On June 14th, 2014, President Obama was invited to speak at the University of California Irvine’s Class of 2014 graduation commencement ceremony. UC Irvine had sent over 1,000 letters to the White House asking him to come; President Obama admitted that a big reason why he came was “simply because you [UC Irvine] asked.” He spoke extensively on climate change and encouraged the Class of 2014 to use their newfound knowledge to solve world problems.
It was such an honor to have President Obama speak at my graduation that I wrote a letter thanking him. I highlighted some points from his speech and shared that I would be doing air quality work in the environmental industry.
I didn’t have any high expectations. If the letter didn’t get lost in the massive pile of letters the White House receives each year, I figured at most I’d receive a thank-you email.
But a year and a half later, on September 14th, 2015, I received a call from an unknown number. The individual on the other end introduced himself as someone who works at the Social Office at the White House and that he and two of his colleagues had read my letter! He shared with me that because I wrote about climate change, those in the White House Social Office thought I would be appropriate to invite to the upcoming State Dinner with President Xi Jinping of China. I told him that I was very interested and he sent me an official invitation through e-mail as well as a physical copy through mail.
At first, telling my parents and my friends, no one could believe that it was true. Instead of getting congratulations, I received quite a bit of “what the heck” and “wait, I’m so confused.” I didn’t blame them; I couldn’t get it out of my head that this could potentially be an elaborate hoax. However, as the date drew closer, more articles on President Xi Jinping’s arrival surfaced online and more confirmation e-mails surfaced in my inbox. On September 23rd (which is my 23rd birthday, incidentally), my mother, who would also be accompanying me, called me telling me that a copy of the invitation had arrived in the mail. White House, here we come!
State Dinner at the White House
Upon arriving, my mom and I had to walk through two sets of airplane-like security before entering the southeastern wing of the White House. We were greeted by at least 25 White House employees and soldiers who warmly welcomed us. There was a booth with many small envelopes lined up. We selected ours, with out names printed in cursive on top; enclosed was our dinner table number. We continue walking until we reach a line, where eventually we handed our name cards to a man who formally announced our arrival.
“Mr. Stephen Chen and Ms. Chienfei Chen.”
We walked through another hallway, where at least 15 photographers from big name news broadcasting stations took pictures of us as we walk through. Definitely the closest thing I’ll ever experience to being a celebrity hah! You can actually see us in this C-SPAN video at about minute mark 7:20.
We were then immediately greeted by waiters and waitresses holding trays of champagne and red wine. We each take a glass and proceed to explore. There were beautiful sitting rooms, libraries stocked with books from floor to ceiling, and rooms filled with each President’s unique set of fine china selected for his term in the White House. Gorgeous, and great photo opportunities!
Everyone was friendly and upbeat, so making conversation was not difficult at all. My mom encouraged me to mingle, so we split up. As I was heading out of one of the china rooms, I made eye contact with someone walking in and immediately introduced myself. He responded with a smile and says, “Mark, nice to meet you”. It takes me maybe half a millisecond before I realize that I just met the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg! Of course I tell him what an honor it is to meet him. He’s a really nice guy and his wife, Priscilla, takes a photo of us.
Afterwards, I walked around enjoying the live music, champagne and appetizers while chatting with other guests.
Then, at about 7:45, we started lining up for dinner upstairs, where we were greeted by at least 20 soldiers and a live band of at least 30 musicians. Upon entering the official State Dining Room, we were greeted by President Obama himself, as well as First Lady Michelle Obama, President Xi Jinping, and Xi’s wife Madame Peng. President Obama greeted everyone personally—the President of the United States actually shook my hand and personally thanked me for coming to his dinner. It was such a cool experience and absolutely surreal, to say the least. Once we were seated, President Obama and President Xi both gave toasts to the guests and we began our meal.
For each State Dinner, the chefs try to design their meals to include influence from the country of the visiting President. Here’s what was on the menu:
- First dish: Wild Mushroom Soup with Truffle. Absolutely delicious! A variety of mushrooms, including shiitake and truffle, as well as pistachios. For this one bowl of soup, they used four pieces of china.
- Second dish: butter-poached Maine lobster with mushroom, leek, and spinach rice roll. The lobster claw was literally the most perfect piece of lobster. I wanted to eat it all in one bite, but I looked around and everyone was cutting it into little pieces. The rice roll was also good, but I felt like it was more Americanized of a dish than it was Asian.
- Third dish: Colorado lamb with fried milk and baby broccoli. Everything was delicious, but what stood out to me the most was the fried milk, which I had never had before. The outside was kind of like a tempura casing, but the inside was almost like a liquid mochi texture.
- Final dish: lemon poppy seed bread pudding with lychee sorbet. By far my favorite portion of our meal. Every bite was so rich and I was amazed at how perfect the ratio of the pudding and the bread was.
After dinner was over, both Presidents made another toast to the guests before we made our way to the ball room. While walking there, I got a chance to talk briefly with Secretary of State John Kerry, and I also spoke to one of the staff members who read my letter and gave her a big thank you.
About ten minutes after entering the ball room, the lights dim and R&B singer Ne-Yo walked, twirling his microphone. He put on an awesome performance, and even dedicated one of his major hits “Miss Independent” to the First Lady and his mother, who was in attendance.
Ne-Yo concluded his performance at just about 11:00, and President Obama gave one last toast to the crowed, sharing how wonderful the night was. On our way out, my mom and I got a chance to talk to Ne-Yo as he was helping clean up the stage. We thanked him for his amazing performance; I could tell that he felt honored to perform for the President and his guests.
On our way out, I see Mark Cuban. Anyone who follows the NBA knows how eccentric Mark can be, but I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to introduce myself. When I asked, he admitted this was his first State Dinner and bounced the question back to me—and also, how I was able to get an invite in the first place? I shared my story and gave me a high five. We briefly talked about the upcoming NBA season before we both head downstairs and towards the exit.
With all the events concluded for the night, my mom and I head outside and take a taxi back to the hotel.
I stayed up pretty late that night just thinking about how amazing a night it was. Every aspect of the night was so well executed. What an absolute honor that I, at age 23, was one of the President’s 120 invites, mingling with CEOs of some of the biggest corporations in the world. Considering the 318 million people in America and the 1.36 billion in China, to be chosen to meet both presidents was also an honor.
More than anything, I hope this inspires those reading that even the smallest things can lead to enormous results. As someone just a year out of undergrad, I was nowhere near the CEO status that a majority of the attendees had. But simply because I thought it would be cool to write a well-written thank-you letter, I was invited to enter the White House, wine and dine with famous people, and enjoy a private concert by Ne-Yo.
I haven’t fully soaked it all in, but being mini-celebrity and meeting famous people who I’ve only heard about and seen on TV was such a cool experience… and an awesome 23rd birthday present.