After a long flight from Washington, D.C. – one that took around 20 hours – my mother, my daughters, and I arrived in Beijing to begin our official visit to China. Our first stop was at the Beijing Normal School, where we were hosted by Madam Peng Liyuan, the First Lady of China.
Madam Peng first became known to the Chinese people long before she was First Lady. Madam Peng earned her Master’s Degree in traditional ethnic music at China’s Conservatory of Music, and in 1983, she performed as a folk singer on the Chinese Lunar New Year telecast, which is consistently the most-watched broadcast in the world. In the years since, she has appeared on that telecast multiple times, while also performing for audiences throughout China, becoming one of the most popular folk singers in her country.
In addition to being a singer, Madam Peng has also earned the civilian rank equal to a Major General in the Chinese military (she joined when she was 18 years old). Three years ago, she was named a Global Ambassador by the World Health Organization, and she works to fight diseases like tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. And last year, she became China’s First Lady when her Husband, President Xi Jinping, became China’s President.
As my family and I can attest from our time together at the Beijing Normal School, Madam Peng is a warm and gracious host. And this visit was a perfect opportunity to highlight the themes of my trip: the value of education and the importance of cultural exchanges between young people in different countries.
About 800 students attend the Beijing Normal School, and of those, roughly one in four are international students – including some Americans. All the classes are taught in English (one room even has a map of the United States on the ceiling), and the curriculum prepares students to study internationally once they graduate. Many students here hope to one day attend college in America.
Madam Peng and I first visited a class where students were actually building their own robots, and they were kind enough to do a demonstration for us. The first robot we saw could actually walk over obstacles. Another one, which was shaped like a triangle, was referred to as “bad boy” by its student creators (one of them explained to us that this robot is “really naughty”). After the robotics class, we stopped by a ping pong practice session where I got some tips from the instructor and then had the chance to play with one of the students. She was excellent (though I think she may have gone easy on me, just to be nice). We ended our visit by saying a quick hello to the 33 American students who are studying at this school through an exchange program.
This visit was a wonderful way to start our trip and a good opportunity for us to see how students here in China are already collaborating with students around the world and preparing to expand and deepen these connections in the years ahead.