Dec 20 2013, 1:24am CST | by Forbes
Book Review By John Cairns
More than one thoughtful, sometimes introspective person named Obama knows how to write a compelling book. Mark Obama Ndesandjo, the mainland China-based, younger half-brother of United States president Barack Obama, has written his memoirs, Cultures, My Odyssey of Self-Discovery (Hong Kong, 2013, Mark Obama Ndesandjo Foundation, 505 pages, available worldwide by February 27, 2014).
Looking alike, but with contrasting lives, Mark and Barack share the same father, the late Barack Obama Senior, who met their mothers while studying in America in the 1960s. Mark’s mother, Ruth, defied her parents’ wishes, followed her love interest to Africa and raised a family there.
‘Drops of Water on a Leaf’
Forty-eight-year-old Mark’s book-title arises from his life-journey through three culturally different countries, each deeply appreciated. Born in Kenya, he matured there before studying and working in the United States and then moved to Shenzhen, a vibrant city in southern China. There he speaks Mandarin, plays piano, does Chinese brush-calligraphy and earns a modest living while pursuing charity work, notably teaching music to orphans.
“Like drops of water on a leaf, or pearls on a vast jade plate, my life retains its familiar outlines while ready at any moment to slide into the unknown,” Mark writes. “But always it reflects light from three great sources, three cultures, the three places I call home.”/>/>/>
Each culture tested and nurtured Mark. For example, he calls Kenya “a place of darkness and light, warmth and cruelty, decay and renewal, acceptance and rejections, mystery and transcendence, requited and unrequited love, providence and damnation…. It was from such irrationality, from this divine distemper and cauldron of opposites, that my dreams were born.”
Relocating avoids some problems, but brings exposure to others. “When I flew to America, I did not realize I was heading into a storm in which cultural misunderstanding, unresolved conflicts and stupidity would take a huge toll on my life.”
Decades later, “Little did I know that China would become my future and that, in the end, I would not change China. China would change me.”
There’s much to observe. “In Shenzhen, Porsches and BMWs crowded the streets next to wicker carts, and Buddhist monks strolled casually through upscale malls. Elderly people danced to Peking opera or practiced calligraphy and tai ji quan on the sidewalks on Sunday mornings. Laborers chatted loudly in their hometown dialects while mini-buses lurched over potholes and blared their horns…. Businessmen from Wenzhou and Hangzhou screamed into cellphones while hurling spitballs out the windows of their BMWs. Grandmothers brought from home to tend to their grandchildren liberally let the kids do their business on the bushes or over the drains, occasionally holding the babies upside down to gently inspect their private parts and make sure all was in order….”
Naturally, the Chinese face problems too. “Perhaps by the time the kids of today’s Shenzhen grow up there will be a change in the current attitude toward headlong growth. Perhaps they will begin to ponder questions like: Do they have a wholesome life based on values such as establishing a quality-based economy and social responsibility, and not living just to pursue a quick yuan? Will they begin to stop and check out the blue skies, safely drink water direct from the tap, have more time to be with loved ones, volunteer, and walk where the branches of trees gently touch overhead?”
Demons Haunt the Past
Writing with gut-wrenching honesty, Mark exorcises demons from his past. He tells of disillusionment, self-doubt and worse. His candor covers failures, successes, stolen comic books, first kisses, early jobs, perils of racism, a cheating scandal at Stanford University, joys of music, pleasures from helping others, a supportive Chinese wife (named Xue Hua) and amazement at watching from a distance as his brother performs political miracles./>
Many of Mark’s assessments ripple widely. For example, he reckons that Americans should blame themselves, in part, for the home-soil terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. “In retrospect, we should have seen it coming. For years many Americans were unaware of the global unpopularity of our foreign policy. In our ignorance of other cultures we were like people stuck in steel boxes, with no windows but plenty of goodies like TVs and iPods inside to keep us distracted and stupid.”
Plus America’s reactions to the 9-11 terrorism deepened its impact. “There was fear everywhere…. There was jingoism everywhere. Patriotism had become an excuse to spy on our neighbors, particularly those who were different, such as Muslims. There was the annexation of the Internet, which Big Brother would adopt as a personal fiefdom, with electronic surveillance in abundance. There was perpetual war. Spending on the military would increase in perpetuum, exhausting domestic priorities and justified by alarmist talk of invisible enemies….”
Often Mark’s candor contains elements of self-depreciation. “My mother and I both have big noses. My brother, President Barack Obama, has big ears. My father had large hands. My family tends towards these eye-catching extremities, just short of being ugly but large enough to be noticed.”
Redemption in Charity
Masterfully, Mark explains the appeal of charity work. Serving others brings intense satisfaction. His encounters with music students at a Chinese orphanage lead to many of the book’s highlights. “It was as though I was developing wings that enabled me to soar and make my burdens immaterial, even as my soul was linked to these children by a magical chain. Charity redeemed me in my own eyes. To give selflessly was such a wonderful gift.”/>
Sibling Rivalry Settled
When Barack Obama won the 2008 US presidential election, Mark and his wife watched on TV in their “modest” Shenzhen apartment. “Tears were running down our cheeks as we saw those other wet, happy and ecstatic faces from far across the Pacific.” Later as Barack took office, “I was filled with a sense of wonder and gratitude, humility and pride.”/>
What did it all mean? “The election dealt a stinging retort to the spirit of racism that had tainted so much of American history. It upended conventional wisdom and shattered decades of ossified thinking.”
Naturally, Mark ponders sibling rivalries. “I sometimes think that had the stars aligned differently, I could have been in my brother Barack’s place and vice versa. Our lives were in some ways so different and yet so similar.”
As rivalries go, Barack, the first person of African-American descent to lead the United States, sets the bar impossibly high. “While I was proud of my brother, another feeling was swelling inside of me. It was a feeling of injustice. I so wanted to best this other part of me, I so wanted to go further than him, but I now realized that he was leaving me far, far behind.”
Yet that may be a good thing. “What Barack had brought to my life – the sudden global exposure, the pride in my family, the awareness that I could amplify the impact I had on helping those who needed help – was without price. There was no room in my heart for the bitterness of envy, or the swift and passing pleasure of retribution.”
Just a Brother
Readers will enjoy Mark’s recollections of rare meetings with his political-minded brother. “Until I met Barack in Beijing, I had never viewed him as the President. Instead, I just saw him as my brother; a little taller and older than me, true, but still just a brother.”/>
About the troubled, intriguing brotherly relationship, Mark stays candid, surely displeasing certain political spin doctors. “I felt that he (Barack) was an arrogant bastard, but was too polite to say so to his face.” Or worse, “What a stuck-up asshole, I thought.” That’s really the lingo of brothers.
Significantly, Mark shows that no one’s family history stays spotless, not even that of a political giant. More exposed to his father in childhood than Barack ever was, Mark accuses their dad of squandering great potential by plunging into alcoholism. “I knew whenever my father was present by the sweet, pungent and heady smell of whisky.”/>
The blight of domestic violence followed. “To admit ‘my father beat us’ even now feels shameful to me, like an admission of weakness.” Painful memories linger long after bruises heal. “When I was abruptly woken up, I would see light streaming in round the sides of the door. There would be thumps and yells, often followed by the sound of my mother screaming in pain or anger. Once I heard a loud crash, and I rushed to the door of the living room. By the orange light I saw my mother on the floor and my father standing over her, his hands clenched.”
On Barack’s way to the White House in Washington, the future president penned two books, Dreams From My Father (1995) and The Audacity of Hope (2006). With Cultures, Mark presents his second book, an encore to an earlier novel, From Nairobi to Shenzhen (2009), which also drew inspiration from his Africa-America-China experiences. He has recorded three piano-music albums too: The Untimely Ones, Night Moods; and Reflections on William Blake. Next he plans to publish a translation of poems by Li Shangyin of China’s Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD)./>
Mark’s pride in his famous brother shines brightly. He believes that Barack heralded in “a new, more progressive and better America”. But he also shows no hesitation to contradict the U.S. president. Indeed, Cultures ends with an entire section to “set the record straight” about family-related details in Barack’s book, Dreams From My Father.
Definitely, Mark plans more achievements of his own. For example, he leads a foundation to promote cultural exchanges between Africa, Asia and America.
Would Mark ever enter politics too? Frankly, no, because “politics is a vicious process” in which he wants no part. Instead, he treasures his “privacy and simple life in Shenzhen”.
Source: Forbes Business
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