Michelle Obama in China: Robots and Ping Pong — Baucus ‘Heavyweight Ambassador’

Photograph by Andy Wong-Pool/Getty Images

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama tries to write Chinese words next to Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, during a visit to a Chinese traditional calligraphy class at the Beijing Normal School, a school that prepares students to attend university abroad, on March 21, 2014.

The first lady’s first full day in China started at a normal school.

Michelle Obama, making a week-long journey with her children and mother along for the ride, appeared at the Bejing Normal School with her Chinese counterpart, Peng Liyuan. The sky was blue, and the traveling reporter describes the notoriously smog-bound city as “relatively clear.”

Obama’s chief of staff, Tina Tchen, reports that the first lady introduced her mother, Marian Robinson, and daughters Sasha and Malia to Peng, who introduced the principal of the school.

Obama and Peng sat side by side in a large room with a table and plant, and two cups of tea, between them. Obama’s mother and daughters sat beside her.

First stop on a tour: the Geometry Robotics Lab, featuring tetrahedral and hexagonal robots, whatever those are, and references to Euclid and Isaac Newton.

Students at the first of three tables showed Obama a snowflake shaped robot.

“It can go over obstacles,” a student explained, demonstrating a metallic robot tumbling over pieces of cardboard and plastic yellow bricks. When the robot got stuck and the student operator suggested it was nervous, Obama said: “Don’t be nervous,” Obama said. “It’s pretty impressive.”

Malia Obama took at turn at the remote control and mad the robot move.

When it came to ping pong, it was the first lady who jumped in.

Removing her vest, she said, “Alright, wait. How to hold the paddle properly.”

“This is the angle,” she was told.

“Okay, we’re going to get this. Let’s go,” Obama said.

She and an instructor volleyed back and forth “gamely,” the pool reports, for more than a minute. She then volleyed with a young woman and periodically said, “Nice,” when the opposing player made a return. Onlooking students applauded a good volley. After about five minutes, the game ended to applause.

From there, it was on to the Forbidden City north of Tiananmen Square. The Obama family was led with Peng on a tour. They saw the Hall of Supreme Harmony a red building in the traditional Chinese  architectural style, with red columns and a gold pitched roof with mythical animals on either end of the roof and the dragon throne where the last emperor sat.

The day ended with a private dinner in the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, where President Xi Jinping greeted the visiting Americans. The new U.S. ambassador to China, Max Baucus, joined them.

“I cherish my sound working relationship and personal friendship I already established with your husband,” Xi told Obama through a translator.  ”We stay in close touch between phone conversations and correspondence.

“I look forward to meeting with him at the nuclear security summit to be held in a few days,” he said. “And I also look forward to receiving him in November when he visits China for APEC. I also hope very much you will be with him. China-U.S. bilateral relations matter very much to both of our countries.

“I wish to thank the U.S. side for sending such a heavyweight ambassador to China,” the president added. “I believe he will complete his duty with great success.”

Calling her first day “wonderful,” Obama told Xi:

“I tried my hand at ping pong. Not so good.”

Her host smiled.

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