As the Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama, I had the privilege of joining Mrs. Obama on her recent visit to China as she participated in official meetings and ceremonies, toured historical sites with her mother and daughters, and spoke to Chinese and American students. I was honored to meet Madame Peng, the First Lady of China, who joined Mrs. Obama on her first day in Beijing, and along with her husband, President Xi, graciously hosted the First Lady and her family for a wonderful dinner and performance at The Diaoyutai State Guesthouse. I was moved to watch the First Lady and her family enjoying landmarks that have played such a crucial role in China's history, from the Great Wall, to the Forbidden City, to the Terra Cotta Warriors.
As a Chinese American, it was a special honor to be a part of this historic trip. My parents immigrated to the United States from China in 1949 and settled in Cleveland, Ohio where they raised me and my sister. Our family visited my parents' birthplace in the 1970s, a period during which China hardly had any contact with the Western world. In the pre-Skype era, where a long-distance, landline call to relatives back in China was impossible, China and Cleveland felt as though they were worlds apart.
I went to China again in the late 1990s to adopt my daughter, Emma, and I was overwhelmed by how things had changed in just two decades—there were more cars on the road and western businesses around every corner. And on my most recent visit—as we drove through the streets of Beijing, Xi'an, and Chengdu, and met with young people in each of these cities—I was struck by how much more interconnected our world is today.
For example, during her visit, Mrs. Obama had the opportunity to speak with Chinese and American students studying together at the Stanford Center at Peking University. These students aren't just improving their Chinese and English—they're forming enthusiastic friendships that will endure long after they graduate from college. These kind of relationships were unthinkable just a couple of generations ago, and the more time we spent with young people in China, both Chinese and American alike, the more hopeful and optimistic I felt about the role they would play as future leaders of my daughter's generation. As the First Lady reminded all of us in one of her speeches in China, "...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."
During our long flight home, I thought about my parents—people who came from China as immigrants—and how proud they would have been to see me returning, just a generation later, with the First Lady of the United States (and hopefully, once again in the near future, with their granddaughter!).