The average American doesn't know that the largest world's fair ever held is taking place in Shanghai, China. Indeed, the average American might not even know what a world's fair is, since it's been a generation since one has been held in the USA.
I was chatting with a young woman the other day and mentioned I'd been to the fair and she looked at me blankly. "A fair?" she asked. "You mean like with booths and stuff?" Yes, I went to China to do the Puyallup.
Only at this Puyallup Fair there are nearly 200 foreign countries exhibiting their wares, technologies, and views of civilization. Instead of booths, there are pavilions costing up to well over $100 million dollars. The fair lasts six months (through October) and some 70 million visitors are expected. Fairs are fun, but also international exercises in diplomacy and commerce, a meeting ground for the peoples of the globe to strut, and trade, their stuff. They have been going strong since London's Great Exhibition of 1851.
Of those Americans who know about Shanghai's Expo, even fewer are aware that the American presence at the fair has been controversial. But among Expo watchers, the story of the botched effort to put together a pavilion for this fair has been an excruciating spectator sport, one I have covered since 2007. But more about that process and its consequences later.
For me, the ultimate question is, despite all the ups and downs of the USA Pavilion, how was it? Did America embarrass itself on the world stage, as it has done at a number of recent world expositions, with a half-assed effort? Can you even be half-assed when you spend $60 million on a pavilion?
At that price, one would think success or failure would be rather full-assed. But it's not. The U.S. pavilion underachieves when measured against the possibilities and the opportunity. On the other hand, its very existence gives it points. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said when asked about the pavilion, "It's fine." Translated, that means "It exists." And the pavilion birthing process was so difficult, so messed-up, that the only thing worse would have been insulting China by blowing it off entirely, which almost happened.
Failure to participate in Expo would have been a diplomatic faux pax of the highest order. So the U.S. pavilion might be judged by Woody Allen standards: 80 percent of success is just showing up.
The U.S. pavilion can point to some tangible positives. When I visited at the end of June, officials told me that an estimated 45,000 people per day were lining up for two-hour-plus waits to see inside. That's a good crowd. At that rate, the pavilion will be seen by seven to eight million Chinese who are eager to learn what America has to offer. The pavilion plans to conduct a scientific survey to see what the Chinese thought of it.
One of the elements of the U.S. pavilion that has generated positive buzz is the Student Ambassador Program. One hundred and seventy American students fluent in Mandarin are helping to staff the pavilion, and impressing the Chinese with their language skills and interest in the East. I had a chance to talk with a couple of them from Washington state and they seemed to be the essence of the bright, clean-cut youths American was once known for sending abroad to engage with people overseas.
Foreigners often note the gap between our people and our policies. They dislike the empire but like the Americans. The Ambassadors program makes a positive impression about our people, and it's flattering to the Chinese that so many young Americans are learning Mandarin. Although it doesn't always take much to impress: One Chinese man couldn't get over the fact the my companion and I were using chopsticks. Still, the Millennial Generation is know for its interest in public service, and the program is an exemplar of that ethic.
Connecting at the human level is much of what the USA Pavilion is about. The pavilion features three film elements. The first, while you wait for the first of two shows, is man-on-the-street film clips of everyday Americans and a few celebrities trying to greet the Chinese in Mandarin ("ni hao!"). Watching us mangle, or master, a basic greeting is funny and the Chinese seem delighted by it. The most visible celeb is NBA star Kobe Bryant, who is not there by accident. According to pavilion staff, he is the most recognized U.S. sports figure in China, and this was confirmed to me when a young Chinese World Cup fan I was talking later allowed that she loved the LA Lakers and swooned at the mere thought of Kobe's cuteness.
Martin Alintuck, the pavilion's new CEO, says that research showed that the Chinese didn't view Americans as very friendly and that one of the goals of the pavilion is to, in effect, warm-and-fuzzy us up. Instead of strutting our technological, scientific, and cultural achievements, the U.S. Pavilion is trying taking a page from the "Seattle nice" playbook by offering an antidote to the Hollywood image of the hard-charging (and likely armed) image of Americans. Kobe's cute is in, action heroes are out.
The next film features greetings from President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, then goes on to talk about kids and education. School children show us their drawings of ideas for the future, and (mostly) spokespeople from pavilion sponsors like Chevron and GE tells us about the importance of education (the University of Washington's departing President Mark Emmert also has a cameo).
The film's incorporation of funders is tacky, but worse is that the film is utterly forgettable blather. The message seems to be: "America, it's for the kids." Most of the sponsor spokespeople are women, the idea being, I suppose, that we're a nation of corporate soccer moms. Alintuck says the pavilion's overall approach to winning Chinese hearts and minds is "subtle," but this film is as unmemorable as your average magazine advertorial.
The final, "4-D" film experience is much better. It's a wordless film called Garden, that tells the story of a young American city girl who dreams of transforming a vacant inner-city lot into a lush neighborhood garden, and by dint of will and vision, she inspires and recruits her reluctant neighbors to join the cause. This directly addresses the "Better City, Better Life" theme of the fair, and its message is schmaltzy and inspiring. It is a very American kind of story: the individual can make a difference by energizing fellow citizens, by making dreams a reality.
The U.S. pavilion isn't the only one to offer a message of dreams, hope and kids. A stunning film in the South Korean Pavilion does something similar, keying off a group of flying teenage superheroes who grant wishes, and how they help a little disabled girl who wants to bring color and happiness to the big city. But where the Korean film seems to glorify magical thinking, the USA's Garden shows that vision, hard work, and making small changes can inspire others and prove transformative, which is a bit of an interesting cultural role reversal when you think about the image of Korean immigrants in America as the hardworking, practical ones and your average Americans as lazy lottery ticket buyers who watch American Idol and yearn for the big score.
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