Four hours after we arrived at Beijing Airport on Wednesday, Yale faculty and students were welcomed to China by President Hu Jintao in a brief address at the Great Hall of the People.

For virtually all of the students and some of the faculty, the audience with Hu — perhaps the highlight of the trip — followed nearly 24 hours of bus and air travel, beginning at 6 a.m. on Tuesday in New Haven. Our day would not end until 9 p.m. Beijing time, following Hu’s address, a photo op, and a Welcome Banquet, also at the Great Hall.

USE Great Hall

Students await entrance to the Great Hall of the People on Wednesday afternoon before meeting with President Hu Jintao. Digital photography was not permitted at the event with President Hu. (Michael Blank/YDN)

In his remarks, Hu echoed both U.S. President George W. Bush and Yale President Richard Levin when he emphasized the importance of “people to people” diplomacy between the United States and China — one of the goals of the Yale 100 trip. Young people are particularly important in these efforts, Hu said, citing a Chinese proverb: “Heroes always come from young people.”

“Further developing the cooperative U.S.-China relationship is in the fundamental interests of the two countries and peoples,” Hu said.

At the Welcome Banquet, which Hu did not attend, Levin reiterated his appreciation for the Chinese government’s financial support for the trip. Eighty-five of the 100 students, faculty and staff in the Yale delegation have never been to China, he said.

Levin Accepts a Gift

Levin exchanges gifts with an organizer of the Welcome Banquet. (Han Xu/YDN)

But for students, the menu may have proved more interesting than the toasts by Levin and other Chinese officials. Other than the airline’s attempt at Asian-inflected cuisine — including a particularly dismal rendition of dim sum just before landing — the dinner was the group’s first meal of the trip.

Although my Chinese-speaking tablemate translated the printed menu loosely as “scallops, shrimp, chicken, beef, vegetables, ice cream,” what arrived on the lazy Susan turned out to be a vast array of dishes, such as abalone, that would have been foreign to most American Chinese restaurants. We had been warned in advance not to eat too much of the first courses at such banquets, but it proved virtually impossible. What I thought was a winding-down of the dishes turned out to be merely a half-time break, and the flow of dishes continued unabated out of the kitchen for close to two hours.

Banquet Dinner

Yale students and faculty sample from the cold appetizers served on a lazy Susan at the Welcome Banquet. (Han Xu/YDN)

Students and faculty were seated with Chinese officials at the banquet. Although conversation dwindled as jet lag gradually took hold of the Yalies, we managed to get in topics ranging from the structure of the Chinese education system to secret society tap.

Representatives from Yale and the All-China Student Federation and the All-China Youth Federation — which coordinated the group’s schedule in China — were making a valiant effort to keep the trip running smoothly. From personalized first-day schedules distributed on the plane to room keys handed out en route to the hotel (on preassigned, color-coded buses), their efforts were largely successful.

But the first day of the trip was also a reminder that Yale cannot control everything. The buses departed New Haven just after 6:30 a.m. — right on time and more than six hours before scheduled takeoff — but they ran into an accident on I-95 that set them back nearly an hour and a half. Once aloft, it turned out that the in-flight video system in the coach cabin was broken — seemingly a minor inconvenience, but one that can feel like a calamity by the 12th hour of a 14-hour flight.