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Katherine Aizpuru - USA Pavilion Student Ambassador

USA Pavilion Student Ambassador from Swarthmore College, now serving at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo
August 10, 2010

Wujing Clan Ain't Nothin to Mess With                                August 10, 2010

One of the many forms of security that we have here protecting us at the World Expo is China's wujing, or armed  police. They aren't the regular police or the regular security (bao an), but they aren't the military, either. Wikipedia describes them as the People's Armed Police, a "paramilitary force primarily responsible for civilian policing and fire rescue duties in the People's Republic of China, as well as provide support to PLA during wartime." They wear militaristic olive green uniforms and stiff, hard hats. They stand very tall, often remaining standing perfectly still for hours at a time, watching the crowds. When they walk, their march is straight, arms swinging at their sides, and when two or more of them march they are perfectly in sync. When many of them march together they look like a marching military force. To be perfectly frank, I find them extremely intimidating and scary, and they are a constant reminder that we are in a police state.

But, the other side of that is that each individual wujing is just another person like you or me. A lot of them are really young - my age or so, and I've even seen some that look younger. Once when I was working at fast access a wujing came over and just started talking to me and it was really fun to just hang out a little bit.

Anyway, today one of the two guys I share a break with, Ben, made friends with a wujing, who invited him to lunch. Ben said that Chris (the other guy) and I could come too, so when the wujing (unfortunately I never caught his name - I was too intimidated to ask!!!) got on break at 11:30 we went down to meet him at fast access and go to lunch.

He led us at a brisk pace through the expo. At one point another wujing came up and fell into step with him, and it was surprising to me to see how quickly they fell into their matching march. After a longish walk we arrived at what could best be described as a sort of barracks. There was a wujing standing guard at the door, and our wujing saluted him, and we went inside. The inside was barren for the most part, with some chairs and a few couches and some wujings lounging around. One of them looked really surprised to see us and said "HELLO!!!" I heard some others talking about the "laowais" (foreigners) (us) that had just come in. Our wujing brought us over to meet his boss or higher up, and none of us really knew what to do (shake his hand? salute?) so we just kind of nodded vigorously and thanked them multiple times for having us.

We were led upstairs, up a metal staircase in the middle of the building. Directly in front of us just before we went up the stairs was a group of wujing about to leave the building together. They were standing in perfect formation, straight and tall, arms at their sides. As we began to go up the stairs I heard the wujing at the front of the group say "HUP!" and they all marched out as one.

At the top of the stairs was a large empty room, with a life size poster of President Hu Jintao, accompanied by a quote from him about the expo, hanging from the front wall. Adorning the side and back walls were large nationalistic and militaristic slogans...I couldn't read every single character, but I got enough to understand the general gist of them. There were multiple rows of seats throughout the room where various wujing napped, sat, and just hung out. A few seats had random hats thrown on them or other articles of clothing. There was a makeshift table near the center of the room, and multiple wujings scurried about us to make it into a place for us to eat. They brought three folding chairs, three sets of chopsticks, and three of the meals that they eat themselves, which are served in metal trays with metal lids. Our wujing for some reason didn't eat with us but made sure that we were comfortable and enjoying our food - he didn't explain why he wasn't eating with us.

The food was good and actually a lot better than what they serve in the staff cafeteria at the expo. It included the best cooked chicken I've ever eaten in China - a juicy drumstick with meat that just fell off the bone, rice, and three vegetable side dishes. One wujing proudly distributed an apple to each of us, and another brought bottles of cold water. A third brought over a jar of salty pickled vegetables that can be eaten with your rice, and another brought napkins. Our wujing asked us multiple times if we liked the food and we thanked him profusely and told him it was delicious (it was).

When we were finished he wouldn't let us bus our own trays and instead led us downstairs again, where we again thanked his boss multiple times. The higher up wujing said he was very happy to have us and went to a large box in the corner. The box turned out to be a freezer of ice creams, and although we protested, he insisted that we each take an ice pop with us for the road. And with that we were on our way back to work at the USAP.

I don't want to make toooo big a deal of it but it was sort of a surreal experience and one that I don't think too many foreigners in China have had. On the one hand, the whole barracks really felt like "the belly of the beast" and I was intimidated and on guard the whole time. Chris mentioned that he was worried it would be taken as a "grave insult" if he didn't finish his food and there was really something to that. But on the other hand, we got so many goofy stares, and everyone went to such trouble to make sure that we were fed and comfortable - it felt like I could have been anywhere in China, with just any regular folks.

My roommate mentioned that this is probably the kind of thing that China really wants from the US - in her words, they are unapologetic about what they are, and they just want to be treated with respect. Of course China has a  human rights problem and there is no way I would ever want a wujing-like force in the USA. But at the same time, I came here to try to better my understanding of China, not to throw around my judgments and be critical. And frankly, I'm glad that we have them to protect us at USAP, because during the soft opening (a sort of pre-opening to the expo) they weren't there, and at one point an angry mob rushed the pavilion and it was dangerous for all the workers. And finally, although the wujing as an entity frighten me, this was a healthy reminder that each individual wujing is just that, an individual, and most (many? some?) of them are just regular old people, just like you or me.

First Two Days of Work                                                        August 2, 2010

Okay!! Today I finished up my second day of work. So far, so good!!

The way our schedule works, we work 2 days in the afternoon (3:30-10:30), 2 days in the morning shift (8:30-3:45) and two days off. This ensures that the pavilion is open 7 days a week, and that we get a nice long weekend - two full days off and two half days. Today was my second pm shift of the four day stretch.

Yesterday and today in the morning things have been pretty chill - sleeping in a bit, going to the gym with Karyn, and grabbing some food before getting ready to go to work. Today I went swimming for the first time in our gym's pool. Swimming is HARD!! I had forgotten how good of a workout it is. The only thing is I get sooo bored because I don't have any music or anything...I need to look up some swim team workouts online so that I don't just get super bored swimming laps.

Anyway, after swimming today Karyn and I went to go grab lunch in one of the fanguans (restaurants) around here. I've written about them a lot but they are just so good... the one we went to specializes in fresh noodles, so I got the simple dish I love: niurou lamian, or beef with noodles. It's a big bowl (I can't finish it) of beef pieces, with fresh-made noodles, in a yummy broth with some green leafys like cilantro. There is a small jar of spicy paste on each table so I usually add a few spoonfuls to add a bit of zing. Oh and did I mention it only costs 6 kuai? (less than a dollar) :) I love watching the chef pull the noodles...he stretches the dough, slaps it on the table, and all of a sudden is holding noodles! I don't understand how he does it. What's also interesting about this restaurant is that the people who own it are Muslim - so they don't serve pork. They are one of China's many racial minorities, so they are allowed to have more than one child, and the children are not required to attend school.

Anyway I got to work at 3:30 and started my rotation. For every 4 day stretch, we rotate between 3 positions and a break, and on each day we rotate every 45 minutes. So for this 4 day stretch I am working Act 1, Fast Access and Act 3.

I started off work today in Act 1, which is sometimes fun and sometimes frustrating. What's fun is, of course, working the crowd. At the end of the day today I had a great time chatting it up with people in Act 1 because they were all (for some reason) in a good mood and would interact with me. So I could shout into the microphone: "Jin tian re bu re??" (is today hot or not hot?) and they shouted back: "RE!!!" (hot!) Then I asked if they were "lei bu lei??" (tired or not) and they shouted back that they were TIRED!!! and then I said they could "xiuxi", or rest, and everyone laughed. I told them they would get to see ao-ba-ma, and did they know who he was and like him? And they shouted back that he is the president of the US and that they do like him. :)

What is frustrating is that often after the movie ends in Act 1, the guests take a long time to leave through the doors to get to act 2. I mean, there about 550 of them at a time so I understand why it takes a while, but it's usually compounded by people wanting to take pictures with me. Once one person gets to have a picture, 10 more want to have a picture, and at some point I end up having to be a bit firm with them and say that they really need to leave now so I can close the door. Also, sometimes the people will come in from the first part of our show, Overture, before the first group has left, and in their enthusiasm they will literally sprint across the auditorium to get to the next phase, missing Act 1 altogether.

I also had a good time in Act 3 today, playing the Johnson and Johnson game (described last time I blogged). I love to stand on a chair and shout into the microphone and explain how to play the game. Also, I love giving away the little prizes. They are cute little keychain type things that you can stick onto your cell phone, called Stevies. What really warms my heart is to see small children staring at my sack of Stevies, eyes glowing with excitement and want, while their parents type the required text message as fast as they can. Then when they receive the response text and I give them the toy, the children look SOOOOO happy!! It's adorable.

What's frustrating in act 3 is when people pester me to give them 2 toys or 3 toys. Often they will trick me into giving them extra Stevies by showing me their response message again, and since I am giving away literally hundreds of Stevies at a time I can't remember exactly who has already received theirs. It is annoying and it is very RUDE :P

Fast Access was my third post today. I like Fast Access because I get to meet some interesting folks that come through. Like today, the Commissioner General for the United Arab Emirates pavilion brought his entire family through. He was so grateful for me for letting him through Fast Access (like I wouldn't let him in anyway...for context, the commissioner general of the USAP is the 2nd ranked American in Shanghai right now so he is pretty high up!) that he gave me one of his pavilion's pins.

Pins are a big part of the Expo and I'll probably write a post on them later, but suffice it to say for now that each pavilion has pins associated with it and people collect them and wear them on their expo credential lanyards. I already have several pins, and in addition to the UAE pin I have also acquired a Belarus pin and a South Africa pin just by working in Fast Access. No, they are not bribes, but often AFTER I let people in they are so happy that they give me pins (I guess they don't realize that USAP just lets them in anyway). One girl also gave me a pin from the League of Arab States pavilion because I talked to her after Act 1. After seeing the part of the film that describes Habitat for Humanity, she couldn't believe that Americans just build houses for eachother, and that everyday average people like her could join such an organization and build houses for other people. Fun fact: Habitat also runs in China! I didn't realize this until watching the Act 1 video.

My fourth rotation is break, and my breaks today were uneventful, but yesterday I had a fine time during break. I went to the staff cafeteria alone, planning to eat alone and just relax. But in line for my noodles, I started talking to these two guys from the Coca Cola pavilion. They were super friendly, I think they said they were from Anhui province, a rural province not very far from Shanghai. We talked for about 15 minutes while we waited, and then after I got my food I figured that was it and I went to go sit alone. But they came and sat by me and talked to me for all of our dinner!! I exchanged phone numbers with one, Qian Tianle, and we texted several times through the rest of the day - in Chinese! He also came to see me at the pavilion during my second break. :) I am so happy that although my Chinese is by no means fluent and there are a LOT of things I don't understand, I have the language skills to make friends with someone and make a connection with them! I feel so much more confident in my abilities this time around...I feel like I've made more connections with Chinese people in the last week and a half than I did for most of my semester the last time I was here. My roommate made an astute observation that it probably helps to be at the Expo because that gives us a starting point for conversation - oh, I work here, you do too. I think this is a really good point - it was hard for me to just go up to random Chinese people the last time I was here, but now they're all around me all the time, and we have something to talk about, and I feel confident enough to approach them and talk about it.

Anyway, I am soooo tired and I have to get up early for AM shift tomorrow. more to come later!