Expo time: initial thoughts

It’s been a while since I’ve written here last and I apologize to my lovely 2- to 3-member readership who have been waiting for and pushing me to write more often. I would spend some time offering convoluted excuses explanations for my absence (including a trip to Fujian earlier this month!), but that’s not what this post is for. Having begun “training” this week and with all but 8 days to go until the [insert drumroll followed by lethally cheesy music] official start of Expo 2010, there are somewhat more pertinent things I’d like to share with you guys.

Let’s start with some good news: I won’t have to wear spandex. (Sorry if I got your hopes up 2 entries ago!) While we have yet to meet our uniforms in person, we’ve been provided with a picture of one of our outfits.

Bad news is that the suits are… not exactly the pinnacle of fashion. But what uniforms are?, you might be thinking. Answer: the Italians’ (surprise surprise). They are wearing Prada. (As a young security guard at the Canada Pavilion told me excitedly, the Italy Pavilion also has a Ferrari or two on display. Other pavilions need not dream of winning the popularity game this Expo.)

Anyway. Tuesday was my first day of training, which was also the first day the (unfinished) Expo site was opened to 200,000 (!) specially invited people living in Shanghai. It was the first time I’d set foot on the Expo site—and it was sort of like stepping into a giant theme park. Having been bombarded with pictures of and videos scrolling through the pavilions’ CG counterparts, it was still pretty stunning to actually walk among them. I was taken aback by how enormous the pavilions are in real life. I saw only a fraction of the country pavilions, though, and have yet to catch sight of the China or US ones (the two that, with good reason, Chinese visitors most want to visit).

Wednesday was the first “soft opening” at the Canada Pavilion (CP from now on). For four hours I stood at the exit, directing people out, saying zaijian, giving directions (mainly to the US Pavilion), and stopping people from trying to enter through the exit (you won’t believe how many attempted). The last job was mainly performed by the security guard, a recent graduate from Henan with whom I had a nice chat. Out of the ten positions around the CP assigned to hosting staff, the exit was probably the most interesting, if perhaps slightly demoralizing, because I got to see and hear the honest reactions of each person coming out of the pavilion. Demoralizing because unfortunately, the majority of those reactions were not terribly positive. Lots of not-so-under-the-breath comments to the effect of “this is it?” “we waited 1.5 hours for just another movie?” and words like 无聊 and 失望. It hurt! Many asked hopefully if this was only a part of it and that there would be more come the official May 1 opening, and it was hard to tell them yes, this is basically “it”. (The restaurant and gift shop and shows are yet to open.)

It wasn’t all negative though. There were some visitors who genuinely enjoyed it. Some asked me to be in a photo with them, or take photos for them. I chatted with a couple people, including hosts from other countries, and exchanged e-mails with two visitors. Those were nice breaks from smiling apologetically.

I haven’t been inside any of the other pavilions, but I do like the Canada one. It’s dark, soothing, wondrous, and affecting, not to mention smells wonderfully of cedar. That said (and I hesitate to generalize like this), I do think it was more designed with Canadians rather than Chinese in mind. By that I mean not only that the images shown probably resonate most strongly with people who are already familiar with Canada, but also that the sort of competitive, commercial, fast-paced nature of much of China today is thoroughly absent from the presentation (which I personally appreciate), making it—and this is only an initial hypothesis—perhaps harder for visitors to feel a solid connection with it. Much of this country has been infused with a materialistic, 拜金 (money-worshipping) culture, making things like Ferrari and Prada decidedly more exciting to the masses than a tranquil moving collage set to emotionally arousing music. In a country whose population is increasingly living in the fast lane, an unequivocal wow factor is more likely to leave an impression.

Perhaps more than the pavilion itself, the Canadian wow factor is actually a person: our Commissioner General Mark Rowswell, better known in China as Dashan. Being allegedly “the most famous foreigner in China”, he apparently eliminated the need for a Canadian mascot (probably for the better considering how silly-looking most of the Expo mascots are). I met him on Wednesday. Most of the Chinese visitors who happened to see him stopped and stared and took photographs and tried to get through the barricades. It was kind of awesome.

That’s it for now—more to come soon (including disturbing images of Haibao). I got a call at 12:20am last night (which I didn’t answer) and then a text five minutes later telling me I have to go in this afternoon… so should go get ready.

If you’re interested in more information or interesting insights about the Expo, particularly in regard to the US Pavilion, check out this blog. The writer also has a great recent post on the North Korea Pavilion, which, by the way, happens to be located in a remote corner right next to the Iran Pavilion…

Finally, let me leave you with a typo that’s had me omg-ing all morning:

Really, Shanghai? It’s one of the five English words on the entire map and you had to get it wrong?

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