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Shibs rub elbows with dignitaries at D.C. dinner

Brother-and-sister dance team looked at as being part of 'tomodachi' generation

While in Washington, D.C., Maia Shibutani got to meet one of her musical heroes, accomplished Japanese violinist Midori.
While in Washington, D.C., Maia Shibutani got to meet one of her musical heroes, accomplished Japanese violinist Midori. (courtesy of Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani)

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By Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, special to icenetwork.com
(05/08/2012) - Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani were invited by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to attend a dinner Tuesday, May 1, in Washington, D.C., in honor of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's first official visit to the United States.

THE INVITATION

Alex: Even under normal circumstances, Wednesday, April 25, was setting up to be a pretty terrific day. I was on my way to join my family for dinner in downtown Ann Arbor and was looking forward to celebrating my 21st birthday. The highlight was going to be splitting my first legal beer with my grandma.

When I got to the restaurant, Maia smiled and said, "Check your email!" My eyes widened as I started to process the message. We were being invited by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to attend a dinner in Washington, D.C., in honor of the prime minister of Japan, Yoshihiko Noda. For about the next five seconds, our vocabularies were reduced to one word: "Wow!"

Skating has provided us with so many exciting opportunities to travel the world. We have been fortunate to meet and work with incredible people from allied fields including dance, music, other sports and the media. Now, being presented with the chance to expand the scope of our experiences in a whole new direction through interactions with diplomats, business leaders and academics from a wide range of disciplines was incredibly exciting. As grandma toasted me with her half of our beer, I thought this had to be the coolest birthday surprise ever!

PREPARATIONS

Alex: We immediately accepted the invitations and, after a quick conference call, travel arrangements were made. The invitation indicated the dress code was "business attire." As Maia helped me rummage through my wardrobe for the right tie to wear, it seemed as though nothing was suitable for the occasion. We were scheduled to spend the weekend before the dinner, performing as guest skaters along with Adam Rippon, in Showtime on Ice in Denver. So, between shows, Maia enlisted Adam, and the three of us went to a nearby mall. We ended up looking through the menswear department at Nordstrom's, where I began to boldly flaunt my apparent lack of tie-shopping know-how. As I picked up ties that I thought were suitable for the occasion, all Maia and Adam could do was sigh heavily and shake their heads at each tie I presented. In the end, I gave up trying, and Maia and Adam picked out a tie for me.

Maia: Alex and I flew back to Michigan after the final show in Denver on Sunday night, finally arriving home at almost 2:00 a.m. Our weekend performances in Denver with Adam were a lot of fun. (See our tweets!) We went to sleep knowing that we would need to wake up in a few hours and head right back to the airport. We were physically exhausted, but the excitement and anticipation for the dinner helped keep us going.

Alex and I have both been to Washington, D.C., many times in the past. Scattered throughout our photo albums are photographs of Alex and me when we were very young, enjoying picnics along the basin areas near the Lincoln Memorial. A favorite time was always early spring, when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom.

Once we landed in Washington, D.C., we didn't have much time to spare. We made a brief nostalgic visit to the Lincoln Memorial and then grabbed a quick lunch at a favorite restaurant, Pizzeria Paradiso near Dupont Circle. After checking into the hotel, we spent the balance of the afternoon reading up on everything that we thought could be a potential topic of conversation at dinner. While Googling current headlines involving U.S. diplomacy and the Asia-Pacific region, we were astounded by the way "front-page" events were literally unfolding that very day.

ARRIVAL AND THE RECEPTION

Maia: The invitation had instructions to arrive at 6:00. We arrived about 10 minutes early, and there was already a decent-sized crowd gathered by the entrance. The driver hopped out to open my door, and as I stepped out onto what was literally a red carpet, I felt excited and nervous. Leaning into Alex's arm as we entered the building, it was reassuring to have him by my side.

We were immediately greeted by a man wearing an earpiece, who gestured us toward the entrance. As we listened to a harpist playing, we waited to "check in" with our photo identifications. I presented my passport card. As if I wasn't already feeling out of place, I was sure that no other guests were presenting high school freshman year photos as proof of identification for Secretary Clinton's dinner.

The reception began with the opportunity to tour the special exhibition of samurai art on display at the National Geographic Museum. The exhibit was fascinating -- it featured some of the earliest known photos of samurai as well as several well-preserved suits of armor and weaponry. Highlights included pieces of armor that had been presented to various presidents of the United States and three samurai swords presented to Ulysses S. Grant on his post-presidential tour of Japan.

As we entered the galleries, wait staff were gliding about offering drinks and hors d' oeuvres. The idea of standing around in an elegant dress and reaching into a full tray of food equipped with only a cocktail napkin seemed like an impossible mission to me. And so, I decided to amuse myself by encouraging Alex to try everything that came our way.

A lettuce lamb wrap looked delicious but also large and unwieldy. Glancing around the room, I could barely suppress a giggle -- you could instantly tell when someone was trying to eat one. First, there would be the "OMG, I can't get this on my clothes" moment as the person's head would jut forward and hips would scoot back. Next would come the tug-of-war as a piece of lamb was suspended between clenched teeth and increasingly saucy fingers. Finally, the person would turn toward a wall, chewing vigorously until the ordeal was over. Alex went for the "wall" approach but shockingly managed to cram the entire wrap into his mouth. Alarmed that his face looked like he was about to erupt with a mouthful of laughter and lamb wrap, I had to think quickly. As inconspicuously as possible, I ended up delicately nudging him with the toe point of my shoe and urged him to keep chewing with his mouth shut.

Needless to say, I did not even attempt to eat during the reception.

Alex: Food was a welcome sight once we entered the reception hall. Maia was very keen to have me try the hors d' oeuvres as they came around. "Alex, you should DEFINITELY try everything." After surviving the unexpected flavors of a crunchy sour red thing, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself for managing to take on this enormous lamb wrap without making a mess. Everyone else was turning to face the wall, which I found hilarious. Maia evidently wasn't so amused by the prospect of me breaking into a fit of laughter with a mouthful of lamb. With a raised eyebrow, she gave me a swift kick to the shins and told me to stop chuckling. I couldn't wait to sit down for dinner.

DINNER

Maia: After about a half hour, the announcement was made that dinner would begin, and everyone was directed to make their way across a courtyard. I couldn't help but smile as people suddenly started rushing in the same direction. Regardless of whether they were prominent politicians, distinguished scholars or guest artists from Japan or the United States, everyone had the same goal in mind when dinner was called.

As we crossed the courtyard, I was struck by the impressive sight of the full honor guard flanking both sides of the passageway. With representatives from different branches of the armed forces standing at attention in crisply pressed uniforms, their disciplined formation and posture projected strength and precision. With their expressionless faces and eyes directed straight ahead, they seemed to be staring out into the distance. As we walked past, I couldn't resist trying to see out of the corner of my eye if any of them were stealing covert glances at the guests as they walked past.

Alex: With the crowd coming together near the entrance of the dining hall, we still had not met anyone. Maia and I felt like we stuck out like sore thumbs. We had been told in advance that the guest list included the "who's who" of the Washington political scene as it related to U.S.-Japan relations. Maia and I had to agree, and by that I mean that Maia and I were left wondering literally who was who.

Maia: At the entrance of the dining room, there was a table with small envelopes, which had everyone's names on them. After a moment of panic, Alex and I were relieved to find out that we were indeed seated together. We were the first to arrive at "Table 3," which had an unobstructed view of the head table. Seating had been assigned with beautifully printed place cards with the official gold emblem of the secretary of state in the middle of the card. Across each plate were an elegantly printed menu and program for the evening.

The menu selections sounded amazing. There was a crab appetizer with avocado, an entree of wagyu beef and for dessert, the "Tomodachi" chocolate dessert. Preparations were designed to highlight local American ingredients while also incorporating themes from Japanese cuisine. As I happily read the menu, none other than Bryan Voltaggio walked by. It turned out he was the chef for the event. I am a huge fan of all cooking shows and had enjoyed watching him compete on "Top Chef." I was so excited to taste the meal that he and his team had prepared.

Alex: For what seemed like the longest time, Maia and I were the only ones seated at our table, making me suspiciously concerned that we had been assigned to the "kids' table." I began thinking that it would be an excellent idea for me to start rehearsing various casual facial expressions in the event that the waiters swapped out my wine glass and multi-forked table setting for a sippy cup and plastic spork.

Maia: It was a relief when someone finally came over to join us at our table. Dr. Patrick Cronin (senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security) introduced himself with disarming warmth and enthusiasm. Our conversation was immediately lively and fun. Dr. Cronin seemed remarkably well informed on what seemed like every topic imaginable. It was fascinating to hear about his upcoming travels throughout Asia.

As other people arrived at the table, it was a nice feeling to already know someone who was obviously in his element. Dr. Cronin helped introduce us to other guests as they joined our table, as well as to the numerous dignitaries who came by to mingle and greet him. At first it was a bit overwhelming, as each person's identity -- undersecretary of "this," professor and director of the institute of "that" -- seemed more impressive than the next. As we grew more comfortable engaging in so many different conversations, it was a thrilling feeling to be surrounded by so many bright minds and extraordinary people. As potential topics of conversation seemed limitless, it was unexpected how interested everyone was in hearing about our experiences as skaters.

Before food was served, Secretary of State Clinton and Prime Minister Noda stood behind podiums and gave speeches. As Secretary Clinton spoke, I was struck by the clarity and conviction in her voice. She spoke with feeling about the tragedy of the earthquake and tsunami. As she described the historical relationship between the U.S. and Japan, she made reference to the cherry trees, which bloom every spring in Washington, D.C. This year marked 100 years since 3,000 cherry trees were given to the United States as a gift from Japan. Secretary Clinton then announced that the United States would be making a gesture in return -- a gift of 3,000 dogwood trees to be planted in Tokyo. The beauty of these trees will certainly be fitting symbols of the friendship and mutual respect between the two countries.

Alex: Secretary Clinton's speech then focused on how the collection of people invited to celebrate Prime Minister Noda's first visit to the United States had each somehow played a role in strengthening the bond shared between the two countries. Now, her focus was on continuing to build this relationship in the future. In her words, "We are working to create opportunities for the young people in both of our countries. Our shared goal is to promote a 'tomodachi,' or 'friendship,' generation of young people who will be our future leaders." The public/private program will involve academic, sports and entrepreneurial exchange programs with the goal of strengthening ties and the feeling of friendship, particularly between young people from each country.

Through our travels with skating, when we have had the privilege of competing in Japan, Maia and I have felt both a sense of pride in our heritage and a tremendous sense of responsibility as athlete ambassadors representing the United States. Through sport, we have enjoyed meeting people from all over the world, making friends and connecting with fans. The themes expressed by Secretary Clinton in her speech were inspiring and ones that we could definitely relate to.

When it was Prime Minister Noda's turn to speak, much to the enjoyment of the audience, his introductory comments showcased a self-deprecating sense of humor and subtle wit. "I am Prime Minister Noda -- the most steady prime minister who was most recently described by the Washington Post as the most sensible prime minister in years but without charisma."

At the end of the speeches, there was a toast. Having just turned 21 the week before, I was happy to raise my glass of white wine. People at our table smiled sweetly at Maia as she gamely did her best to improvise, holding up her tumbler of water with each toast.

PHOTO FINISH

Maia: Once dessert had been served, an announcement was made that there would be a musical performance. Just a few feet away from us, the famed Japanese violinist Midori took her place and began to play. Alex and I recognized her immediately. We had grown up listening to her recordings and had heard stories from our parents about how she had stunned the music world by concertizing from the age of 11. When she started to play, the room became completely still. An amazing dessert had been served, but I was too enthralled to touch it.

After Midori finished playing, the spell she had cast was broken by an announcement that the dinner was officially over. Everyone was asked to remain seated until the secretary of state and the prime minister were escorted away. A murmur went through the crowd. Everyone knew that a plane was waiting to take Secretary Clinton to China to address the diplomatic crisis involving activist Chen Guangcheng.

Alex and I were shocked at the abrupt end to the evening and a little worried. We had met many amazing people, but, feeling self-conscious and unfamiliar with "protocol," we had taken NO pictures. As people began to stand and mingle, we spotted a few famous and familiar faces. With Dr. Cronin's reassurance that the Secret Service would not tackle Alex to the ground, we decided it was time to break out our cameras. Alex jabbed my arm excitedly when he spotted the actor, George Takei, from the original television series "Star Trek." Mr. Takei was extremely nice and happily agreed to pictures together. The other actors we met included Masi Oka and Daniel Dae Kim from the current television series "Hawaii Five-0". It was surreal having the distinguished Dr. Cronin, one of the world's "leading minds in Asian policy," take pictures of us with these actors. To my relief, Midori had not left yet. I gathered my nerves and asked her for a picture and an autograph. She was very gracious and happily obliged.

With all the business cards that had been handed to us that evening, my clutch could barely close. As the dining room emptied, I went back to our table and made sure to grab my place card and the printed menu as mementos of an incredible evening.

Alex: As we walked out of the building, we were both feeling energized and amazed by the experience. Only a few hours before, we had walked in feeling nervous and completely out of place. As we departed, it was with many warm goodbyes, wishes of good luck and (ha!) even offers from several people who asked us if we needed a ride!

When we got back to the hotel and recounted the evening's adventures, it began to sink in how special the evening had been. The chance to step out beyond our regular identities, as students and athletes, was so humbling, thought provoking and totally inspiring. It was such an honor to be invited, and we were so thankful for the opportunity.

In the years to come, when we travel to Tokyo, we will be sure to keep an eye out for the dogwood trees.