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Heather Johnson - USA Pavilion Student Ambassador

USA Pavilion Student Ambassador from Clemson University, now serving at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo
August 31, 2010

A Visit Not Soon Forgotten                                                August 31, 2010

I learned Chinese as a way to help myself, to compliment my major of Economics, to allow me to travel through China with ease, to bulk up my resume, but it was not until this summer that I realized the joy I could bring others with my language skills. My trip to visit some great kids in the Shanghai Children’s Medical Center showed me this.

Is there any way to melt a heart faster than to see the bright, cheerful faces of over a dozen Chinese kids, as they ignore their IVs and their parents' worried faces, and struggle to sit up and see these new strange Americans? Americans that also happen to be speaking their language! One little girl insisted that she change quickly into her princess dress to greet these new visitors, thrusting an arm through the dress as she craned her neck to stare at us. Incredibly, these children often spoke pretty impressive English for their ages, from 3 to 8 years old, and when we said 你好!they were quick to respond with Hello, how are you?

What was equally as impressive was that, despite their often weakened state, they took great efforts to sit up and talk to us. One small girl, lay so weak in her bed it was all she could do to look up at us, but we sat and talked to her, and her mother told us she could tell how happy it made her little girl. This was deeply touching, who knew Elmo and a few 20 year old American students could really make these kids day? I felt honored that I could be given the chance to interact with the kids, give them a few toys, ask them about their interests, and tell them a little about the Expo. I hope we left a bit of a positive impression of the USA, for these kind children, as sick as they were and yet still so genuinely sweet and welcoming, left a profound and long lasting impression on me.

Better City, Better Life                                                              May 28, 2010 

What do about a million touch screens, movies, short films, miles of text and long lines translate into? Well, showing the world how we can make a “Better city, Better life” of course! And I’ve gotta admit, the pavilions I have been to have done incredible jobs of illustrating just this. Germany’s pavilion was especially impressive, with its models of whole communities that exist on solely solar power and their overwhelming urban garden culture. Germany had all the bells and whistles, the expensive technology, the radiant swinging tech ball of our future, a huge staff, snazzy uniforms. Everywhere I looked I was hit with a wave of information about how just on top of it Germany really is when it comes to all the latest power and world saving technology, they are the greenest of the green, truly reaching for that “Better City, Better Life.”

But yesterday I decided to go over and see my Namibian friends at their pavilion. Honestly, it’s not even really a pavilion; it’s just a booth in one big building called the African-Joint Pavilion. Through various random chance meetings on the bus and at the Expo, our friendship started and was helped along by their last Friday invitation to a cookout (with free organic Namibian steak!). They are some of the sweetest, most hospitable people I have ever met in my life. At their pavilion, my friend and I were led on a detailed tour by our Namibian friend about the different ethnicities and lifestyles that make up Namibia. I had done a bit of research before I came, and couldn’t help feel a little (ok, a lot) guilty to see that the country that had given me so much free steak and wine a couple nights before, was one of the poorest country’s in the world, with a 15% AIDS rate and approximately half of the population living underneath the international poverty line of $1.25 a day. Yet, this only made it…about 100 times more inspiring when Solly showed me their “Better City, Better life” efforts. Solly carefully explained to me that in Namibia they have many deserts and very little rainfall, and so sometimes trees are very hard to come by. So, to counter this, Namibians have started building houses literally out of sand: they make a wooden frame and fill it in with sand bags, then cover that with concrete, which gives the house great ventilation and insulation, and cuts down on timber use.

But what does this all mean? It means for the first time in their lives, people that have never had a home before… have a home. Wow. That was amazing to me. Just hearing Solly explaining in that soft, lilting voice that they all seem to have, “See? We have so much sand, we decided we had to find a way to use it, and so we created this kind of project. We haven’t been doing it for long, a few months, but it has been going so well, what do you think…..?” Really, Germany’s pavilion is impressive, ok, Germany, you win. You’re the best at what you do, but the most inspiring? The one that left me with this warm feeling of, well yes, I think I might believe in this “better city, better life” junk after all. Sorry, that by far, goes to Namibia.

America's Best Dance Crew                                                       May 15, 2010

Hey, how do you keep over a thousand people waiting outside in the hot sun from killing each other (maybe trying to pick up a stanchion and swing it at another person who cut in line, in the process knocking numerous people in the head and stepping on one older woman’s foot….of course a totally made up story here…..). It’s easy. Start a United States Pavilion Dance Crew! Buy a pair of speakers from Wal-Mart, make a playlist full of classics like Thriller, Baby by Justin Bieber, Soldier Boy, and Single Ladies, put together carefully constructed and choreographed dances full of booty poppin’, twist, turn, shake it girrrrl fun, and BAM! You’ve got a thousand very happy Chinese guests smiling and taking your picture, and for a few short minutes…..

You feel like a total rock star.

So yep, this is the latest USAP innovation. We might hit the big screen, we’ve been taking some calls, talking to managers, I quit my day job. Nah, but it certainly has been shaking up the queue line. My absolute favorite is when we get the kids in the crowd involved. Today, there was the absolute quintessential adorable little Chinese girl, probably about 2, who could dance like I’ve never seen, and I haven’t even gotten to how well she could sing the ABCs. What talent. We all joined around her in the middle and (ironically) danced to Baby: “Like baby, baby, baby, ooooh, thought you’d always be mine” This may have been one of my best moments yet at the Pavilion, the whole crowd clapping in unison, and this little radiant Chinese girl waving her tiny fists, with us in a circle around her singing and clapping and dancing, I wanted to take her and show her and the crowd to all our critics and say: “ See, see how we’re making them smile? The USA Pavilion really isn’t so bad after all, don’t you think?”

Anyways, I wish I could stay and write more, but my roommate Becca and I are working night and day on some new routines (currently “Single Ladies”), and we have some major choreographing to do.

Hu is Coming to Town?                                                            April 30, 2010

I feel like I’m about to tell the biggest “no big deal” of my life right now. This might quite possibly be it. Here we go:

"Hey, no big deal, I only met THE PRESIDENT OF CHINA TODAY!"

I’m still in shock. Seriously. I mean, who can say that on their first trip to China, THEY ALSO MET THE PRESIDENT?  Ok, I’ll cut back on the caps lock now, this is just the only way I feel I can describe how amazing this was. How absolutely rare and unbelievable this is. Just in case some of you don’t understand this, not many people will ever have the chance to meet the PRESIDENT of China, Hu Jintao, and I for one, intend to treat it as a definite caps lock worthy subject.

Let me explain how this went down. Several SAs got an email last night at around midnight saying a very high level VIP would be coming into the Pavilion tomorrow and that we would need to wear our uniforms. The phone calls and texting started, all of us wondering who could be so high level that we were receiving email after email past midnight about uniforms, and times, and details of the next day, and then….someone let it slip: Hu Jintao. One Student Ambassador had gone out of town to see his girlfriend’s family and he took the slow train the whole night, just to make it back to get the chance to meet the President. People were freaking out.

After preparing, and practicing, and rehearsing the entire morning till 1pm – standing up, sitting down, clap here, don’t do do that, if you do this  you might be jumped by 30 security guards and walk the same way again – we finally sat in the theater as instructed, 25 Ambassadors with shaky palms, and starched uniforms, perched in 3 rows, name tags on, smiles frozen, and waited 15 long minutes for the first sight of the entourage coming through the door.

After several, heart-stopping, lose-your-breath false starts that were caused by rather thoughtless staff members, we finally saw, or rather gaped at the huge, black mob of suited Chinese women and men that flooded through the doors like a monsoon in March. And the lights. The lights were blinding, the media swarming us with their loud, flashing bulbs and cameras the size of the people carrying them, turning this way and that, down our rows, inches from our faces, and we just kept clapping and clapping, my face frozen into a (God knows what type of) smile, until he was right there. Right smack dab in the middle of the tens of translators and handlers, and politicians, standing there with our Commissioner General.

One of the most powerful men in the whole world, and he was smiling and nodding at us and reaching out his hand to shake my hand! And then on down the line, and the whole time I can’t stop smiling or doing some weird little nodding thing with my head, up and down, up and down. The moment was so surreal. I need to just click, save that one moment in my mind, not a picture but rather that rush of dream-like feeling, where everything became slowed down to that one, single moment. Too dramatic? Well that’s how it felt.

Everywhere I went today, I wanted to tell people, “Hey I met your president!” No big deal, he shook my hand, I’m sorry, yes you heard that right. Your president, the president of the entire country of China, right, right a man that rules over a fifth of the world’s population. Well, he shook my hand, oh right, I already mentioned that. Umm…so anyways, how much is this mango?