Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Observations of the Shanghai World's Fair

This is a picture of my 22-year-old daughter, Isabel, taken in Shanghai, China. For the past 10 months, she has been living and working in Shanghai as an aupair for a Boston couple with three young children.

Several days ago, she told me she was going to be visiting the Shanghai world's fair. I asked her to write some of her impressions of her visit to the World's Fair. This is her report.

She graduated from Henderson High School almost exactly five years ago on this day. It seems amazing how far she has traveled in just five short years. Nothing could symbolize that sentiment more than her report from Shanghai. Me, her mom and siblings and many of her old friends look forward to seeing her at the end of June and of hearing more about her adventures in China these past 10 months.

Isabel's report from Shanghai:

I’ve been in Shanghai for 10 months and it is impossible not to get swept up in the frenzy and excitement of the World Expo. Haibao, the expo’s jolly blue mascot, is scattered by the thousands around the city. The city has been remodeling 24/7 in preparation; expanding, cleaning, building, planting, painting, de-Chinglish-izing, and convincing Shanghainese not to wear quilted pjs outside on the street.

A large clock at the central transportation hub of the city counted down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the highly anticipated opening of the Expo on May 1st. With all the intense hype here, I assumed the rest of the world was equally absorbed in the Christmas-like splendor of the Expo. “What do you mean, you haven’t heard of the World Expo?!” I retorted to friends from home when they admitted ignorance of the event. “It’s only the world convergence of technology innovation, a forum to showcase new ideas and highlight the advancements of each country…” But then again, maybe I’ve been sipping too much of Shanghai’s Haibao-blue Kool aid.

I originally planned to spend a few hours casually walking around the expo. My Chinese friend Sully was appalled by this plan, and stated that it was an absolute waste of a ticket to spend less than an entire day experiencing it. We arrived at 9:30 am for the day’s opening, herded with thousands of other visitors past metal detectors and security screening. The Chinese expo volunteers smiled broadly and looked sheepishly excited to try out their English on a real foreigner.

Looking around, I was hard pressed to see another foreign face. Shanghai’s campaign for its citizens to learn some English phrases in preparation for foreign visitors paid off and many Chinese expo goers approached me smiling saying, “Hello! Where are you from? Welcome to Shang-hai!” They were equally surprised when I answered back, “Ni hao! Wu shi Meiguo ren.”

After spending almost one year in China, I’m pretty desensitized to crowds, but 600,000 people visited the expo on Sunday. That’s approximately the population of the city of Boston. It was a sea of people and we moved with the current even if that wasn’t our intended direction of travel. Everyone moved with purpose and excitement, racing through the gates to queue up for the different pavilions.

The atmosphere was festive and bubbling with excitement. Grown Chinese men looked child-like in their excitement as they plowed ahead through the crowds with wife and kid in tow. There were many families, but every age seemed to be represented. Teenagers with friends, companies treating their employees to the event, flag touting tour groups from all over China.

Lines for some pavilions stretched past four hours in length. I was half tempted to invite my friend’s grandmother just so we could get wheel chair priority and skip the lines. Sully and I avoided the expos big draws like Italy (with its designer cars and dresses), Switzerland (with a real alpine chair lift) and Belgium (with a working chocolate factory) and instead zoomed into lesser hyped, but still impressive pavilions, like Luxembourg, Slovenia and Czech Republic.

Large stages were set up around the expo and musicians from around the world played throughout the day. We listened to an acoustic guitarist from South Africa sing easy, soulful pop songs. In the African pavilion, a ten person drum troupe from Kenya performed as dancers twirled in red satin dresses. High school marching bands, dance troupes, choirs, orchestras, acrobatics will all be showcased throughout the Expo’s six month opening.

Almost every country’s pavilion had a cafĂ© attached serving traditional food. There was a spectrum of foods and prices. Both Italy and France had beautiful sit down restaurants with legitimate chefs flown in for the occasion. Many of the pavilion gift shops sold fine wines and packaged food from their country. The expo offered everything from Chinese baozi (a bready dumpling) for less than $1, Western staples like McDonalds and Papa Johns, well known Shanghai restaurant chains like South Beauty, and even $100 a head fine dining options. After 6 hours walking around, Sully and I sprung for a grande Starbucks latte to rejuvenate.

I was impressed by each pavilion’s tri-lingual volunteers who switched effortlessly between welcoming visitors in Mandarin, English and their country’s native language. At the Australian pavilion, Chinese visitors broke out into delighted giggles and cheers when a red-headed 20 year old Aussie volunteer addressed the crowd in perfect Mandarin. The expo was stationed with hundreds of volunteers, all eagerly waiting someone to ask for directions or a pavilion recommendation.

Each pavilion seemed like a futuristic fete of architecture and art. Many featured impossibly large LED screens. Others looked like they sprung from the imagination of Dr. Seuss. Most pavilions represented their country with 3-D videos, photographs and interactive exhibits. Some exhibits just seemed like a travel brochure advertising the touristic appeal of their country, but most pavilions used technology creatively to showcase their country and represent their vision for the future.

As the sun set, the pavilions were ablaze in a spectacle of colors. Most families headed home around this time; tuckered kids asleep on parents’ shoulders, still clutched Haibao souvenirs. Singapore was our last pavilion for the night and I struggled to stay awake in the darkened theater as four Singaporean pop stars serenaded us on a 3-D screen. We walked out feeling satisfied but exhausted. 12 hours, 20 pavilions, and one extra-large coffee later, I left the expo having only seen a fraction of it.


  1. Seems like quite a gal there Chuck. Gotta make you feel real good.

  2. Wow, that sounds amazing! I am so glad Isabel had the opportunity to live abroad for an extended period if time.