‘It’s lonely at home’ says US president, as Michelle Obama kicks off China visit with Peng Liyuan

Michelle Obama tried her hand at calligraphy

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 March, 2014, 1:33pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 March, 2014, 5:54am

Barack Obama tonight joked that it was "lonely at home" as his wife Michelle Obama and two daughters kicked off their week-long tour of Chinese cities, accompanied by China's first lady Peng Liyuan.

While the ladies in his life were touring the Forbidden City, eating Chinese food and getting to know the locals in Beijing, Barack Obama took advantage of the time to host a screening of the film Cesar Chavez: An American Hero.

In a speech ahead of the screening, he said: "Michelle and the girls are on their way to China. It’s very lonely at home, so nothing better than to see an inspiring film."

Watch: Michelle Obama and her daughters start China trip

Meanwhile 11,000 kilometres away the Obama ladies were enjoying their first day touring the Forbidden City and a Beijing school.

Dressed casually in a black asymmetric waistcoat, shirt and blak wide-legged trousers by American fashion designer Phillip Lim, Michelle was pictured alongside Peng, who sported a more formal look, wearing a belted navy blue jacket and skirt, a pair of high-heeled lace-up shoes, and carrying a red clutch bag.

The two first ladies arrived at a middle school in downtown Beijing's Xicheng District amid tight security at 9.30am on Friday morning

The first ladies smiled broadly and shook hands on a red carpet in front of the school - their first ever meeting - as students around them waved flags.

Obama told Peng that it was “truly an honour and a privilege” to visit China with her family.

“It’s very rare that I have the opportunity to travel outside of the United States, and it’s even more rare to have the opportunity to travel with three generations - with my daughters, and with my mother,” Obama said.

Peng said it was “a great delight” to meet her, saying: “In China, we have an ancient idiom, which means when two people meet for the first time, they may feel as if they have known each other for many years.”

As they toured classrooms Obama tried her hand at calligraphy.

While she was given guidance by 16-year-old student Lu Yuhong in writing the Chinese character for "eternal", Peng penned Chinese characters that read "a gentleman must embrace everything with virtue and tolerance", before presenting them to her counterpart as a souvenir.

Before picking up her brush, Obama admitted, "I'm nervous", to which Peng calmly replied in English, "Don't be nervous".

An impressed Lu said he had been "very excited" to meet Obama, adding she was "very approachable".

Weibo bloggers quickly picked up on the phrase.

"Is she telling the States to be more noble?" wrote one, who identified himself as Futureengineer.

After a brief tour of the classrooms and gymnasium at the No.2 High School - a "sister school" to the Sidwell Friends School in Washington DC, attended by Obama's daughters, Sasha and Malia - the group left and headed to the Forbidden City.

Their appearance quickly attracted the attention of tourists who whipped out their cameras and mobiles phones in an effort to capture images of the women together.

Peng is due to host a dinner for the Obamas later today.

The two women’s husbands, Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, are expected to meet next week on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in the Netherlands.

The visit is Obama’s first to China, and her third foreign trip without the US commander-in-chief since moving into the White House.

The Obama family members arrived in Beijing yesterday to a buzz from Chinese internet users who commented on everything from her choice of outfit to details of her itinerary. The White House has insisted that her tour is more cultural than political.

During the Beijing leg of her tour Obama is staying at the presidential suite of The Westin hotel in Chaoyang District. the suite has a list price of 52,000 yuan a night (about HK$65,500). 

Visiting on the invitation of Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan, Obama's trip will focus on building cultural ties between the two nations and will avoid political topics.

Obama waved as she stepped out of the aircraft with her mother Marian Robinson, and daughters, at Beijing's Capital International Airport last night, where they were welcomed by Assistant Foreign Minister Zhang Kunsheng.

Mainland internet users were quick to point out that Obama's dress was designed by American Derek Lam, who has Chinese lineage.

The White House promised social media updates on her trip, but said Obama had no plans to give media interviews.

The visit "is an important opportunity not just to share China's rich history and culture with young people like you, but to connect you with the stories of young people in China", Obama said in a video ahead of the trip.

Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Obama's visit could promote Sino-US friendship.

Tomorrow, Obama will deliver a speech at the Stanford Centre at Peking University, visit the Summer Palace, and meet with US embassy staff.

On Sunday, she will host a round-table discussion on education and visit the Great Wall, before heading west to Xian on Monday and Chengdu on Tuesday.

Mainland internet users were particularly interested in Obama's plan to eat Tibetan food in Chengdu, Sichuan province, on Wednesday, the last day of her trip.

Some saw the stop as indicating Washington's tacit support for Tibet's exiled leader, the Dalai Lama. "Eating and drinking are also political," wrote one blogger.