HONOLULU—Maya Soetoro-Ng arrived at a restaurant for an 8 a.m. breakfast appointment precisely on time, and she greeted me, a total stranger, with a big hug. Nothing unusual there, her friends say. Maya in many ways embodies the "aloha spirit" of openness that she argues is part of the appeal of her half brother, Sen. Barack Obama.
Soetoro-Ng, 37, says criticism that Obama is an "elitist," which has cropped up in the presidential campaign, is totally off base. Obama—nine years older and known in his Hawaii days as "Barry"—took on the role of father when her dad, Lolo Soetoro, and their mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, divorced. (Obama's dad, Barack Hussein Obama Sr., had abandoned the family years earlier). Barry took Maya to visit prospective colleges, taught her to appreciate jazz and classical music, gave her books by Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez, and instructed her in how to cook his specialties—chili and paprika chicken.
After we settled down at the breakfast table, Maya's cellphone rang. It was her ailing grandmother, Madelyn, wondering if Maya was bringing over the fresh coffee she had been promised. Yes, Maya said, it's in the car, and it will arrive shortly. "I love you," Maya said as she ended the call. In the hourlong interview, Soetoro-Ng, now a history teacher at La Pietra Hawaii School for Girls, said Hawaii was an incubator of Obama's commitment to diversity and multiculturalism.
"This division between Barack and the working class is conjured," she said. "It's manufactured; it's created. He has always worked on behalf of working people and alongside [them] and is there to learn from them as well as help."
Soetoro-Ng, a longtime teacher and academic researcher, is married to Canadian-born Konrad Ng. They have a 3-year-old daughter, Suhaila.
Added Soetoro-Ng: "Barack himself is very much a regular guy, not a silver spoon, incredibly smart, but you know he's a scholarship kid, made good use of the resources that were available to him, worked incredibly hard. Mom was an academic so the riches that she had to bestow were of the mind. I remember in high school when she was doing fairly well, relatively speaking, but I had to climb over papers to get to the kitchen in our little tiny one-bedroom apartment. I mean, this is not a family of privilege by any stretch of the imagination. Our family is very low key. When he comes over for Christmas, we sit on the floor and eat. There are lots of people there. Maybe you get a quarter of the couch to read the newspaper. It's only recently that my brother has done so well financially. That's because of the books."