Visiting Expo 2010 Shanghai

Pavilions at the international expo reflect the cultures and values of their nations—or do they? Globetrotting blogger Steve Kelman files this report.

I spent a fun day at the Shanghai Expo during my visit to give a lecture at Shanghai’s Fudan University, one of China’s best. The overwhelming majority—in fact, almost all—of the visitors were Chinese, though they were drinking Coke and eating food from KFC, Burger King and Pizza Hut.

By far the biggest surprise for me was the U.S. Pavilion, which has been criticized in the United States for being too commercial. (The funds to build the pavilion came exclusively from companies, due to a congressional prohibition on spending appropriated funds for pavilions at international expositions). Actually, our pavilion, probably more than any other I visited, conveyed a sense of our values, as opposed simply to showing beautiful scenery and people or displaying stunning technical effects.

The most commercialized pavilion I saw, perhaps violating that country’s self-perception, was the French pavilion: It was filled with promotions for French brands covering a wide array of products. I saw a number of brand-obsessed Chinese taking pictures in front of the Louis Vuitton luggage display. Lafarge Cement was another featured name.

The U.S. pavilion was manned by 70 American student volunteers, all Chinese-speaking (only a small number of them Chinese-Americans), who introduced to the audience, in Chinese and English, the three films that are the pavilion’s centerpiece. The first was a funny, disarming film showcasing Americans – young and old, workers and students, white and black -- fumbling with trying to say “Welcome to the American Pavilion” in Chinese. It was slightly goofy, but very endearing, I thought, and the Chinese onlookers responded with friendly laughter and smiles. At the beginning of the film, Kobe Bryant, who has an iconic status in China, greeted the audience with “ni hao” (hello).

The second film was on the Expo’s theme of environmental conservation, featuring both Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama – when Obama came on the screen, lots of cameras came out to take pictures.

The last film was extremely well done and was designed to demonstrate the American ideal that “one person can make a difference.” A girl plants a flower in a garbage-strewn courtyard of a dingy, gray apartment building. At first the passers-by ignore the decoration, but eventually some begin to plant their own flowers, then others come to clean up the garbage. By the end of the film, a beautiful garden has replaced the ugliness. I asked the Chinese students accompanying me how they interpreted the film, and they indeed got the message that this was very American – “an individual can do a lot.”

One interesting thing I noticed was that at the Chinese pavilion—which was, not surprisingly, packed—there were almost exclusively older people, many of them by appearance from the countryside. By contrast, the foreign pavilions had some older Chinese, but mostly younger ones. It marked an interesting generational shift in orientation toward the outside world! I was somewhat surprised to see the location of the Taiwan pavilion, a modest-sized (though well done) display literally in the shadow of the enormous Chinese pavilion, in a special area also occupied (on two sides of the Chinese pavilion) by the Hong Kong and Macao pavilions. A Taiwanese told me, however, that the pavilion was located at a somewhat greater distance away from the Chinese pavilion than the Hong Kong and Macao ones.

There also is a huge Africa pavilion, featuring small exhibits from a large number of African nations (South  Africa has its own pavilion.) The Chinese government paid the entire cost for this pavilion, reflecting the Chinese push into Africa. The weirdest thing in the whole Expo was the location of the North Korean pavilion. Rather than being with the other Asian pavilions (Expo is organized by geographical area), it was located in the Middle Eastern area – next to the Iran pavilion!

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