GUANGZHOU, China — Maybe it is the easy smile. Or perhaps the eyes, at once self-assured and searching. When Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo walks into the room, the similarities with President Barack Obama, with whom he shares a father, are unmistakable if hard to pinpoint.
The father, Barack Obama Sr., was an imposing presence, a baritone-voiced charmer prone to haughty outbursts. The sons turned out to be thoughtful and unafraid of self-doubt. In height, complexion and gait, the resemblances are striking.
Obama hardly knew his father, who left home when the younger Obama was 2. Ndesandjo, however, grew up in the stormy presence of a man he said he came to hate. “My father beat me and my mother, and this is something you just don’t do,” said Ndesandjo, 43, who was raised in Kenya but whose American accent is the product of international schools. “He was a brilliant man but as my mother used to say, he was a social failure.”
Over the last decade, as Obama’s political career took him to the apex of the world’s most powerful nation, Ndesandjo’s life fell apart, then slowly came together again. After losing his job at Lucent, the telecommunications equipment company, he left the United States in 2002 to start a new life in China. He taught English, gave piano lessons to orphans and helped a friend open a chain of barbecue restaurants. Last year, he married a Chinese woman.
The president is significantly closer to his relatives on his mother’s side of the family. Friends say he knows his half-brother, who traveled to Washington earlier this year, but does not have a close relationship with him.
Until now Ndesandjo has avoided the press, wrapping himself in the anonymity of Shenzhen, a former fishing village near Hong Kong that is now a city of 8 million newcomers. Friends say he never spoke of his connection to the president. “I didn’t want anything to do with the Obama name,” he said.
But Ndesandjo has now decided to publicize himself, having written an autobiographical novel, “Nairobi to Shenzhen: A Novel of Love in the East,” that reflects his wanderings, the wrestling over his racial identity, his quest to find acceptance in modern China, and mostly, the struggle to understand his father. “I wanted to find something redeeming about him,” he said in a recent interview.
Ndesandjo’s journey mirrors that of the president, whose autobiographical memoir, “Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance” details his own drive to make peace with his father, a Kenyan goat herder who went on to earn a graduate degree from Harvard but who abandoned Obama and his mother in Hawaii. In all, the elder Obama had eight children by four women before dying in 1982 in a car accident at age 46.
At the end of his memoir, Obama weeps at the grave of his father in a cathartic moment. “I felt the circle finally close,” he wrote. “The pain I felt was my father’s pain.”
Ndesandjo finds his own closure by inventing his father’s diary, which gives the book’s protagonist insight into his father’s philandering, outbursts and a self-destructive decline that paralleled Kenya’s descent into corruption and tribal conflict.
The two boys, born of American mothers but half a world from each other, knew little of each other growing up, and Ndesandjo declined to fill in the blanks of their relationship. The details, he said, would have to await a true autobiography that he said was planned.
He did say that Obama’s election was a crystallizing moment, prompting the completion of his book and forcing him to confront issues that had dogged him. “Emotions and attitudes that had been around for so many years were turned upside down within a few weeks,” he said, tearful.
Obama, in his book, describes his first encounter with Ndesandjo, in which he heaped scorn on his father and the backwardness of Kenya. “You think that somehow I’m cut off from my roots, that sort of thing,” Obama quotes him as saying. “Well, you’re right.”
Like his half-brother, Ndesandjo struggled with issues of racial identity. His mother, Ruth Ndesandjo, is an American Jew, born Ruth Nidesand, who met the elder Obama during his time at Harvard, then followed him to Africa. Ruth Ndesandjo, who still lives in Nairobi, had two sons. The other, David, died in a motorcycle accident.
Being of mixed race has never been easy, Ndesandjo said, whether in Kenya, America or China, where non-Chinese can become inured to stares. “I think to a certain extent I’ve always been an outsider,” he said.
After high school Ndesandjo moved to the United States, earning degrees in physics from Brown and Stanford Universities and an master of business administration degree from Emory University. He also devoted himself to classical piano, inspired by his grandmother, a Lithuanian immigrant whose love of the arts left a mark on him. “The thing that kept me going were the strong women in my life,” he said.
Despite his decision to publish a book, Ndesandjo said he remained fearful of losing his privacy. Before agreeing to an interview, he asked that questions be provided in advance and that they avoid politics and personal matters.
“He almost canceled five times,” said Harley Seyedin, a friend who runs the American Chamber of Commerce in South China and helped orchestrate publicity for the book. “He’s very, very sensitive. He’s also worried about offending Obama.”
Toward the end of the presidential race, Ndesandjo said he had a nightmare about his brother. A week later, at his wife’s prompting, he boarded a plane for the United States. The two men, he said, greeted each other with a long embrace and Ndesandjo gave him a scroll of calligraphy he had painted. It roughly translated as, “Even though we are far apart I feel close to you.” He said he planned to introduce the president to his new wife when he visits China.
After the interview, Ndesandjo strode down a crowded sidewalk, turning heads with his charcoal blazer, gold stud earring and Balinese scarf wrapped around his shaved head. A group of schoolgirls asked to take a photo with him. No one seemed to recognize him until a pair of Nigerian men asked if he was the American president’s half-brother. “No half-brothers,” he said. “He’s my brother.”