Thursday, December 6, 2012

An American President in Bangkok

During a meet-and-greet with the U.S. President and First Lady at the American Embassy in Jakarta, where my nine-year-old sister managed to hand over two bags of leftover Halloween candy and Silly Bands to the President with her left hand while giving a handshake with her right. Despite the obvious shock on my mom’s face in witnessing this and the fear of Social Service whisking away Foreign Service officer’s daughter off for interrogation over juvenile trinkets, Angie received warm regards from President Obama and a personal thank-you from First Lady Michelle Obama as she walked over to check out the goods my sister presented for Sasha and Malia Obama. Hearing the story an ocean away over a Skype call from my UCLA dorm room, I was jealous of my sister’s successful scheming and wondered if one day I would be just as fortunate.

As fate would have it, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton graced Thailand with their presence last month during a three-country tour of Southeast Asia, having previously visited Burma and en route to an ASEAN conference in Phnom Penh. Thanks to the suggestion of Peace Corps Thailand’s country director, the American Embassy set aside 10 slots for Peace Corps Volunteers to attend a meet-and-greet at Chulalongkorn University, and my name was first on the emailed list. The selected volunteers arrived at the university grounds on a Sunday evening with the Country Director, as each of us sweated in our best suits, ties, button-ups, and dresses and as Secret Service looked over our credentials before ushering us into the security checkpoint. Despite the strain of a three-hour wait with expat families and friends squishing their way into a good view of the President and the opportunity for a handshake, my program manager Jaree and fellow community development volunteer Jesse found an open spot behind railing of the stage’s left side and we positioned ourselves for a chance to meet the U.S. President. As President Obama’s arrival drew near, I daydreamed about how this night would ideally go:

President Obama makes his way from the right side of the crowd towards the left, and I struggle to hold my spot in the front row as the president finally approaches my side of the auditorium and stops in front of me smiling.

Me: President Obama, I am a Peace Corps Volunteer and I am grateful for your support of our service.
Obama: *eyebrows raised* Very good work young lady. *looks down at my wrist as he shakes my hand* Wow, what beautiful bracelets!
Me: Oh thank you sir! The HIV/AIDS group in my village makes these with me. You can have these two for Sasha and Malia!
Obama: *turns to Secret Service personnel* It’s okay boys, I can take these myself. Thank you very much—what is your name?
Me: Umm Sara, like the aspirin! *Even in an ideal world with the U.S. President, I would respond in a Thai fashion*

Suddenly, the daydream was put to a halt as American Embassy staff announced that all American expat children ages 5-15 years enter the stage area through the left entrance of the railing. The program manager, Jesse and I watched in disbelief as an expatriate mother directed 50 children to move closer to the front of the stage from the left, with the juvenile crowd turning our spot from a front-row opportunity to a back-row misfortune.

As the U.S. Ambassador walked into Chulalongkorn University’s gymnasium to introduce the special guests, I tried standing on the bottom half of the railing to get a better look above the crowds and cameras before me. As the U.S. President and Secretary of State walked onstage, I grabbed the top rail with my left hand and leaned against the barrier as I stretched my right arm as high as I could to capture some snap shops of who I would clearly not get a handshake from. As President Obama’s speech about foreign policy and expatriate communities abroad progressed, I hopped off the railing and gave up trying to listen to the speech through the less-than-stellar sound system, feeling defeated as I looked at the recycled bracelets still on my wrist. Silly daydreams.

While President Obama and Secretary Clinton walked along the railing for photo ops and handshakes, I couldn’t help but laugh: two years ago, a person in the crowd at the American Embassy in Jakarta probably had similar thoughts of annoyance as my 9-year-old sister, half the required age to vote in the United States, met with both the President and the First Lady after sneaking in Sasha and Malia’s gift past security. Shaking my head at myself and the expatriates whose luck was much unlike my own that night, I regrouped with the other volunteers to share a few snapshots of President Obama:
You can tell by the quality of the photo that I was handling the camera one-handed while holding onto the railing for dear life.
I thought President Obama was staring at me for a moment, probably thinking, "Who is that Thai-looking woman hanging off the gated area?" 
President Obama greeting the crowd before he departs for the evening

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