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Mary Anne McElroy - USA Pavilion Student Ambassador

USA National Pavilion Student Ambassador from Loyola University in Maryland, now serving at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo
October 25, 2010

The Most Important Day of Expo                                     October 25, 2010

A favorite topic of conversation at the World Expo from visitors and staff alike is the great journeys people have taken to participate in the largest peaceful international gathering in history. Working at the USA pavilion, many visitors me how they have come from all over China on overnight buses or trains and international visitors tell me about their long plane rides to visit a country and culture totally unlike their own. I hear about how their excitement carried them through the journey and made the hours pass quickly. What I never get to hear about is what happens after they leave the Expo gates for the last time to go back home.

Recently I found myself a first-hand witness to what a typical journey home is like for Chinese Expo visitors. A fellow USA Pavilion staff member and myself braved the twelve hour long train ride up to Beijing to do some sight-seeing and found ourselves with dozens of Expo visitors returning home. The train passengers were weary World Expo travelers- marked by a characteristic post-Expo deep-sleep, with their feet up on chairs and a Haibao stuffed-animal in hand. It is easy to understand their tiredness- they had just gone around the world in two days or less. Children lay on their parent’s laps while older visitors looked through their passport stamps.

We shared our bunk with an adorable and exuberant three-or-so year old boy with his clearly fatigued father. While the boy jumped up and down with his own Haibao toy, his father looked through the pictures they had taken at Expo on his digital camera. Throughout the course of our twelve hour trip we heard the father and son talk about what they had seen and the pavilions they had visited. They boy could not have been happier with the World that they had been to and the father must have been proud to be able to give his son the experience, while seeing the sights at the same time himself. When the train arrived in Beijing, they collected their souvenirs and headed off home, perhaps to spread their excitement to their family.

Seeing the little boy and his father reminded me of the journey I too will make at the end of Expo. With less than ten days left- there is no mistaking the fact that the 2010 Shanghai World Expo is in its last leg and soon all of us, visitors and staff, alike will have to pack up and leave. My own journey will be in similar length as the two Beijingers, but will cross oceans rather than the Chinese countryside on its way to New York.  Just like the little boy and his father, I will occupy my self on the plane ride home going through pictures of the event and reflecting on the incredible time that I have spent here. Rather than going through passport stamps I will look over the pins I have traded. I will think about the mixing fragrances of various pavilion cuisines, the beautiful embroidered costumes, the long lines, the other-worldly architecture and, most importantly, about the people I have met.  As soon as I walk through my front door, I will begin to tell my family and friends back home in the United States about the great experiences of World Expo.

Although much emphasis is placed on the long and arduous journeys to Expo, seeing the boy and his father on the train made me realize that the more important journey is the one we will take home. Whether it is by Metro line 7, by bus, train boat or plane and whether home is Beijing, Shanghai, New York or elsewhere, the real magic of Expo begins when people go home to their families and friends and talk about their international experiences. Instead of being sad for a great thing coming to a close, we should start getting ready for our most important job of all- putting what we learned from Expo into action for peace. What better place is there to start this dialogue but in the home?

Expo brings us closer for a short period of time so that we can imagine a world without distance to separate us. It is a place where we can easily make a friend and build life long connections- where we can realize that foreign does not mean hostile and that different backgrounds do not necessarily mean different ideas. Unfortunately we do not live in a world with borders. There are mountains to cross and vast oceans and even by plane the East and West are still hours away from each other. The challenge is to see if we can maintain these contacts despite distance. If the visitors who come to Expo can tell their stories in their homes, start to breakdown prejudices and fears of the foreigner perhaps we can maintain the closeness of World community for months and years to come.

We also have different stories of Expo to tell. As a staff member I will bring back stories of meeting Expo workers from all over the World and of living in the Expo village, a truly international community. As an American, I will tell my family and friends about interest among the Chinese people for our country and about the friendliness I encountered. As an Expo visitor, I will talk about the technologies I witnesses in the various pavilions. An Expo visitor from Shaanxi province might tell of meeting a foreigner for the first time, of hearing an American speak Chinese, of trying Peruvian food for the first time or of seeing replicas of great Italian landmarks.  One great thing is that our communal experience means that some of our stories will be the same.  It is truly mind-blowing to think that a twenty-two year old girl in Manhattan could be telling the same story about the World Expo to her parents as a three-year old boy from Beijing is telling his parents.

Witnessing the boy and his father on the train ride home has helped me to think about the end of Expo in a different way. October 31st is the most important day of Expo because it is the day when the real work begins and where the real difference is made. Albeit not as physically exhausting, our jobs after Expo are just as challenging- to tell the stories of Expo and to change minds. When my plane leaves Pudong International Airport and I begin to doze off to sleep, I will take comfort in the fact that the memories I bring with me might actually mean something to peace in our World and that the pictures I will show to family and friends in the States will amaze. Just as the boy and his father gathered their Expo souvenirs upon returning to Beijing, I will gather my memories and souvenirs upon landing in New York, ready to begin the real work of Expo.

A Day at the Jiangsu Pavilion: Reflections of the USAP? China Provincial Pavilions Exchange Program                                                August 30, 2010

If you want to really learn about a place without going there, the best way is to work in its pavilion. Walking into the Jiangsu Province Pavilion for yesterday’s USAP/China Provincial Exchange program, I knew little about Jiangsu other than what I’d seen in the beautiful water town Suzhou and the historical Nanjing. Walking out of the pavilion after a day of representing the province’s rich culture and history, I feel almost like an expert in Jiangsu’s special arts, landmarks, and more importantly the character of its people.

Student Ambassador Michael and I began the day with a special tour of the pavilion given by our new coworkers. Our tour was much more detailed than your average pavilion tour, even your average VIP tour, one of the benefits of the exchange program. The pavilion is one of the most dynamic of the provincial pavilions, showcasing Jiangsu traditional opera, arts, its many parks, and also its modern solar and biomedical technology. A great feature of the pavilion is the “Tree of Information”, which allows you to watch live footage of Nanjing and other famous towns in Jiangsu. Calling a number on the computer screen actually controls the decorative light switches on Nanjing’s gate.  It is very addicting, therefore I would advise to cut out while you can. The pavilion also has several museum pieces, such as an old a comb set and other decorative items, that were featured in previous World Expos

Our job was to stand next to a beautiful, large embroidered depiction of a garden in Suzhou, to introduce it and then to answer questions about it from the visitors. Sally, whose job we were taking over, explained to us the significance of the beautiful artwork and then stepped back to let us take over. Sally was very patient with me as I mispronounced the Chinese words for “embroidery” and “multidimensional” time after time, but after a while her help really paid off and I caught on. By the end I felt like I had spent the day in Chinese class!

Lunch at the Chinese Provincial Pavilion cafeteria was also a learning experience. The staff members from different pavilions were all in various traditional costumes, which gave us the chance to inquire further about different Chinese minority groups. It was kind of funny to see some of them waiting in line for food in beautiful silk embroidered Qi Paos! After lunch, we went on a special tour of the Shanghai, Zhezhiang and Tibet pavilions. In the Tibetan Pavilion we saw an artist painting a traditional Buddhist  mural, in Zhezhiang we sipped tea from Hangzhou, and in Shanghai we took a thrilling ride which made me very proud to be a temporary, if only for three months, “Shanghai-Ren”.

When it was time for us to go, I was happy to exchange numbers with my new Jiangsu friends and even a pin here and there. My knowledge of Jiangsu Province is much broader than what it was the day before, and I can’t wait for some days off to go visit the actual province. Working at the pavilion gave me a chance to see the pavilion from a side most people wouldn’t and taught me a lot about how other pavilions work.  I would definitely recommend the exchange program to my USAP colleagues as well as a visit to the Jiangsu

My Rude Awakening to the World of Haibaos and Pins   August 6, 2010

Here I am settled into Shanghai and ready to report on my first week as a Student Ambassador - and what a week it was. It was a week of Hai Baos, endless repetition of the phrase “Huan Ying Guang Ling Mei Guo Guan” and a week in which I made the peace sign in an embarrassingly large amount of pictures with Chinese guests. This week my expectations of Expo life and work were not met, but violently trampled by swarms of eager Expo visitors, then wonderfully recreated by the world of Expo I discovered.

Expectation 1: The Expo Village

After a year in an international student dorm in Beijing, I was pleasantly surprised to find my suite looking more like a room at New York’s chic Standard Hotel than the crowded and dark dorms I had been expecting. Fully aware of the prices of New York apartments with comparable stunning waterfront and sky-line views, you can bet I have been in shock and awe each day.

Expectation 2: Work at Mei Guo Guan

Happily placed with the Communications Team, I expected a traditional PR/Journalism-related internship. While I am using my media background, my job is much more multifaceted than I thought it would be. Being part of the Comm Team is a lot about being everywhere at once. I find myself dashing around the pavilion at high-speeds fulfilling various tasks. These tasks could be anything from working on social media projects to doing the chicken dance for visitors waiting in line - no joke. Another perk of the Comm Team is that running in and out gives us a viable excuse to wear sunglasses inside.

Expectation 3: Expo Life

What planet was I on when I thought that I would be trading first and foremost stories of American life and culture with new international friends? I have quickly caught on that pins are the number one commodity on the Expo “market”. The Expo is pin crazy. The more pins you have on your ID land-yard, the better. And not all pins are equal. Even better still, the more “rare” pins, such as the “Volunteer” pin,  that decorate your land yard, the more Expo “clout” you have. Before I received my first pin, I actually had Expo workers at other pavilions make fun of me for not having any! Another thing I have learned of is the popularity of the Expo mascot the Hai Bao. Put a Hai Bao on something, and you are sure to capture attention.

The world of the Expo that I find myself is better than what I had expected. It is fast-paced, interesting, and many times bizarre. As for my expectations for the rest of my three months…well I guess I just have to expect the unexpected.

How Do You Prepare?                                                             July 13, 2010

How exactly do you prepare yourself for three months in China? With just about one week to go before I start work as a USA Pavilion Student Ambassador I have been toiling over how exactly to answer this question. Do I eat every meal with chopsticks for practice or do I religiously worship the fork for one last week? Should I practice my Chinese with the waiter at the Chinese restaurant, or avoid Chinese restaurants all together in order to prevent a pre-departure language embarrassment? Should I stock up on books, games and other activities for that dreadful fourteen hour flight- or do I just run out and buy sleeping pills?

I have spent the last six or so months after learning of my acceptance to the Student Ambassador’s program in December incredibly excited yet in the last six days have unexpectedly turned myself into a complete train-wreck. With all the news I have been reading about the Expo and the long-awaited pre-departure guide, the momentous reality has finally hit me - I am going to be representing the United States to the world. Should I brush up on my Star-Spangled Banner perhaps?

Although it might be hard to tell from my last minute jitters, I am actually pretty well acquainted with life in China. I spent my junior year at Loyola University Maryland not actually in Maryland but in Beijing, China studying Chinese language, history and culture courses at The Beijing Center (TBC). Besides intensive language study, my year in China included camel rides through the Taklamakan desert, secret trips to the Great Wall, plenty of haggling at the Silk Market and perhaps one too many sips of Bai Jiu - all in all one incredible year.  As I said my good-byes to Beijing I knew I was going to be back in China some day and I am all too happy now to have the chance to discover a new city, Shanghai.

What makes this trip different than my year of study-abroad (besides the beautiful bathroom and kitchen provided to us in the Expo Village) is the tremendous responsibility placed on me and every other student ambassador. For many people who will be coming to the Expo, an encounter with an American is not an every-day event. As a recent college graduate, I will have similar responsibilities as have trained professionals in the Foreign Service, who work tirelessly to put our country and our people in a positive light to the world.

In addition to this great responsibility, this time I will be learning and working with people from the entire globe, not just China. It happens that Shanghai is where I will work and live, but my experience will include a number of nations. You can bet your bottom-dollar that my lunch breaks will be spent checking out the food situation in the Indian Pavilion. Should I practice my college French in order to impress the French Pavilion Student Ambassadors? On second thought, embarrassing myself in one language is quite enough.

After taking a deep breath - or several - I think my last-six day freak-out is actually a reaction to the realization that I really am well prepared for the next three months. I studied Chinese for one year in China and two years at university and despite my digs-at-self, am not that bad. I’ve been to Shanghai before and am kung-fu-like ready to resist promises of Chanel or Gucci that I will hear while walking down the main strip. And about the thousand-member crowd in a small area each speaking a different language - for god’s sake I’m from Manhattan, sounds like home to me. I guess the only way I can get ready for China is to sit back, relax and enjoy the country I will be representing for three months- and pack of course!