VIDEO

Michelle Obama gets tips on China visit from schoolchildren

US Ffirst Lady Michelle Obama participates in a language class with teacher Crystal Chen for pre-school students at the Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School ahead of her upcoming trip to China, in Washington March 4, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
US Ffirst Lady Michelle Obama participates in a language class with teacher Crystal Chen for pre-school students at the Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School ahead of her upcoming trip to China, in Washington March 4, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
US First Lady Michelle Obama laughs with students as she learns some basic Mandarin at Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School, a Chinese-immersion, International Baccalaureate, elementary school, in Washington on March 4, 2014. She travels to China
US First Lady Michelle Obama laughs with students as she learns some basic Mandarin at Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School, a Chinese-immersion, International Baccalaureate, elementary school, in Washington on March 4, 2014. She travels to China March 19-26. -- PHOTO: AFP 
US First Lady Michelle Obama speaks with a group of sixth graders who recently visited China at Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School, a Chinese-immersion, International Baccalaureate, elementary school, in Washington on March 4, 2014. -- PHOTO:&n
US First Lady Michelle Obama speaks with a group of sixth graders who recently visited China at Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School, a Chinese-immersion, International Baccalaureate, elementary school, in Washington on March 4, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
United States First Lady Michelle Obama reacts as she meets pre-school students at the Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School ahead of her upcoming trip to China, in Washington March 4, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
United States First Lady Michelle Obama reacts as she meets pre-school students at the Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School ahead of her upcoming trip to China, in Washington March 4, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

When United States First Lady Michelle Obama visited students at Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School and asked them what she should expect for her upcoming visit to China, she was both surprised and impressed by the practical advice she received.

One 11-year-old told her to watch out for pickpockets, another informed her that queuing was not part of the Chinese culture, others warned her to drink only bottled water, while yet another told her to "be prepared for people staring at you, because you are the president's wife".

To which Mrs Obama -- who is making a rare solo diplomatic trip to China later this month -- replied: "It's all good practical advice. It's a big city... I got to watch myself, I got to be a smart traveller."

Mrs Obama visited the school in preparation for her trip to China, where she will focus on the "power and importance of education", according to the White House blog. She is calling for students to follow her journey in China through social media, and also participate by telling her what they are most interested to learn about China.

The students at Washington Yu Ying -- a Chinese immersion school where classes are taught in Mandarin on alternate days -- will be following her journey online.

The first lady will visit Beijing, Xi'an and Chengdu, accompanied by her mother, and daughters Malia and Sasha Obama.

The group of 21 Grade 6 students, whom she met on Tuesday, had already visited China on a two-week trip last May and were candid in sharing their experiences.

One thing that came up during the sharing session was that they had expected Beijing, Xi'an and Shanghai -- the cities which they visited -- to be more backward than they were.

Said Mrs Obama: "That seems to be a theme. You thought it was a village somewhere, but it's a huge country."

They also noted that some Chinese schools compare favourably to American ones in some ways. "There were TVs in every classroom, and lots of speakers," said 11-year-old Peter Oelrichs.

One student pointed out students in China were given more responsibilities. For example, they could walk to different classes on their own, and were given the chance to go home for lunch. 

Another student added that she was surprised that in an art class, the Chinese students used real lighters to seal off the end off the bracelets they were making.

"They let them have fire?" Mrs Obama asked incredulously, obviously as surprised the young presenter.

But others noted how lucky they were to be exposed to the Chinese language every other day in their school, while the Chinese students only received a 30-min English class each day.

Giving Mrs Obama a quick crash course in Mandarin, they taught her useful words and phrases like "thank you", "where is the toilet" and "I don't want that."

The last phrase, said one student, would come in handy for fending off touts in tourist areas.

The relaxed Mrs Obama spent more than half an hour with the children who made short presentations on their trip. She asked many questions about the schools there, what they learnt, and what differences there were in cultures.

At one point, while the students were talking about the Terracotta warriors in Xi'an, she asked what the warriors were made of.

"Terracotta" was the matter-of-fact answer from young Mr Oelrichs.

"Of course," she said, realising her folly before turning to the media to add: "Don't write that down."

Towards the end of the session, Mrs Obama asked if there was anything else her young advisers wanted to tell her.

Among the many suggestions and comments such as "you should learn to use chopsticks" and "the toilets are very different" came this sagely nugget from Ms Emely Pozo-Lin, 10.

"When you travel, you need to be open-minded to all the cultures," she told the First Lady.

simlinoi@sph.com.sg