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November 17, 2009

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No misinterpreting the desire for understanding

CHINESE students visiting yesterday with US President Barack Obama during a town hall-style meeting wanted to show off their language skills. The US ambassador to China did the same.

Obama's event with students featured more spoken English than Chinese - except for Ambassador Jon Huntsman, Obama's representative to China, who introduced Obama with polished Chinese.

"I don't know what he said, but I hope it was good," Obama laughed as he took the podium for what was described as the first town hall-style meeting between Chinese students and a US president.

Many of the students asked questions in English about Obama's views on Internet censorship, global leadership and Taiwan. Obama responded in English and translators made sure students understood the answers in Chinese.

To open, Obama greeted the students in their native language - but not before a last-minute check with Huntsman.

"I'm very sorry that my Chinese is not as good as your English," Obama said. "But I am looking forward to this chance to have a dialogue."

For as much as his administration - and his presidential campaign before - employed high-tech ways to communicate, Obama made a surprising confession during that town hall: He doesn't use Twitter.

"I have never used Twitter. I notice that young people, they're very busy with all these electronics. My thumbs are too clumsy to type in things on the phone," Obama joked when asked about China's Internet restrictions.

It's a curious statement from someone who negotiated with White House lawyers and the Secret Service so he could keep using his handheld BlackBerry e-mail device after winning the presidency. Officials made high-tech and high-security upgrades, and Obama now keeps in touch with friends on a device dubbed the BarackBerry - a gadget that apparently lacks the capability to tweet.

And as Obama spoke, thousands of people around the globe watched the event on the White House's Website and on the social networking site Facebook. The White House's Twitter feed even promoted it: "Watch President Obama take questions from Chinese students and the Web."


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