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Michelle Obama— as seen by the Chinese

If you ask me what stands out on the first day of President Barack Obama’s stay in India, which he spent in Mumbai, I would say without hesitation, the spontaneity, grace and natural ( not cultivated) charm of his wife Michelle.

2. Pics of her visiting university students and chatting, smiling, laughing, singing and dancing with the them have captivated Indian audiences right across the country. Wherever she went—-whether  with the President or on her own —- she imparted a charm of her own to the event, thereby making the visit memorable.

3. We should thank Obama for bringing her to India. None of his five predecessors who visited India brought their wives.

4. I was curious. Did he take her to China last year? How did the Chinese react to her? How did she react to the Chinese? Did she feel as comfortable with the Chinese as she has been with Indians?

5. She didn’t accompany her husband to China. I did a Google search to find out why she didn’t go to China and what the Chinese thought of her. I found in an NBC blog  an interesting  article written on November 17,2009, by Adrienne Mong, the NBC’s news correspondent. I am annexing it below. ( )

(Courtesy: South Asia Analysis Group.  The writer Mr B Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: )

ANNEXURE Michelle Obama frenzy hasn’t hit China, yet

By Adrienne Mong, NBC News Correspondent

BEIJING – OK, I confess. If a Web site features a photo gallery of Michelle Obama’s latest fashions, I click on it.

Like many other American women, I have a certain fascination with our first lady.

So there was a frisson of anticipation when we learned President Barack Obama would travel to China. Would Michelle come with him? What would she wear?  Not red, surely? What about when she met Chinese leaders?  Or when she met Chinese people?  (Had anyone here noticed the fact that she chose a dress by Jason Wu, an ethnic Chinese designer for the inauguration? Even though he was born in that renegade province, Taiwan?)

As it turns out, Michelle Obama isn’t visiting China.

It also turns out the Chinese public doesn’t have quite the same fascination with her as many others around the world.

Absence of media coverage

“I don’t really pay attention to her,” was the common reply when, in an unscientific survey, we asked people on the streets of downtown Beijing what they thought of her.

When we tried searching for “Michelle Obama” on, a popular chat room in China, we turned up no results.

And the absence of coverage of Michelle Obama in the Chinese media is noticeable compared to how much attention she receives from the Western press.

“She has been overshadowed by Obama,” said Li Xin, a former international editor of a Chinese financial magazine which has profiled Hillary Clinton but not Michelle Obama. “Chinese media coverage will pay more attention to substance – what will make a difference to policy toward China rather than who [the Obamas are as people].”

Media observers say President Obama’s star power overshadows that of his wife. By Adrienne Mong/ NBC News

The Chinese media, according to Li, doesn’t have the same propensity to humanize politicians or to try to put a human face on them. “And to some extent, Chinese media are not allowed to probe too much into political leaders’ lives,” she said.

Moreover, Michelle Obama has no counterpart in the Chinese realm. “The wife is usually backstage and doesn’t come out and send a message by [herself],” said Li.

So while the Obamas may be viewed as something of a rock star couple on multiple continents, in China they’re “just the couple who occupy the White House,” said Hung Huang, a publisher and television talk show host in Beijing.

And it’s the ease with which Michelle Obama became first lady that may be why she doesn’t get too much media coverage in China. “Her lack of controversy probably is the primary reason there is a lack of interest,” said Hung. “Everyone just says she’s a nice person, she’s beautiful, she’s powerful, she’s married to one of the most popular presidents in U.S. history…OK, that’s it!”

Michelle Obama: ‘Too strong’

But there’s also another reason some people were willing to comment only anonymously. “I think Chinese people find her a little scary,” said one 30-year-old female Beijing resident.  “She’s not that attractive to us.”

Li put it more diplomatically. “Michelle Obama is seen as feminine in the U.S., but in China the perception of beauty is very different,” she explained. “The Chinese standard would maybe prefer someone softer, more petite. She’s so strong and independent and tough. [I’ve heard] from some co-workers and friends, they don’t see her as pretty and don’t understand why she was on the cover of Vogue U.S.”

“In Chinese culture, the Chinese don’t actually appreciate a woman like her,” said Qu Wei. The 43-year-old freelance consultant is a self-professed fan of the first lady. She said Michelle Obama represents a new refreshing female ideal who telegraphs the message: “When you’re getting older, when you’re ageing, you can still be attractive.”

The Chinese aesthetic, says some Chinese media pundits, is “skinny” – as seen on the covers of these magazines.

Qu reflects a narrow demographic which does find resonance with Michelle Obama: urbane, middle class Chinese women who are professionals tend to think highly of her skills and values as a mother, a strong partner, and an independent woman.

“This is really the opposite of Chinese culture where men only appreciate young girls and don’t really know how to appreciate women,” said Qu.

And while Vogue China may not have put Obama on their cover yet, editor-in-chief Angelica Cheung said, “She represents the new woman and the new Vogue woman, which is what I’m trying to promote here, too.  A new woman looks good and has great taste, but also has a great career …and has a very rich life.”

All of which makes it all the more of a let-down for her fans in China that Michelle Obama didn’t accompany her husband on his state visit.

“Yeah, I’m very, very disappointed that she’s not coming to China,” said Qu. “I would like the Chinese to start knowing something about women like Michelle Obama, not only in that narrowly-defined [traditional] way.”

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