By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
Can ordinary folks see the White House?
Yes, and it doesn’t even cost you a penny.
You don’t need to have special connections with federal employees to be invited in. This is the beauty of America.
Just go to your senator or congressman’s office and ask for tickets (which are free) approximately six months in advance for security clearance.
The palaces of other countries are often off-limits to commoners. In comparison, the United States is very open and accessible.
Tourists are allowed to take photos outside the front and back gates of the White House. When I was in Morocco, there were no tourists outside the palace, and I knew better than to get too close.
Welcomed by former first lady Hillary Clinton and second lady Tipper Gore, I was at the White House in 1993 with the Women’s International Forum convention.
We were free to roam around from room to room. These included the Green Room, Red Room, and State Dining Room.
In 1993, no one mentioned that slaves built the White House in 1790. This history was widely acknowledged only during President Obama’s campaign in 2008.
Another interesting fact is that the White House’s design was chosen through a design contest rather than inviting ideas from established architects from the president’s circle. This is another remarkable thing about the United States — it gives opportunities to outsiders.
On May 1, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke’s Seattle delegation was there to attend his swearing-in ceremony at the White House. (U.S. Secretary of Health Kathleen Sebelius was also sworn in).
Joe Biden’s a winner
Although the White House is not as gorgeous as some of the other European palaces, it was special to see President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Locke on the same stage.
Obama left immediately after the 10-minute ceremony while Biden hung around to greet Locke’s family and friends (more than 60 of them).
On several occasions, I noticed Sebelius’ guests trying to cut into the line. Because I was busy taking pictures for the Northwest Asian Weekly, I ended up being the last in line to shake Biden’s hand.
Right before my turn, a friend of Sebelius’ cut right in front of me.
Oh no, what if Biden never returned?
“I’ll be right back,” he assured me.
We took three pictures together, and he promised to send me a copy of his autobiography, “Promises to Keep.”
Sure, politicians usually promise more than they deliver. I honestly did not expect him to send me his book, considering the myriad responsibilities he has to tackle.
To my astonishment, the book arrived last week with his writing on the first page, “To Assunta. With very best wishes! Joe Biden 5-3-09.” What an incredible act of kindness from an elected official!
The fellow stands by his words.
My son was skeptical over whether it was really Biden’s signature or if it was a surrogate. After my family examined it, the verdict is that the signature is authentic.
I started reading the book to see if he had used a ghost writer. No doubt about it, it sounds like his words. The man writes exactly like the way he talks — honest, direct, sharp-tongued, loud, yet personable.
Discovering the First Ladies
In the lobby of the White House, portraits of the presidents, including Clinton, Reagan, and Kennedy, were displayed. I wondered where the first ladies’ portraits were.
Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosalind Carter,
Jacqueline Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, and Lady Bird Johnson’s portraits were all in the powder room.
Is this a respectful way to honor our first ladies?
To be fair, the powder room was gorgeous.
And no, we were not allowed to tour Michelle Obama’s garden, the oval office, or the press briefing room, which you often see on television.
Of course, we were also not invited to go into the President’s living quarters, see his dog Bo, on the second floor, or see the third floor, where Michelle’s mother lives.
Perhaps Mona Locke can give us a tour in the future now that she is a cabinet secretary’s spouse. We learned that it is one of the spouse’s privileges.
No one complained that we only got to explore a small fraction of the White House and its 132 rooms. Reportedly, Obama got lost during the first month of living in the White House.
You never know who you will bump into at the Capitol. Sometimes, it could be the first couple or familiar faces you have seen on television.
Congressman Jim McDermott was dazed when he saw me walking outside the Capitol.
Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. was alone touring Lincoln’s 200th anniversary exhibit at the Library of Congress.
“Congressman Jackson,” I said before introducing myself. I have never met the guy before. He looked exactly the way he did on television.My camera captured the moment as I was with the man whose father was Jesse Jackson, who ran for president during the 1980s.
On May 2, we were walking from our hotel to Georgetown for dinner. At about 7:30 p.m., a huge crowd and traffic was blocking the road. “What’s going on?” my husband asked a stranger.
“The president was dining down the block,” she said. “He just left.”
I wish we had known so that we could have shown up and dined at the same place.
President Obama apparently dined with Michelle at the Latham Hotel’s Citronelle restaurant. The restaurant just continued business as usual without partitioning off a section for the president. The first couple just dined at a regular table.
There was no warning that the president was coming. The hotel staff told us that a couple of security guards checked the restaurant two hours before and that was it.
After dinner, the press reported that the first couple were found holding hands strolling on the White House lawn.
Artist Maya Lin and Seattle
About 200 Asian Americans flew in from all over the country to attend Locke’s reception at the Commerce Department after his swearing-in. It was an eye-opening experience. I was happy to meet all the heroes whose accomplishments have been printed in Northwest Asian Weekly.
The most popular of these idols was designer, architect, and sculptor Maya Lin and Gen. Eric Shinseki.
Lin rose to fame when she was selected as the winner out of 1,421 entries to design the most-visited site in D.C., the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
At the time, she was only a 21-year-old architecture student at Yale University. Her courage in battling public obstacles, including the veterans’ opposition toward her design in the 1980s, was as strong as her extraordinary artwork.
Since the 1980s, she has created many magnificent projects, including the Civil Rights Memorial in Alabama. Although Lin is now 50, she looks much younger.
Dressed causally, she is petite and laughs a lot. Although I am several years older, we share the same birthday. Maybe that’s why we clicked instantly.
When I gave her my business card, she said she wanted Northwest Asian Weekly to write about her project on the Museum of Chinese in Americas in New York’s Chinatown when it opens in 2009.
In D.C., her exhibit on systematic landscapes is now exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Yet, she said nothing about the exhibit. Organized by the Henry Art Gallery of the University of Washington, we stumbled on the Corcoran exhibit accidentally.
This fascinating exhibit illustrated Lin’s brilliant mind in combining art and architecture, using old atlases to carve out landscapes.
There’s a lot I could learn from this powerful woman.
Locke and Lin are Yale University alumni. When Locke was governor in 2000, Washington state invited Lin to design the Confluence project, a series of seven memorials at historical points along the Columbia River and Snake River linking history, environment, and expedition in order to commemorate the 2005 bicentennial of Lewis and Clark‘s expedition. The statewide project, costing $25 million, is still in progress.
General Eric Shinseki
Both Lin and Shinseki had something in common: They were once Davids fighting against Goliaths.
Shinseki was the general who stood up against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the Bush administration in 2003, arguing that there needed to be a greater number of ground soldiers during the Iraq War. He later turned out to be right.
At the age of 67, Shinseki’s face (even with a few wrinkles) is robust and youthful. The general did not have an intimidating presence. Carrying a straight back, he is trim.
How does he keep himself so fit?
“I sneak into the gym at 5:30 a.m. every morning without anybody seeing me,” he said, implying that his staff would likely interrupt his exercise routines for other business matters.
Parts of my travels are always focused on food. I went to Chinatown to try out the food since it was close to the White House. In my past three D.C. trips, Chinatown restaurants have been a disappointment. I kept telling myself that it should have improved by now. It was the worst meal during our six days in D.C.
Seattle’s Chinatown meals are not only cheaper but far more superior. The only noticeable change in Chinatown is its bilingual signs.
Every business is required to display an English sign with the Chinese signs. Sometimes the translations don’t make sense.
There are a variety of Asian restaurants and international delights in Georgetown. We ate Indian food one day, prime rib the next, and even bought Belgium desserts on our way back to the hotel. All of it was delicious.
Across the Potomac River in Virginia is Arlington. We dined at a modern Italian restaurant.
The halibut had roasted almonds on top, and the steak was nicely grilled. The only thing we required was that none of the items were overcooked. In the end, the chefs knew how to please us.
The moist fish was barely cooked, and the salad was really fresh.
On Sunday, we treated ourselves to a brunch at Fairmont Hotel’s Colonade. It cost $60 per person.
Though expensive, it was worth every cent; I ate three meals’ worth. I was so stuffed that I didn’t eat dinner that night.
All the food, including the fruits, were elegantly cooked and displayed. The buffet even gave me ideas of how to cook my own food when I came home.
From dinosaurs to gems
Our capitol is famous for the Smithsonian’s 16 museums and memorials. It would be incredibly difficult for one to visit all the museums in one trip. One museum could take the whole day to explore.
The Museum of Natural History houses so many interesting items.
When I took my kids there two decades ago, we went through the section on evolution and dinosaurs.
This time, I just wanted to focus on the diamonds and gemstones. Many precious stones have been added.
Most museums are free. Only special exhibits require a fee.
I decided to pick the butterfly chambers, which cost $6 per person.
The chamber is filled with some of the most exquisite butterfly species, some of which I have never seen before. Sometimes these creatures would seize an ant, suck nectar from pollen, land on my clothes, or fly around.
Even though this was my fourth trip, there are many areas that I haven’t visited yet. I would like to revisit some of the memorials on my future trips. I hope that another local Asian American will get appointed in Obama’s administration soon, and that will be my excuse to go back to D.C. again. ♦
Assunta Ng can be reached at email@example.com.