by Ben Schenkel:
Over my four months in Shanghai—living, toiling, and touring inside the 2010 World Expo—I acquired quite the stockpile of trinkets from its pavilions. With an armband from Angola, chocolate Smurfs from Belgium, and propaganda booklets from North Korea, I was pleased with my souvenir collection until the last week. That’s when I realized the traditional keepsake of any Expo was missing from my haul: an Expo passport. Coveted by the visitors for resale potential as well as nostalgia, their telltale stamps correspond to every pavilion, nearly 400 in all. Without those colorful imprimaturs, I feared I would leave the Expo with no proof of the factoids and friendships I had obtained.
To call Expo 2010 a self-enclosed, miniature world would do a disservice to its colossal scope. The fairground straddled a riverbank and outstripped the acreage of several participating countries. Despite my on-site lodgings in the Expo Village, I had to allow a full hour for each commute to the USA Pavilion. I was too busy volunteering there as a bilingual Student Ambassador to venture forth to the neighboring pavilions, not even for an in-and-out stamping.
As I eventually overcame my Expo agoraphobia, though, I began to branch out and learn more about the other pavilions. For my part, I had known since my training that the USA Pavilion was wholly dependent on private sponsorship. But sensitive as I was to the logos littering the USA Pavilion, I was still taken aback by the pervasiveness of branding throughout all of the Expo, a quarter of whose pavilions belonged to non-governmental entities.
Dashing through the national pavilions on my quest for stamps, I grew disenchanted by the salesmanship on display—as if the purpose of Expo were not transmitting knowledge, but pandering to would-be consumers. Apart from the rare pavilions that thoughtfully engaged with the official theme of “Better City, Better Life,” layering it with a country-specific value like Denmark’s on cycling and Israel’s on solar power, I trudged through dozens that amounted to little more than playgrounds or bazaars.
Pavilions dissatisfied me for several reasons. There were those with a kitchen-sink approach and the attendant clutter, like Pakistan, which devoted an entire corridor to Mao’s supposed love of their homegrown mangoes. Others advocated an irrelevant message: Bolivia’s essentially pleaded to legalize the coca plant. Still more were built around flashy centerpieces and little else: Latvia, for example, boasted a wind tunnel. This Expo, the first to be hosted in a developing country, was less a kaleidoscope of futuristic ambitions than a shrine to questionable points of national pride.
Whereas I was disappointed by the scarcity of coherent signs and impressive inventions—after all, the 1904 and 1939 World’s Fairs gave us the ice cream cone and television, respectively—the visitors to Expo were more concerned with navigation, hydration, and self-preservation. As Expo 2010 wore on, attendance surged along with the unbearable temperatures: With 73 million visitors overall, predominantly from the Chinese hinterland, it has earned posthumous hype as the biggest peaceful event in human history. Although this superlative excludes combat zones, the Expo certainly felt like one. I had to be on constant guard against line-jumping, parasol-poking, and vicious elbowing. Picnics broke out in the middle of exhibits, listless burnouts napped atop benches, and loudspeakers clamored about missing children. The popular pavilions, like Japan and Saudi Arabia, had waits averaging six hours. Incivility ran rampant.
Even so, I am reluctant to agree with the frequent condemnation of the Expo as a $50-billion publicity stunt, for it did bring its share of benefits. Contrasted with the Expo’s six-month lifespan, the revitalization it wrought on Shanghai’s infrastructure will be long lasting, whether through the retouched riverfront or the six-fold multiplication of subway lines. And unlike the pavilions, Shanghai’s resurgence as an international city isn’t at risk of being dismantled.
Still, the visitors I greeted at the USA Pavilion seemed too preoccupied—with mementos like the passports, with gimmicks like “4-D” special effects, and with merely getting through the door—to engage with the newly sparkling city, let alone with other worldviews. For many visitors, the Expo passports they took home commemorated little more than a trip to pure spectacle. Which is a shame, given the Expo’s potential to showcase the world to a populace that can rarely afford to use their real passports.
Ben Schenkel ’12 is an Ethics, Politics, and Economics and International Studies double major in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at email@example.com.