BEIJING — Michelle Kwan’s first performance as an American diplomat was almost flawless.
In two hours Thursday at a hardscrabble school for migrant children — and two more at one of Beijing’s most prestigious high schools — America’s most decorated figure skater turned on the charm.
“She skates, she’s Chinese, she’s Disney and she’s magic,” said Zheng Hong, principal of Dandelion School, an abandoned cinderblock factory converted into a middle school that has 380 students on the southern edge of the capital.
The dusty concrete-floor classrooms and attached dormitories have virtually no heat. It was colder inside than outside, where the temperature hovered around freezing. Minimal warmth in a few rooms came from an ancient furnace, spewing sulfur and coal dust just outside the school auditorium, once the factory’s dingy warehouse.
Kwan seemed unfazed as America’s first “Public Diplomacy Envoy,” a position created to try to improve the U.S. image abroad. Greeted by students two- to three-deep, Kwan waded into the crowd and surprised a young boy, Luo Haoming.
“Hi. How are you? Nice to meet you. Give me five,” Kwan said.
The boy smiled and instantly responded.
“It’s a bit of a scrum,” U.S. Ambassador Clark T. Randt said.
By the end of the visit, Kwan’s ankle-length black coat was smudged with white dust, and she nearly cried when a girls choir sang the school’s anthem:
“Dandelion, dandelion flying to the east, flying to the west; floating in the breeze around the world; landing on the ground without a sound … making friends wherever we go, sending down roots wherever we are.”
“I got teary-eyed,” Kwan said. “I had to look around and just compose myself.”
The setting was worlds away from the glittery world of figure skating.
Kwan is a five-time world champion and has won Olympic silver and bronze. She underwent right hip surgery five months ago and will skip this season.
Kwan got the diplomat job last year. Sitting at a White House dinner with Chinese President Hu Jintao, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Kwan told Rice she was studying political science at the University of Denver.
Rice, who earned her Ph.D. at Denver, later made her an offer.
“I have represented the United States for 12 years in many competitions, and I feel that I can do the same thing as a diplomat,” Kwan said. “It has sort of prepared me for this job.”
In remarkably good English, 14-year-old Lin Zhao Di asked Kwan: “How do you handle life when it is difficult?”
“That’s a very good question,” Kwan replied. “Life and skating is full of a lot of falls, but you have to get up and keep going. And you have to work hard. Sometimes, I do fall and make mistakes, but you can learn from your mistakes.”
Asked if she was ready to retire, Kwan said: “I haven’t ruled anything out yet. If I had made up my mind, I would have told everybody.”
Beijing’s population is estimated at 15 million, including about 3 million migrants, part of what is called the “floating population” of rural Chinese flocking to cities for work.
“The families recycle garbage, recycle metal, raise pigs and tend vegetable gardens,” Zheng, the principal said. “The homes tend to be shells — small, dark. Life is simple and hard.”
Four students randomly were asked if they had seen Kwan skate. All four said “no.”
The daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong and southern China, the 26-year-old Kwan was born in California. She speaks Cantonese — a dialect used in southern China but one all but unintelligible in the north, where Mandarin, the national language, is common. So Kwan used mostly English and a bit of what she called “Chinglish” to communicate.
“I’m studying Mandarin, so you can help me,” Kwan said, getting loud applause after the translation. “A lot of my dreams have come true. I know that a lot of your dreams will come true, too.”
Kwan was greeted like a world star at her second school stop. Students at a high school affiliated with Renmin University, one of China’s top schools, asked about Kwan and her family in remarkably fluent English, some with American accents.
“I like her because she’s pretty, she’s very outgoing and very nice for a person who is such a star,” said 14-year-old Zhang Min, who lived for two years in the United States.
Added her friend sitting nearby: “She is easy to talk to, and her (Chinese) looks are so familiar to us.”
Kwan also will visit the southern city of Guangzhou and Hong Kong before returning home.
Her only slip came when leaving the Renmin University high school, where she almost fell; Kwan’s high heels caught on a step outside a university building.
She made a quick recovery and laughed at herself.
“That’s typical of me,” she said. “Off the ice, I’m the biggest klutz.”