normal and cool. ...

    There's a rich cultural heritage of the islands themselves. And we have two Hawaiian words I'm going to use -- ina, which means the land, but it's almost more than the land. In wine they would say terroir. It's more than just the soil; it's more than just the land. It's a sense of --[if] you saw the movie The Descendants, there's a sense of responsibility for and oneness with the islands I think. It really gets in your blood.

    And the other is ohana, which means family. There's a strong sense of ohana. And family in Hawaii always means extended family. You talk about your "calabash cousins," and what that means is kids you grew up with and of the same calabash, the same pot basically, whether that was literal or not -- it could be -- but that your families were close, that they'd known each other a long time, that you hung out together.

    In those early years, Barry was certainly a calabash cousin, not because our families had known each other forever, but because he had the same calabash.

    How does it define Obama?

    Well, I think it gives him early exposure to a lot of different cultures and a lot of different people, and a comfort, an ease with them. I think there's an understanding and appreciation for people being able to be different, but we can still have understanding and get along. As well as our differences, we have many similarities: looking for common ground; having a sense of stewardship for the land. I think certainly having a real sense of community I think would be the ohana idea. ...

    But basically you can tell, if you had never met him before, you kind of know that if you just looked at Obama that this is a guy that grew up in Hawaii?

    I'd love to say that, yes, but I can't say that. He's got this new accent now, this whole Chicago thing.

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    Kristen Caldwell   Obama's childhood friend

    (Text only) She grew up and attended Punahou School with "Barry" Obama. She recalls how as a young child, Obama alternatively told classmates he was an Indonesian prince or Kenyan royalty. Caldwell also recounts how a young Obama reacted to a disturbing racial comment from a tennis pro. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 27, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    So what do we know about Obama and his background? He wasn't rich. Would he have needed help? How did he fit into this --

    My understanding is that Barry -- and that's what we called him, so I'm not meaning to be disrespectful, but I'm going likely to refer to him as Barry for the most part. My understanding is that Barry was on a scholarship. And a lot of times if you're on scholarship you had to do some work at the school. You worked in the snack bar.

    My father told me -- and I didn't know it at the time -- that Barry did some work at the tennis courts. We all did work at the tennis courts, those of us who hung out there. So it wasn't unusual when the tennis pro would ask me, "Go and walk courts 1 and 2," and that sort of thing, because he would ask any of us to do that. So I wasn't aware of that.

    When I first met Barry, when he showed up I think it was the summer before fifth grade, he was hanging out at the tennis courts. And at the time that was the very Wimbledon-like, where everyone had to wear white clothes and white tennis shoes. Very careful about the soles of the shoes because you didn't want to scuff up the courts, mark them up.

    So yeah, I can picture him as this slightly -- "chubby" is too strong, but rounded, short little guy, Barry Obama. And he told us that his father was an Indonesian king and that he was a prince, and after he finished school he was going to go back, and he would be a ruler in Indonesia. And I absolutely believed him.

    I understand that he told his fifth-grade class that he was Kenyan royalty, but I never heard that story until years later. My sister and I remember very clearly that he was an Indonesian prince and that he would be going back there. So there was some reference to where he had come from, and the understanding was his family was there.

    I didn't know who he lived with at the time. I since know that it was his grandparents. I knew where he lived, because a lot of times if it rained, my dad would give him a ride home from the tennis courts, because we would hang out after school. In the summers we'd hang out at the tennis courts; after school we would hang out at the tennis courts. That's what we did. And that's what Barry did pretty much from fifth through eighth grade. And I think after he leaned up and grew and got into basketball, he shifted away from tennis.

    The Indonesian story and stuff, what was your take on that? What do you think he was doing? Why did he need to do that?

    I can only imagine now, a 10-year-old leaving his mother and stepfather and at that point I think baby stepsister. So he lived in Hawaii from when he was born until he was 6, lived in Indonesia from 6 to 10. Arriving in Hawaii -- again, having not been there -- I would think he would have felt very, very fish-out-of-water, very uncomfortable, and like anybody, he'd have to have a little bit of bravado to mask the insecurities. So I think that was the prince story.

    Did he have the bravado? Did he have this confidence? Did you see something, do you remember, way back when you first met him that this guy seemed to have something that other people didn't have?

    You know, a lot of people say, "Wow, yes, I saw that he was going to be president." ... To me he was a normal kid. But to be fair, probably no kid at Punahou is really a normal kid. So he didn't seem outstanding academically or athletically or any other way. To me he seemed normal. But I was surrounded by very bright, very articulate, athletic, academically inclined kids. So, I mean, you didn't get to go to Punahou if you weren't smart and didn't have a lot of capabilities.

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    Kristen Caldwell   Obama's childhood friend

    (Text only) She grew up and attended Punahou School with "Barry" Obama. She recalls how as a young child, Obama alternatively told classmates he was an Indonesian prince or Kenyan royalty. Caldwell also recounts how a young Obama reacted to a disturbing racial comment from a tennis pro. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 27, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    Were there any other examples of struggling that you can remember, anything else that you ever saw in him that showed that this kid -- that life wasn't all peaches and roses? He came from a difficult situation. I mean, it's not everybody that you know your father walks away from you when you're a baby, and your mom, though you love her dearly, is not around a lot.

    And engrossed with her studies and research. Yeah, so honestly, I wasn't aware of it. I think it had to be tremendously difficult. And living with his grandparents who were his mama's parents. So here he is with dark skin living with, you know, older Caucasian people. I've read people saying, "Oh, well, his grandmother was a mucky-muck at the bank," but she worked her way up. And I don't think they had a lot.

    And apologies to any bankers out there, vice president at a bank tends to be a fairly ubiquitous title. It's not necessarily as significant perhaps as vice president of another kind of a company. So I really wasn't aware of any great struggles other than, as I say, everyone has a little bit of swagger, a little bit of bravado unless they're cringing and hiding in the corner. People I think respond to insecurity in different ways.

    The bottom line is, it wasn't always an idealistic life in paradise.

    Oh, absolutely not. Yeah, I know a lot of people think of Hawaii, "Oh, yeah, that's where we go on vacation, and it's a paradise." Or they think, oh, I could never live there because it's a rock and you'd be just enclosed in a small place. But it's actually a pretty big world, especially when you don't know anything different. You've got mountains; you've got ocean; you've got symphony, theater.

    But no, it's not idyllic and paradise. It's like growing up anywhere else, and yet it's not like growing up anywhere else. So as far as being a kid and trying to find your way and figure out who you are, completely normal I think wherever you live.

    As far as having this wonderful, special place to live, that means so much to people. Even so, I moved to California in 1979 after we graduated. Went to college here and have stayed here to work, but I still call Hawaii home. It is home. It's in your blood. It's in your very sense.

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    Tom Topolinski   High school friend

    A member of the "Choom Gang," Topolinski was a close friend of Obama from his days at Punahou high school. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on June 30, 2012.

    What was it like hanging out at Obama's grandparents' apartment?

    (Laughs.) Barry's apartment was very small, very modest. If you were able to set foot in his bedroom, it was a good day, because Barry liked to keep his things, let's say, on the ground floor. It was hard to walk into his room. But once you did, you just kind of got used to it -- last night's pizza, leftover breakfast from this morning, and Stevie Wonder up on the turntable, in the days of records and vinyl.

    But it was a very, very modest setup, and I actually, in a way, felt sorry for him, because I lived in a house. And it wasn't lavish or anything, but when I thought about Punahou and Barry being in this apartment, I was just like, this is an interesting situation. I wonder how this is all going to turn out. Well, as it did, it did turn out, and he has very good memories of that place, like any kid does with their environment.

    What do you mean when you say he liked to keep his room on the ground floor?

    Oh, he was a mess. He had stuff all over the floor. And it could be anything from basketball shoes to a basketball, textbooks, magazines, candy wrappers. His grandparents were very lax on Barry's housekeeping. I'm sure he's not doing that now. I'm sure he's cleaned it up quite a bit.

    In the White House, he has some help.

    Yes, he does have some help now, yeah. Not worried about it.

    The grandparents -- tell me about the grandparents a little bit, what they were like.

    Both grandparents were very dedicated, and they committed themselves to Barry. They were at every basketball game. When he needed a ride, that Ford, that brown-red Ford Granada would come on campus, and Barry would get dropped off.

    Now, his grandparents were very -- what's the word here? -- they were very conservative. They really weren't outspoken. They really did not get into any kind of tense situations. They were just happy to be there and to watch Barry flourish. They were never any kind of trouble; they never asked any questions. They just seemed like they were along for the ride, and that whatever they could do for Barry, they would do. I wouldn't mind grandparents like that.

    Certainly loving. Were they up to the task of taking care of a young guy like that when the mom was back and forth a lot, and there was no dad? Was that difficult?

    You know, I've thought about that, and how lucky I was to have a mother and father in a traditional role. Barry did seem to have a very good relationship with his grandparents. I will guess that with grandparents and grandchildren, it's a different relationship, and in this case it still seemed pretty typical.

    It didn't seem like Barry's parents were going to step in and say, "We're going to be the parents now." I think they held on to that grandfather and grandmother role, and it was a very, very loving relationship. Barry called his grandparents Gramps. I mean, it was always, "These are part of my family." It never felt like something that was being stressed or taxed.

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    Tom Topolinski   High school friend

    A member of the "Choom Gang," Topolinski was a close friend of Obama from his days at Punahou high school. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on June 30, 2012.

    But you've got -- as he's said in his book or his interviews, his grandmom is a closet alcoholic. The grandfather is not so closeted; he drinks a lot. That's not an easy situation. And they're white, by the way. They're also white, and he's half-white/half-black, but he's seen by the outside world as black because his skin color, the tint of his skin is dark. How much of a problem was that? Did it ever seem like that was a problem? Did he ever talk about it? Do you guys, when you went there, ever wonder that it's not the best situation?

    You know, it may have been a thing that we maybe thought about very rarely. But I did not notice, nor did Choom Gang I think notice that Barry was going through any kind of quest for identity. It didn't seem like anything was really missing.

    Like I said, we spent hours throughout the day together, and to Barry's credit, he didn't wear that on his sleeve. He just seemed like everything was going fine, and yes, he was brought up in a special environment, but he didn't act special or he didn't request to be treated special by anybody, including teachers, principals.

    There was no apologies, there was no, "Oh, my God, I don't have parents; something must be wrong with me." There was none of that. Barry always held himself in a high regard, and you never thought about it. And he never really talked about looking for this identity.

    Now, mind you, this was still in middle school and high school. Perhaps some of this was amplified once he left Punahou. But back then he was just one of the boys. …

    Did he ever talk about the dad?

    He never did. Not to me anyway. He may have had other friends that he felt maybe they needed to know, but for us, it was just all fun and games and basketball, and hanging out, listening to music and going to the beach.

    … Did you ever meet the mother?

    Honestly, I don't have any recollection of Barry's biological mother. I honestly don't know if he had been in contact with her or was close to her by the time I had befriended Barry in seventh, eighth and even in ninth grade. It just seemed to be like a missing person, for me, and I never asked about it. …

    Did he ever talk about the mom in any way whatsoever?

    I can't say that he did speak of his mother either in a positive or negative light. It was just all fun and games.

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    Eric Moore   Obama's college friend

    (Text only) He met "Barry" Obama as a fellow student at Occidental College and the two men bonded over their similar backgrounds. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 29, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    So who was the Barry you knew?

    He was a great guy. He was the most casual, unpretentious, nicest guy. I mean, my indelible image of him was always in a Hawaiian shirt and some OP shorts and flip-flops. I don't know that he had a long pair of pants during college. I mean he was such a great guy. …

    How did you know he was Hawaiian? What was the important thing about Hawaii, what his attitude about coming from Hawaii was?

    Well, he told me he had gone to Punahou High School, and there were several students at Occi from Punahou. It was kind of a feeder. I had several friends from Punahou, so I knew of the school. And Occi was, again, an excellent academic school. There's a lot of kids that come from prep school, and Punahou was one of the leading prep schools in Hawaii, but also a very expensive school. I think Obama was a scholarship student there.

    And he was very, I guess, unpretentious, not an elitist, not wealthy. So he didn't come with any of that sort of prep school baggage. But I knew he was more of a local guy in Hawaii. He was a surfer, had a big 'fro in those days, you know, very casual dresser.

    A Hawaiian attitude?

    A Hawaiian-style attitude. You know, just very, very low-key. …

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    Eric Moore   Obama's college friend

    (Text only) He met "Barry" Obama as a fellow student at Occidental College and the two men bonded over their similar backgrounds. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 29, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    Did he ever talk about his family, his mom or his dad leaving early? Did any of that stuff ever come up?

    Not really. I knew that he was raised by his mother and not much discussion about his father, except the day that he told me he was Kenyan. And we connected there.

    I don't know that he knew much detail at that point. It was interesting, because he had not been to Kenya in those days. … And the time that I had been there, I mean, I was in the very village where his father -- in the region that he lived and was born around, the Lake Victoria region, Kisumu area of Western Kenya, near Uganda.

    So you start telling him about your trip when you realized that he had Kenyan heritage. And so what was that conversation like? Was he interested in that?

    Very. Oh, yeah.

    What kind of things was he interested in?

    He was excited to the extent that he knew, you know, it was coursing in his blood that he had Kenyan heritage. But he loved the idea that I had been there. So I think, you know, he was as excited as I was.

    And I told him, you know, all African Americans should go to Africa to understand an aspect of their heritage, you know, as if you were taking a pilgrimage to Israel if you were Jewish, or going to Asia if you were Japanese American. I mean, it's just culturally enriching. It's personally enriching. And it gives you -- contributing to that sense of identity. …

    Did he ever talk about his mom in any way, either positive or negative, about what she meant to him?

    Certainly not negatively. And I'm sure his mother was a huge influence in his life, because that compassion, the empathy that I think she preached to him came through. I mean, she was an Anglo woman from Kansas, I believe, but she lived that multicultural, international experience, which I think hones your core beliefs about people. I mean, if you can experience people in their own culture and their own environment, you're going to appreciate them and respect them, you know, naturally and genuinely and sincerely, without being patronizing about a culture. …

    And she exposed him to those things early on. And again, those create the formative values for anybody. …

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