Obamas entourage wowed by China

Updated: 2014-03-24 12:17

By Zhao Shengnan, Li Xiaokun and Liu Wei in Beijing and Chen Weihua in Washington (China Daily USA)

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US First Lady Michelle Obama and her two daughters, Malia and Sasha, have become true heroes when they reached the Great Wall in Beijing's suburbs on Sunday, as the Chinese saying goes.

Walking on top of the ancient wall at Mutianyu and looking down over the ravine, the three were stunned by the "breathtaking" views at "one of the great marvels of human history" as Mrs Obama described in her White House travel blog on Sunday.

"During our visit to the wall, I couldn't stop thinking about what a massive undertaking it must have been to build it," she wrote.

While the new blog gave a short introduction to American people of the history of the Great Wall, the White House also released a photo showing the first lady having fun coming down the wall by taking a toboggan ride.

Mrs Obama, her mother Marian Robinson, and her two daughters are on their first trip to China from March 19-26, with stops in Beijing, Xi'an and Chengdu.

On Sunday, the four had lunch at a restaurant renovated from a former school building located near a section of the Great Wall.

In the morning, Mrs Obama hosted an education roundtable at the US Embassy in Beijing, attended by new US ambassador to China Max Baucus and Chinese professors, students and parents. Education has been a central theme of Mrs Obama's trip. In Sunday blog post, Mrs Obama talked about why.

"This is an issue of great importance to me as First Lady - that's why I've been working to inspire young people in America to pursue their education beyond high school," she wrote, adding that was also a very personal issue for her.

"Growing up, my family didn't have much money, and my parents never attended college. However, like so many parents here in China who care so deeply about educating their kids, my parents were determined to send me and my brother to college," she said.

"I studied as hard as I could, and with the help of scholarships and student loans, I was able to attend Princeton University and Harvard Law School. The degrees I got from those schools allowed me to get a job as a lawyer at a big law firm, and then as an executive at a hospital, and then as the director of a program that prepared young people for careers in public service," she wrote.

On Saturday, Mrs Obama gave a 15-minute speech at the Stanford Center at Peking University, on the importance of educational exchanges. The entire speech has been posted on the White House blog.

"We believe that relationships between nations aren't just about relationships between governments or leaders. They're about relationships between people, particularly our young people," said wrote.

The US first lady described study abroad programs "a vital part of America's foreign policy" and said it "could help young people from different countries better cooperate with each other and know they all have a stake in each other's success, and then to tackle their shared challenges".

Wang Enge, president of Peking University, echoed Mrs Obama's view, saying "mutual understanding is the very first step" for China to fully integrate into, and be fully accepted by, the world.

Wang also spoke of his anticipation of more US students coming to China, including Obama's two teenage daughters joining Peking University, which triggered applause from the audience.

After interacting with the students, the Obama entourage spent the afternoon visiting the Summer Palace, where they watched a Peking Opera drama with US students and teachers who also happened to be in Beijing.

The students, mostly sixth to eighth graders from Thomas Middle School and Southern Middle School in Chicago, all chose Chinese as their foreign language optional course in school.

Their summer trip to China was scheduled long before their teacher Brenda Hsu knew that the first lady would also visit the Summer Palace on Saturday.

"We are very honored to meet the first lady here in Beijing, because she has been a very active supporter and promoter of education and cultural exchange," Hsu said. Her student, 14-year-old Mason Grabowski, started learning Chinese four years ago and believes it is the language of the future.

"Learning Chinese is a cool thing in school. It is good for business and job opportunities," said Grabowski. "It is a hard language, but it is never too early to start learning it."

On Friday, the Obamas had a surprise that was not on the agenda. They were greeted at the Diaoyutai State Guest House by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Xi said he "cherishes the well-established good working relations and friendship" with the US president, according to a Chinese Foreign Ministry press release.

Xi also said he "has kept in close communication" with the White House through channels, including meetings and phone calls.

"I believe that through concerted efforts China-US relations will keep advancing to the goal of a new type of relationship between major nations," Xi said.

Much of the Friday trip was accompanied by China's First Lady Peng Liyuan, who had originally invited the Obama women on the trip.

Mrs Obama said she was amazed by China's culture when she tried her hand at Chinese calligraphy for the first time on Friday at the Second High School Affiliated to Beijing Normal University, which has a sister-school relationship with the Sidwell Friends School in Washington DC, where Malia and Sasha attend.

"I want to try again, it's beautiful," she said after writing the Chinese character yong, which means "forever".

Yang Jie, the class teacher, said ancient Chinese calligrapher Wang Xizhi spent decades writing the character. "Mrs Obama has done very well for a beginner," Yang said.

At the school, Mrs Obama also observed a robotics class and played ping-pong with students, a scene reminding many of the 1971 ping-pong diplomacy visit when the American table tennis team was invited to China, ahead of the later historic ground-breaking trip by President Richard Nixon.

Contact the writers at chenweihua@chinadailyusa.com and zhaoshengnan@chinadaily.com.cn.

(China Daily USA 03/24/2014 page1)