Let’s just start off with this. The fact that I was invited to the White House for the September 25 State Dinner for Chinese President Xi and his wife Madame Peng is just incredible.
Check out the guest list here and you will see of course President Obama and Michelle Obama, President Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan. You will also see:
And buried deep in that list you see this:
Ms. Christi Parsons, Correspondent, Los Angeles Times
Ms. Melanie Gao
My sister is not only a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, she was also President of the White House Correspondents’ Association last year. She’s sort of a big deal in Washington. When she got invited to the State Dinner she forwarded me the invite. “Are you interested? See below!” she said.
Yeah. I was interested.
I knew that I was one of the least significant invitees that evening and I could not have cared less. I was excited just to be in the same room with all those powerful and beautiful people. I fully expected to be seated in the back of the dining room, right next to the kitchen, and I was fine with that. In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that I had been seated in some sort of overflow room and I would have even been fine with that too.
That’s why #5 on this list was especially surprising.
2. We took an uber to the White House.
I wasn’t sure how we would get to the White House that evening but for some reason I imagined the President sends a limo for you. Or perhaps a black Suburban with bullet-proof glass.
It turns out he does not.
You have to figure out transportation on your own and my sister and I called an uber to take us there.
It was a Prius.
3. I got sniffed down by a German Shepherd even though I was wearing an evening gown.
It takes four stops to get into the White House for a State Dinner.
At the first stop they checked our IDs.
At the second stop they checked our invitations and made sure our names were on the guest list. I guess they wanted to avoid a replay of this.
At the third stop we got sniffed down by a German Shepherd but the way they did it was fascinating. They asked me to stand on a metal platform. On my right was a giant fan. On my left was a metal grate and behind the grate was a secret service officer with a dog. The fan was blowing my scent over to the dog, who was able to sniff me down without ever actually touching me or my designer dress. Amazing.
Finally, they ran our purses through an X-ray and we walked through a metal detector.
At last, we were cleared to enter the White House itself.
As Christi and I approached the White House doors, an older man was approaching in a wheelchair. We slowed down to allow him space to get in the door in front of us. He stood up from the chair and walked into the White House as if he had been there a thousand times before.
Which, apparently, he had.
“Oh my god. That’s Henry Kissinger,” Christi whispered to me.
We walked into the White House behind Henry Kissinger.
The Parsons sisters.
From the farm house on Hargrove Road.
Those girls, the Parsons sisters.
Walked into the White House behind Henry Kissinger.
Crazy sh*t. I am telling you.
4. Going through a receiving line with the Obamas is like going through a car wash.
2015 was an amazing and blessed year for me - I got to meet the Obamas not just once but twice. So I feel like I’ve got a body of experience to work from here. Christi advised me not to try to start a conversation with them, just let them do all the talking. She told me not to initiate a hug or a kiss or anything like that, I should let them initiate all the greetings.
This was my first attempt at a receiving line with the Obamas, in April 2015 at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner:
And this was the State Dinner in September 2015:
I think there’s a marked improvement, don’t you?
It’s because I figured out how to approach the receiving line. Just put it in neutral and take your foot off the brake. Just like in the car wash. The Obamas will start a sweet and charming conversation with you, and when it’s time for you to move along, an extremely polite uniformed military officer behind you will press on your elbow until you move along. It’s actually the easiest thing in the world.
The Obamas were always charming and stately and funny and real, all at the same time. President Obama had met all the sisters back at the WHCA dinner in April, so when just Christi and I showed up at the State Dinner in September, he asked about the other sisters. That floored me. He remembered that we have two other sisters.
5. They seated me next to the Number Two in the Chinese delegation.
When we entered the dining room Christi and I weaved our way among the tables to find our place cards, which had been hand written by White House Chief Calligrapher Pat Blair. My name has never looked as beautiful to me as it did that night, written so delicately on a beautiful ivory card, embossed with a gold White House seal, propped on a solid gold place card holder.
I introduced myself to the gentleman on my left and asked him to help me pronounce his name. “Li Zhan Shu”, he said slowly. “栗战书。 我很高兴认识您。我叫高美玲,” I said. “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Li. I’m Gao Meiling.” I wasn’t planning to use my Chinese name when I introduced myself but it just slipped out. Even though I hadn’t used that name in years. He remarked that I spoke Chinese and I told him I had lived in Beijing for six years. Then we both went on to meet our other table mates. There were eight of us at the round table.
A few minutes later President Obama and President Xi made some openings remarks and then the first course was served. As we were eating, Christi leaned over to me and said softly, “That Chinese man next to you is the Number Two in the Chinese delegation.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“They rank everyone in the delegation and the guy next to you is the second highest ranking person, just after President Xi himself. He’s the head of the Communist Party in China.”
I whispered to her softly, “What the hell??? Why did they put me next to him? I should be next to the kitchen! Why did they put me next to the second most important person in the freaking delegation???”
“I don’t know but these things are always intentional. Just stay calm and act normal. But don’t start a conversation with him. Wait and see if he starts a conversation with you. The man on his left is the Director for China Affairs on the National Security Council. The two of them are supposed to be having a serious conversation. If Mr. Li gets tired of that conversation, he might turn to you to talk and if he does, you can talk with him. But don’t keep him from talking with the National Security Council guy.”
I stirred my mushroom soup and wondered who in the world thought it was a good idea to seat me next to the Number Two in the delegation. And I wondered why no one had given me a heads up. In my world, we would give people a heads up about that sort of thing.
But we were most definitely not in my world here.
For most of the dinner Mr. Li did talk with the National Security Council advisor on his left. But around dessert, their conversation died down and Mr. Li sat quietly for a moment and ate his dessert - lemon curd with buttermilk custard sauce.
“Don’t start a conversation with him. Don’t start a conversation with him.” Christi’s words echoed in my head.
“您吃的好吗？“ I asked him. “Are you enjoying your dinner?”
Dammit. Why do I always do that? The only guidance I had for the whole entire evening was to not start a conversation with the guy to my left. And I started a conversation with him.
But he was gracious and sweet about it. He said he was enjoying his dinner and then we chatted about Beijing. It turns out his house is not too far from where we lived in Beijing, and we knew a lot of the same places. I asked if it was okay to ask about his family and he said it was, so he told me about his children and I told him about mine. And then dinner was over and it was time to move into another hall for a musical performance.
Which was more crazy sh*t.
6. The musical performance was not what you would expect.
Okay, let’s talk about what you would expect. It’s a post-dinner musical performance. It’s a delegation from China.
A private cello concert from Yo-Yo Ma, right?
Or maybe a performance from Misty Copeland, the first African-American dancer to be promoted to principal at the American Ballet Theatre.
Nope. It was Ne-Yo. Yes, that Ne-Yo. Hip-hop star Ne-Yo. Agent Deveroux in the film “Sharknado 3” Ne-Yo.
He sang three songs - the last one was the one we all know.
I knew my rent was gonna be late about a week ago
I worked my a$$ off but I still can’t pay it though.
But I’ve got just enough to get up in this club,
and have me a good time,
before my time is up.
I kid you not. This is how we entertained the Chinese delegation. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ne-Yo as much as the next person. But to entertain a delegation from China…? It made about as much sense as seating me next to Li Zhan Shu.
I do want to insert here that I have a problem with the lyrics of that song, and I’ve lectured my kids a few times about what to do if you can’t pay your rent.
You make a partial payment with whatever money you do have, make a commitment to pay the rest by a certain date, and then stay in and watch Netflix that night.
Which granted, is not a song anyone would buy.
7. Only the stars had their phones out.
Apparently it is not diplomatically correct to tweet pictures of yourself at a State Dinner. None of the political or business figures ever had their phones out. Not even Apple CEO Tim Cook.
But the celebrities were constantly taking pictures and posting them.
I sat next to Lee Daniels’ mom at the performance and she was lovely. She introduced her son as “Lee” and at first I thought he was vision-impaired because he was wearing sunglasses indoors. At night.
Then I realized he was just famous.
Incidentally, he’s the director of a movie I loved very much - “The Butler.” It takes place in the White House in the 1960s. And I sat next to Lee, the director of that movie. In the White House.
Crazy sh*t. I am telling you.
8. They took away the place card holders before dessert.
Do you remember I mentioned the solid gold place holders for our name cards? Just before dessert was served the waitress came around and took them all up.
Christi told me that if they don’t do that, some people will steal them.
9. As the clock struck 11:00, it was over.
The musical performance wrapped up promptly at 11:00 and our enchanted evening at the White House was over. Our exit from the presidential residence was unceremonious. One minute we were in the regal glow of that historic mansion and 30 seconds later we were standing on a street corner in DC, waiting for the pedestrian light to turn white so we could cross with all the other normal and regular citizens.
How can everything be so magical one minute, and the next minute you’re standing on a cement curb, waiting for a street light to change?
It was like we dreamed the whole thing.
But I know I wasn’t dreaming because the next morning I woke up and found this picture on my iPhone:
Yeah, that's Ne-Yo.
He's winking at me.
We had a good time before our time was up, didn't we Ne-Yo?