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Alex Pao - USA Pavilion Student Ambassador

USA Pavilion Student Ambassador from the University of California-Los Angeles, now serving at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo
September 1, 2010

A Bridge from Expo to the Conscious World               September 1, 2010

At the time of this writing, it’s been a month since my service at the USA Pavilion ended. Only now do I feel like I’m starting to wake up from that long four-month waking dream – a fantasy world in which children and their gardens are metaphorical representations of an ideal world, where in a sea of Haibao’s we find ourselves oblivious to the rest of our problems at home and around the world. That brief moment of clarity you get each morning after a long night of dreaming is what I wish to capture here, before it is forever lost to the recesses of my unconscious mind.

Memories, dreams, reflections; the blur of sights and sounds destined to exist solely in the moment, the souls that pass in-and-out of our lives without providing adequate time for us to contemplate their significance. The best way I can characterize my time in Shanghai is that I lived almost completely in the present forced to deal with each situation as it presented itself, going along with the constant flow of events and people flooding into my perception.

As such, I often had no time to ponder how awesome it was to meet some of these people that came my way. I get to shake Al Gore’s hand? Sweet, but I wonder if I will have to come to work earlier. Photo opportunity with Secretary Gary Locke? Done, now back to my dinner. Chance to meet Secretary Hillary Clinton? Already glimpsed her in the morning, got other places to go. These brief encounters were captured in photos that are largely destined to be show-off pieces of what should be luminous encounters, instead blurred by colorless and trivial details because they had no real significance to us.

At the time it happened, I never would have thought that the one photo I now treasure most deeply would be with a middle-aged man from the suburbs of Michigan, a man I was largely not familiar with before meeting him. That man is Professor Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute and one of the few people in the world doing anything about resolving extreme poverty. As such, he is on the short list of my real-life heroes.


Having started graduate studies in public health upon returning to the States, I am quickly thrust from that dream world where we speak optimistically about people coming together from different countries to solve global issues, to now finding myself actually working on these solutions that governments have been inconsistent in fulfilling. In the sugar-sweet film presentation at the USA Pavilion, there is this kid who is clearly trying to communicate his great hope for a better world, but you can sense the hesitation in his voice as he proclaims “anything is possible if you…believe it?” And it is that very hesitation that I think taints everything happening at the World Expo: we want to believe that our service during this world fair will truly bring people together to find solutions to the complex obstacles our world faces, but we’re not sure how our actions in that fantasy land will translate to the real world, where people living in destitute conditions cannot even fathom the idea of a World Expo.

Upon Jeffrey Sach’s arrival at our Pavilion I pondered how this altruistic man, someone who has traveled to hundreds of countries and has done more to eliminate disparities between countries than any organizer of this Expo, would respond to this grand event that is probably making more promises than it can fulfill. His attitude towards our Pavilion was that of lively curiosity, completely absent of any jadedness towards the presentation, seemingly emboldened by the whole of the Pavilion.  At the time his response tickled my own curiosity as I wondered why such a traveled man wasn’t turned off by all of this glamour and glitz, but the rush of Shanghai and Expo lifestyle seized me again and I’ve been unable to reflect on it until now.

That one fragment from my venture through the dream world, this little picture capturing our shared myriad of emotions, tells a more colorful story than any of the pictures I took during Expo with politicians, athletes, pop stars, or even Miss USA. That one picture also holds, I believe, the key to link my adventure in that fantasyland with my exploits in the real world. As seemingly sugarcoated as the Expo is, it still provides the very spirit and optimism we should never lose even as we trek back into the seemingly more bleak real world. For Jeffrey Sachs, who was so grounded through his travels and his work and had proper insight into how the real world worked, seeing the Expo didn’t disillusion him from the reality. It probably reminded him of the same optimism and innocent zeal that probably inspired him to pursue his selfless career, and that same child-like curiosity leaked out as he explored the USA Pavilion.  His dream world, in essence, is no different from his real world because he has substantially explored and understood both, seeing the ways in which the two can be connected.

A psychologist at heart, I yearn to express that it’s something like creating that pursued link between the conscious and unconscious parts of our minds that will lead to personal liberation. That personal connection we’re all trying to make right now linking our Expo experience with our lives back home is what will hopefully lead to the actual global connection we envisioned in our dream worlds. At Expo I worked with some of the most innovative and intelligent minds, people who were far superior economists than I’ll ever be who will face the burden of solving our international financial crisis, people who came from rigorous science backgrounds who will be tested by medical and environmental mysteries. Visitors and workers alike who were exposed to the fantasyland at Expo will have to take that glimpse of utopia and use it as the fuel of passion to drive towards our moral obligations, not away from them.

And then there is China itself, which holds the responsibility of bridging some gaps of its own – reducing disparities between the newly wealthy urbanites and rural citizens still living in third world conditions, finding that careful balance between antiquity and modernity, and reaching out to disadvantaged countries if it wants to truly emerge as a participant in the global community. This Expo they’ve created, viewed from some angles as an apparent monster complete with 8 hour lines and pompous presentations, should also be fairly viewed for the chance they’ve given little-known countries to tell their story. It is this connection that Professor Sachs intrinsically realized: between the fantastical and the practical, the haves and the have-nots, the Expo and the Real World, we should all be trying to discover this connection both from within and outside ourselves.