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In Beijing, Michelle Obama reprises pingpong diplomacy

By Tom Watkins, CNN
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Fri March 21, 2014
Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, shows first lady Michelle Obama how to hold a writing brush as they visit a Chinese traditional calligraphy class in Beijing on Friday, March 21. The first lady is on <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/21/politics/gallery/michelle-obama-china/index.html'>an official visit</a> to expand relations between the United States and China. Click through the gallery to see her other international travels through the years. Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, shows first lady Michelle Obama how to hold a writing brush as they visit a Chinese traditional calligraphy class in Beijing on Friday, March 21. The first lady is on an official visit to expand relations between the United States and China. Click through the gallery to see her other international travels through the years.
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Michelle Obama's overseas trips
Michelle Obama's overseas trips
Michelle Obama's overseas trips
Michelle Obama's overseas trips
Michelle Obama's overseas trips
Michelle Obama's overseas trips
Michelle Obama's overseas trips
Michelle Obama's overseas trips
Michelle Obama's overseas trips
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Anyone for table tennis? Michelle Obama is
  • The game led to a thaw in U.S.-Chinese relations more than four decades ago
  • Michelle Obama is to answer questions from CNN iReporters on Saturday
  • "I want to turn mathematics into reality," says one student

(CNN) -- More than 40 years after pingpong diplomacy led to a thaw in Sino-American relations, it was on display again -- in rudimentary form -- as Michelle Obama visited a Beijing high school during her family's first full day of a visit to China.

At about 9:30 a.m., Obama -- accompanied by her daughters, Malia and Sasha, and her mother, Marian Robinson -- stepped from a black SUV onto a red carpet leading from the street to the entrance of Beijing Normal School, where they were greeted by China's first lady, Peng Liyuan, and ushered inside for a tour.

Michelle Obama is on an official visit to expand relations between the United States and China.

"Warmly Welcome to Our School," read a sign on the digital aboard in front of the complex.

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A stop in a robotics lab included a look at a station holding a metal, snowflake-shaped, remote-controlled robot. "It can go over obstacles," a student said, demonstrating as it moved along a white strip over cardboard and plastic yellow bricks.

'Bad Boy' robot 'is really naughty'

When the robot got stuck, its student operator said something to the effect that it was nervous. "Don't be nervous," Obama said. "It's pretty impressive," she added as the robot was operating.

At another station, a young man showed Obama "Bad Boy," so named because the robot "is really naughty," he said, according to a pool reporter.

Obama agreed to try it, but could not get the remote control to work and handed it to Malia, who had better luck.

The first lady spoke with a number of students, asking a 16-year-old what she wanted to do after high school. "I want to turn mathematics into reality," the student answered.

When they arrived at a pingpong practice room containing six tables, an instructor asked Obama if she wanted to try her hand at it, and she quickly assumed the role of student.

"All right, wait," she said, taking off her vest. "How do I hold the paddle properly?"

"This is the angle," the instructor responded, holding it vertically.

"OK, we're going to get this," Obama said. "Let's go."

Armed with a paddle, she volleyed for about five minutes -- first with the instructor, then with a young woman, as students looked on. "Nice," she said occasionally after her opponent returned her shot.

But Obama acknowledged that she had little experience with the game. "My husband plays," she said. "He thinks he's better than he really is. I could stay here all day."

1971 pingpong match proved key

The 50-year-old first lady was in grade school when a chance meeting by a Chinese pingpong player with a U.S. player led to Beijing's decision to invite the American table tennis team for an exhibition match in 1971.

That match laid the groundwork for the visit of U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1972 and paved the way for the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1979, ending China's isolation from the outside world.

As the members of the first family departed the school, 33 American exchange students -- one of them from Sidwell Friends, the Washington school attended by Malia -- lined up in front of the red carpet and across from their Chinese counterparts to shake hands with the family before they left for their next stop, the Forbidden City.

Michelle Obama's schedule does not include a news conference, and she is not expected to answer questions from professional reporters during the trip. But on Saturday, she is planning to answer several of the more than 300 questions filed by CNN iReporters about studying abroad and international travel.

And on Tuesday, she will answer questions submitted by U.S. classrooms as part of a webinar series by Discovery Education and the White House.

The three generations of girls and women flew from Washington on Wednesday for what is to be a weeklong trip to three Chinese cities, where Obama is expected to speak with children at schools about education and youth empowerment.

Official: U.S.-China relationship is 'between peoples'

"Her visit and her agenda sends a message that the relationship between the United States and China is not just between leaders, it's a relationship between peoples," said Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.

"That's critically important, given the roles that our two countries are going to play in the 21st century, that we maintain the very regular contacts that we have at the leader-to-leader level, but that we're also reaching out and building relationships with people, particularly young people."

U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping at next week's Nuclear Security Summit at The Hague, Netherlands.

White House officials told reporters this week that the two leaders will discuss issues on which the United States and China differ, such as human rights and trade.

"We don't expect the people of China to agree with all of our policy positions at any given moment, but the more they understand the United States -- the more they understand the President and the first lady and their values and their priorities -- we think the better it is for both of our countries," Rhodes added.

China is the fifth most popular country for U.S. students studying abroad, and more students from China study in the United States than from any other country.

CNN's Mike Martinez contributed to this report.

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