Caixin Online published a Q+A with First Lady Michelle Obama about her visit to China from March 19-26, 2014.
Caixin: Why is the main focus of your trip “the power and importance of education,” and in what ways do you think this is particularly relevant to China?
Michelle Obama: I always tell young people that if they get a good education, then they won’t just build a better future for themselves and their families, they’ll help build a better world for us all.
You see, our world is more interconnected than ever before, and the challenges we face – from combating climate change, to expanding economic opportunity, to confronting the spread of nuclear weapons – know no borders. They cannot be solved by any one person or group in any one country, and soon it will fall to our next generation to confront these challenges together. And a good education – one that helps young people understand the world beyond their borders and engage with people from different cultures – will empower young people in China and in the U.S to come together and ensure that our shared future is peaceful and prosperous.
And in order to make those kinds of connections, it’s important to ensure that information and ideas flow freely over the Internet and through the media because that’s how we learn about each other and it’s how we decide which ideas we think are best, by debating them vigorously and deciding for ourselves.
My husband and I know from experience that this can be a messy process – we get plenty of questioning and criticism from our media and our fellow citizens – but we wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world because time and again we have seen that countries are stronger and more prosperous when the voices of all their citizens can be heard.
Your mother, Mrs. Marian Robinson, and daughters, Malia and Sasha, are traveling with you. This represents three different generations of Americans. What kind of message or image do you want to convey to China?
Like many Chinese families, at our house, we have three generations under one roof. When my husband was elected president back in 2008, one of the first things I did was ask my mother to come live with us in the White House and help raise our daughters, and I am grateful every day for her presence in our lives. Our family is the center of our world and there are so many families just like ours all across America. Their hard work and devotion to each other help make our country strong every single day.
In addition, as you noted, the focus of my trip is the power of education and the importance of students from different cultures engaging with each other and learning from each other. And as I’ve learned more about China and its people, I’ve been struck by the tremendous value that Chinese families place on schooling, with parents often making great sacrifices to ensure that their children can get a good education. The story of these families very much mirrors my own family’s story. My parents didn’t attend university, but they worked tremendously hard and saved every penny so that my brother and I could have that chance. And today, my husband and I are working hard to ensure that every child in America has the same opportunity we did to complete their education and fulfill their potential.
So in my family’s experience, I hope the people of China see a reflection of the commitment we all share to leave something better for our next generation and to give our children and grandchildren opportunities we never dreamed of for ourselves.
What have the four of you done to prepare for your trip?
I have received a number of briefings by China experts, and I’ve been reading about Chinese culture with a particular focus on learning about the Chinese education system. I also had the unique opportunity to visit the Yu Ying School, a public school near the White House. Yu Ying is one of a number of Chinese immersion schools across America where students learn Chinese. I met with sixth graders there – kids who are 11 and 12 years old – and they did a presentation for me about their recent trip to China. They were bursting with excitement, eager to tell me about the places they visited, the foods they ate and the families they stayed with. I also attended a Chinese class composed of three and four year olds, and I have to tell you, it was incredibly moving to see these tiny American children learning about another culture and speaking another language. They even taught me a few key phrases for my trip.
Leading up to the trip, my office also reached out to PBS and Discovery, two educational media outlets in America, to establish a platform to share my trip with children across America. During my time in China, I’ll be sharing my experiences via Twitter and Instagram, and I’ll be posting a daily travel blog complete with photos and videos. I’ll be answering questions from students across America, and I’ll be sharing the stories of the Chinese students I meet along with interesting facts about China’s history and culture.
You were unable to meet with Peng Liyuan, President Xi Jinping’s wife, last year in California, but I believe you two have kept in touch. Might you be able to speak to what you two have discussed?
Madame Peng and I have a number of things in common. We have both worked hard to balance our roles as mothers and professionals, and we both have the great honor of representing our countries when we travel, showcasing the unique cultures and history of the United States and China all around the world. We have also both chosen to work on issues we care about, and Madame Peng’s commitment to improving public health in her country and around the world is truly inspiring.
A certain American TV series about Washington politics is a big hit among Chinese viewers, and many of those viewers are getting their primary impression of the president and first lady from said series. What is the real American first lady’s life like?
I hate to disappoint people, but real life in the White House is nothing like what you see in that television show. In real life, everyone in the White House – my husband and I and every member of our extraordinary staff – is there for one reason: because we love our country and want to serve it. And that’s what we focus on every day: how to give more Americans a chance to fulfill their dreams, to get a good education, get a good job to support their families, and so much more.
You’ve been first lady for six years now, and have successfully led projects like the White House Kitchen Garden and Let’s Move! for solving childhood obesity. What have you learned from these experiences about the power of the first lady’s role?
I’ve learned that as first lady, I have the opportunity to bring attention to vitally important issues that affect so many people in my country. And I’ve learned that there are so many committed individuals, organizations and businesses that are eager to step up and help if we just ask. For example, through our initiative to combat childhood obesity, schools, businesses and non-profit organizations are working hard every day to provide children with healthier food and more opportunities to exercise.
I have also learned the power of my story and my husband’s story to inspire young people who come from very humble backgrounds like ours. Education has been a key focus of my husband’s administration, and in support of his efforts, I recently launched a new initiative to inspire more young people to pursue their education beyond high school. And when I talk to young people, I often use our stories as an example, and I tell them that it doesn’t matter where they’re from, or what they look like, or how much money their parents have, if they commit to their education and work as hard as they can, there is no limit to what they can achieve.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave at the end of your time as first lady?
I very much hope that when my time as first lady ends, America’s children will be leading healthier lives and our young people will have more opportunities to get a good education and fulfill their potential.
I also hope that I will have left a legacy of truly making the White House “the people’s house.” My husband and I have worked hard to open up the White House to as many Americans as possible, particularly those who have never had a chance to visit before. We’ve hosted all kinds of cultural and artistic events, and we always make a special effort to invite young people to participate, particularly young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.