The inner Locke

Updated: 2012-09-02 09:10

By Mike Peters (China Daily)

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Video: The inner Locke: Exclusive interview

Gary Locke is probably the most high-profile United States ambassador to date in Beijing. Not only were all eyes on him as soon as he arrived, attention has also been trained on his family, especially on his wife. Mike Peters talks to Mona Locke.

When the state of Washington in the United States elected the first Chinese-American governor in US history in 1997, the large Asian-American community there was beside itself. But that was nothing compared to 2011, when the same man was sent to take up residence at the US embassy in Beijing.

Gary Locke was already an Internet sensation even before he arrived in Beijing, thanks to "that infamous cup of coffee or latte he bought at Starbucks at the Seattle airport," his wife Mona says, looking back last week on their first year at the embassy.

The inner Locke

Mona Locke, as comfortable in a TV studio as ever, says she's enjoyed using her time in Beijing on projects like the 100,000 Strong effort to encourage more American students to study in China. Photo by Sun Peng /

The inner Locke

Photo by Sun Peng /

"By the time we got off the plane there was this huge buzz, this interest in us. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we're Chinese-Americans, so we look like all the Chinese and we have a background that incorporates Chinese culture. Yet we were born in America and we're 100 percent American."

While the ambassador gets the lion's share of attention, people have noticed the lioness, too.

Suggesting that Mona Locke might be America's "secret diplomatic weapon in China", Women's Wear Daily noted that "the glamorous former TV journalist" has become a favorite of the Chinese fashion press.

She's been featured in fashion shoots and in-depth interviews in the Chinese editions of Marie Claire, Elle and, most recently, Vogue (pictured).

"While the pictorials focus on her striking good looks and style," WWD enthuses, "the interviews are far more personal, delving into her private life with questions about balancing work and family, and queries about how she met and married her powerful husband."

In this exclusive interview with China Daily, she says the interest in her family "helps people with understanding the culture on both sides. The Chinese can see what it's like to be an American - I mean, Gary can't be more American."

So can the family go out to town in Beijing and pass unnoticed?

The inner Locke

"I think so, because when we go out, in our minds it's just us together, spending time together. When people come up and ask for a photo with him, for us, it's an honor.

"You can't live in a bubble, live in a fishbowl - we learned that long ago when he was the governor and I was the first lady. There was a fascination because we had all of our kids while serving in office. So we learned that you just have to be yourself."

Her recent fashion shoots weren't the first time that the cameras have followed the former Miss Asian America. After a 2010 state dinner at the White House, when her husband was still Commerce Secretary, one headline read: "Mona Locke: The Dinner's Best Dressed?"

Today she has a giggle at the attention that was paid to her dress - a floor-length, slate-colored gown made by her designer friend Luly Yang in Seattle. She's not focused on designer wear, she says: "I just wear clothes that I think look good."

The mother of three would rather talk about kids than clothes or her bobbed hairstyle. The Locke children - 7, 13 and 15 - went back to carefully selected international schools last week, and she's eager for them to learn Chinese.

"They are all studying it, and this year I moved my daughter into a dual-language program, so half the day is taught in English and half in Chinese."

And what about Mom's Chinese?

"My Chinese is improving! I didn't speak as much when I came, but my parents - both of my parents are from China - so back home in America growing up I heard them speaking Chinese to each other. But they really wanted to emphasize speaking English with us because we were in a new country and they wanted us to grow up and be Americans 'like everyone else'.

"I think having the tones in my head helped," she says. "But I'd never really put a lot of words together and spoken in sentences. So I'm getting a lot of practice and I'm really enjoying it."

The ambassador is making time for Chinese classes, too, she says with a broad grin.

"But his progress is slow."

She, meanwhile, has made time to help on certain initiatives with the embassy.

"I tend to focus on family and children, and education. President Obama had a '100,000 Strong' initiative which was focused on student exchanges," she says. "Because every year about 160,000 Chinese students go abroad to the US to study, and we only had about 15,000 Americans coming to China. The president wants to increase that number to 100,000 over a four-year period.

"I think there's a fear about China - because it's so far away. And the effort is not really aimed at the elite student, it's really aimed at the everyday student. We think the bilateral relationship should start young," she says.

If Locke misses her reporting days - she's launching an online show at the embassy called US-China Focus - she has come to see her subsequent roles as evolutions of the spirit that took her to journalism in the first place.

"The reason I got involved in journalism was to learn - about people, about your environment, your community."

She has been a champion of non-profits - in early education and in breast-cancer prevention - and "I think it's helped my husband that he's married to someone who enjoys meeting people, learning about them.

"So I look at every single new adventure as a positive," she says. "And coming to China? What better experience could there be than to expose your children to this culture that is your family's homeland, right? And for us to be able to learn the language, and live globally.

"There are so many people, whether in China or in the States, who never leave their hometown, don't broaden their horizons. I think this has been a wonderful opportunity."

One opportunity, though, got away last month, as the Lockes learn their way through China's holiday schedule.

"Chinese Valentine's Day?" she remembers asking. "When's that?"

Turns out the couple was committed to parents' night at their children's schools. But for optimists like Mona Locke, there's always next year.

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