US first lady visits Beijing school

Associated Press
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U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama, front left, her daughters Sasha, front right, Malia, right in the back, and Michelle Obama's mother Marian Robinson, left in the back, arrive at Capital International Airport in Beijing, China, Thursday, March 20, 2014. Michelle Obama has arrived in Beijing with her mother and daughters to kick off a seven-day, three-city tour where she will focus on education and cultural exchange. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan, Pool)

BEIJING (AP) — First lady Michelle Obama tried her hand at Chinese calligraphy Friday during a visit to a high school in Beijing at the start of a weeklong visit to China aimed at promoting education and person-to-person exchanges.

Obama was joined by Peng Liyuan, the wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Accompanied by her daughters Malia and Sasha and mother Marian Robinson, Obama practiced writing the Chinese character for "eternal" under the guidance of 16-year-old student Lu Yuhong.

"I'm nervous," Obama said. "Don't be nervous," Peng replied in English.

Lu said he too was nervous, as well as "very excited."

"But the first lady was so amicable. She was very approachable," Lu said.

The visit marks the first meeting between Obama and Peng, whose husbands run the world's first and second largest economies and have sought to build a new relationship based on trust and mutual respect.

Peng then accompanied the Obama women to the former Imperial Palace. That was to be followed by a private dinner and a performance. On Saturday, Obama was to speak at prestigious Peking University, and on Sunday visit the Great Wall.

While many Chinese question U.S. diplomatic intentions toward China, American products and culture are hugely popular here and there is a strong undercurrent of respect for the U.S. first family.

Lu said he had bonded with American students over a mutual love of U.S. television series, including his favorite, "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."

"I think contact between young people is crucial to the U.S.-China relationship, for it to grow harmoniously in the long run. We need more frequent contacts," Lu said.

Among the six American exchange students attending the event was Audrey Fitz, 17, a classmate of Malia Obama's from the exclusive Sidewell Friends School in northwest Washington, D.C.

"I can't see why anyone does not want to come to a great country," Fitz said.

While political issues aren't expected to feature prominently during the trip, Obama's decision to visit is being seen as a sign of respect for Chinese society and culture, as well as a way of humanizing the relationship between the two nations.

By a similar measure, the glamorous Peng — a singer and entertainer who holds an honorary rank equivalent to major general — has broken the mold of reticent, virtually invisible Chinese ladies, using her fame to promote AIDS awareness and other causes.

The Obama women are to fly Monday to the northern city of Xi'an, home to the famed Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, then visit a panda breeding facility outside Chengdu in southwestern China.