Q: On April 20, you and your husband, David, participated in the White House lunch in honor of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington, D.C. What impressions did you take away from this event?
A: As Dave and I prepared to accept this invitation, we made two decisions. First, we should put politics aside. This was about hospitality. Second, we felt we did not belong, but we decided we would go, regardless, and have a good time. We were curious. And I felt that this was a historic marker in my own voyage as an immigrant from China.
The event began with a reception, then a receiving line, then lunch. All of them took place in the East Wing, in the Red Room, the Blue Room, the Yellow Room, the Green Room. It hit me that the White House is not an intimidating place. None of the rooms are very big. The corridors are big, but the rooms themselves are not. The architecture and the furniture are classic, but not over the top, not opulent. The walls held so many historical portraits of the presidents and the first ladies, of JFK resting a chin on his fist. It touched a chord in me to see those historical portraits.
There were figures of modern history and government everywhere. In the coat room, I took a step back and stepped into Ambassador John R. Bolton (U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations). Standing in the receiving line just behind us were Henry and Nancy Kissinger. Scott McClellan (outgoing press secretary) was nearby; Mr. and Mrs. Cheney were a few feet away.
Husbands and wives were seated at different tables. After finding David’s, I was surprised to find mine next to the president’s. My chair and his were so close that if I pulled back and he pulled back, we would have hit one another. Every table had a host. Mine was Donald Rumsfeld. President Hu’s chief of staff was at the table, too.
We were asked not to bring cameras so I turned my mind into a camera. I was just trying to notice everything. When we were all settled into our seats, President Bush gave his toast and welcome..There were so many things to take in: People. The lunch table setup. The idea I was in that space. The president was speaking three feet away from me, yet it was hard to concentrate.
Then President Hu spoke, about U.S.-Chinese friendship and collaboration, and the importance of peace. I thought, “Yes. This is what it needs to be about. Collaboration. A world coexisting and flourishing in peace.” Throughout his remarks, and at different points during the lunch, I was filled with a sense of disbelief. “I can’t believe I’m here.”
The event touched my memory of being an immigrant. When I was 16, I studied the English dictionary to prepare for my SATs. I just wanted a chance to go to America; I just wanted a chance to go overseas. None of my sisters went to college. I had just enough money from my own savings, I had one year of tuition and room and board. I remember coming to the U.S. for the first time. I was clutching my X rays that proved that I did not have tuberculosis. I was just awash with the sense of the many people who had made it possible for me to be at the White House—my teachers, my family, my brothers and sisters, my mentors. I felt they were all with me there. I felt the coming together of two countries and two cultures—the U.S. and China.
For me, a journey that began by leaving one country had come full circle, and I am grateful for both places. One gave me my culture and my DNA, the other gave me my opportunities. Education does transform us; immigration does give us opportunity for a new life.
We enjoyed every minute of lunch, and I never felt out of place.