Obama in Menteng, Jakarta — expat on both sides of the tracks

The experiences that shape expat identity are often quirky. For example, if you live in Indonesia — especially the pale-skinned — then you are called bule.  And if you’ve ever lived in a place called “Menteng,” then you wonder why there are so many of them.

So what did they call US President Barack Obama as a young expat? Well, supposedly they called him “Duck Ass.” Anyway, in the video below, Obama — AKA “anak Menteng”  or “the Menteng kid” — jokes around about growing up in Menteng, an elite part of Jakarta where governors, ambassadors and heads of state live.

Jakarta’s elite Menteng district — originally called Weltevreden, a suburb of Batavia– was laid out by avante garde Dutch planners in 1910. A dozen or so parks, still here today, were added to the plan in 1918.

Thereafter the value of the Menteng “brand” took a turn for the south as Indonesian planners slapped it on all sorts of developments, even as far away as present day Jl. Casablanca (Tebet area) — and further.

The fact is, Menteng — the one where Obama lived — isn’t quite the same on the other side of the 1919 Flood Canal and railroad tracks. And that’s what Obama’s joking about in the video. Those areas housed only plantations and villages until after Indonesian Independence in 1945.

Obama also writes about Menteng (and the other parts of Jakarta where he lived) in his books. His former grade school is located on Jl. Besuki near Taman Suropati in Central Jakarta. That’s just a few doors down from the residences of the governor of Jakarta and the US ambassador. However, his Santo Fransiskus Asisi Catholic school (where I did a little un-airconditioned guest teaching this year) is in Menteng Dalam, on the other side of Casablanca in South Jakarta.

When I first came to Jakarta — and told people I lived in Menteng with my family — they’d test my Indonesian and sense of humor by asking whether or not I was the “Menteng Kid,” a reference to a TV serial.  I had no idea what they were talking about; but I learned to get better laughs with the “yes” answer.

Photo of the fruit on the Baccaurea racemosa tree AKA "kepundung" or "menteng" fruit

Menteng -- a tasty fruit not common in stores

It’s an open question whether the kota or kampung side of Menteng would be a better place to grow up. It’s a bit lonely in the ambassadorial district, where everyone lives behind high walls and you almost never see anyone walking down the street.

Here’s how Dr. Seuss would describe the neighbors and their ‘hoods in this part of Jakarta:

Menteng Atas,

Menteng Pulo,

Meteng Wadas,

You said Menteng who?

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