Around the world in a day

Part two in a series from China

“Welcome to Shanghai,” the banners along the highway say. “Better city, better life.”

At first I mistake it for propaganda promoting some kind of urban improvement program. After all, when I visited Shanghai last year, the city was one huge construction zone in preparation for this year’s World Expo. But the highways have been built, the downtown buildings have been facelifted, the greenspaces trimmed and tidied. Shanghai has its best face forward.

“Better City, Better Life,” it turns out, is the theme for the Expo.

Occupying an area two square miles on both sides of Hongpu River, the World Expo carries on the old tradition of the World’s Fair. As recently as seven years ago, houses and neighborhoods and industrial areas occupied the area where the Expo now sits, but the Chinese government moved the businesses, relocated all the families, then bulldozed the area to make space for the Expo.

To my students, such a massive unilateral move seems unbelievable—“How could the government do that to all those people,” one of them asks—but in China, there’s no private ownership of property. The government can do as it pleases with the land. When the decisions are guided by the philosophy “What’s good for the people is good for the person,” individuals concerns don’t count for much.

China reportedly spent four times as much money preparing for the Expo than it spent prepping for the Beijing Olympics two years ago.

The Expo is an ever-present entity everywhere in Shanghai. We can’t travel down the sidewalk without tripping over a billboard or a banner or even lawn art. Front and center in all these ads is the Expo’s little powder-blue mascot, Haibao, whose design is based on the Chinese character for “people.” He looks a little like the letter “A” or the number “pi”—π—with a big happy cowlick on the right side of his forehead. My students take to calling him “Gumby.”

My group gets to the Expo early and waits in line. Thousands of people line up at the gate with us—and this is just one of eight gates. By midday, there’ll be tens of thousands of people crammed into the Expo. We will make decisions on which pavilions to tour based not on what countries we’re interested in visiting but in how long the lines are. The wait for some exhibits, like Germany and Saudi Arabia, is said to be six hours.

The wait for Slovenia, though, is about ten minutes. The less well-known a country is, the shorter the line—and hardly anyone has heard of this small east European country nestled along the Mediterranean. I probably wouldn’t even know it if my maternal grandmother wasn’t from there.

The pavilion is surprisingly striking, though. Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, is the World Book Capital for 2010, so the design of the pavilion represents “a marvelous journey through open books,” says the introduction. A pathway leads through several giant open books softly illuminated in rich colors, and each book tells part of Slovenia’s story. The pavilion feels like Magic Bookland.

In Mongolia, I see the fossilized skeletons of two small dinosaurs locked in combat. In Ireland, I see photos of the Emerald Island so vivid they make me wish I were there. In the African pavilion, I see more than twenty countries with vibrant personalities, complicated histories, and optimistic outlooks.

In Taiwan, I see the sculpture of a watermelon bigger than a house. In Finland, I see more white than I thought possible in any interior design. In Kenya, I see a small exhibit about President’s Obama’s heritage and people lining up next to his portrait to have their picture taken next to it.

At South Africa, I learn an eternal lesson from Nelson Mandela: “We must use time wisely and forever realize time is always ripe to do right.”

The architecture of each pavilion provides a mismash of cutting-edge crazy architectural designs. The Spanish pavilion looks like a giant wicker basket. The Netherlands pavilion is topped with a crown. The Saudi pavilion has palm trees planted on the roof. The United Kingdom’s pavilion looks like a giant mirror ball folding in on itself. The Israeli pavilion looks like a geodesic glass onion with the peel still left on one side. The South Korean pavilion has some kind of multicolored sparkly mosaic facing that’s dazzling.

At night, they all light up in spectacular fashion.

All of the buildings are temporary. After the Expo closes in October, the land will be cleared again.

We decide to visit the USA’s pavilion. Others in my group choose not to because they already know about the United States, but I’m curious as to how the U.S. “brands” itself here in China. What impression do we want to create for the Chinese people about who we are as Americans and what our country is all about?

As we wind through the line, a large movie screen on the outside of pavilion broadcasts images of “America’s Jazz Ambassadors”: Duke Ellington in Jordan, Dizzie Gillespe in Buenos Aries, Benny Goodman in Moscow, Count Base in Rangoon, and so on.  Can’t think of anything more quintessential American except maybe for baseball and baseball.

Then comes a segment about educational exchange programs, showing pictures of Chinese students having a great time living and studying in the U.S. The segment contains slogans like “Enhance your life. Live your dream.” And “It’s all possible in the U.S.” Again, those ideas tie very much into the notion of the American Dream, a key component of what makes us US.

But as the films inside the pavilion make an effort to show, American values and Chinese values perhaps aren’t all that different. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talks about diversity, innovation, and imagination in a film that’s heavy on cute kids saying inspirational things and talking about cars the run on flying cars dream machines and cars that run on fruit juice. “Imagination is essential,” one of the speakers says.

The pavilion was constructed through donations by corporate sponsors—an entire wall is devoted to showing off their logos in the entrance hall—and some of those sponsors, GE, PepsiCo, and Johnson & Johnson, show up in the films as talking heads, saying more inspirational things: “Anything is possible if you can believe in it.” “Amazing things happen when you work together.” “You’ve gotta keep on going on your dream to make a change.” Again, it’s all quintessential American Dream stuff.

The point, of course, is that we all want a better life for our children, whether we’re American or Chinese. The message resonates well with the thousand people in the auditorium. They break out into applause after each of the pavilions three films. Some cheer, too, when President Obama appears onscreen to deliver a brief message.

In another typical American move, the tour ends by depositing visitors in the pavilion’s gift shops. We have to run a gauntlet of cowboy hats, plush stuffed-animal bison, U.S. flags, and other assorted trinkets like keychains, mugs, and red, white, and blue t-shirts before we can exit.

We watched a couple parades—one featuring acts that played traditional Chinese music of various sorts and another populated by artists that danced to Indian music. My daughter played bongos with an African drummer. I watched a concert by a band called The Real Ones, who played on the stage at the European Square. There were sights and sounds aplenty.

Standing monolithic-like over the entire Expo, like a king surveying his Middle Kingdom, loomed the Chinese pavilion—a mammoth red structure as tall as a small skyscraper, as substantial as a small mountain, and as elegant as a water garden.

It would prove to be the most captivating pavilion of all.

(to be continued….)