Student Ambassadors: the USA (and its Expo 2010 pavilion) at its very best.

My first visit to the USA pavilion happened a few days after it officially opened. It was a quiet evening, and the large crowds of recent weeks hadn’t yet materialized. I didn’t have to wait long in line, and after only a few minutes I was ushered into the lobby where I watched two young Americans make announcements – and joke – to a Chinese audience transfixed by their linguistic and cultural fluency. A few minutes later we were ushered into a movie theater where – just as in the lobby – a young American warmed up and joked with the crowd. The last theater was home to the true star of the show (if you ask the Chinese audience), a stocky young American, no more than twenty-three, I think, who worked the five-hundred audience members like a stand-up comedian. After the film, they rushed up to him with cameras, questions, and curiosity.

As I left the pavilion, I raved to my companion about how the young Americans I’d just seen – officially, they are members of the USA pavilion’s Student Ambassador program – are precisely who and how I would want the USA to represent itself at Expo 2010 (the Shanghai World’s Fair). Entrepreneurial. Optimistic. Well-educated. Young. Open to China and other cultures. Sense of humor. Sense of integrity.

My companion raised a brow at me and, knowing that I’d long been critical of the USA pavilion, challenged me to write something complimentary about the Student Ambassadors on Shanghai Scrap. That seemed reasonable and so – then and there -I accepted the assignment, and at the first available opportunity I asked Martin Alintuck, then the pavilion’s Communications Director (and now the President/CEO of the pavilion), if he’d be willing to help me do it. Alintuck agreed right away.

And so, without further ado, allow me introduce Shanghai Scrap’s readers to Ryan Lovdahl, 23 and Katie Sirolly, 22, two members of the first class of eighty student ambassadors selected to work at the US pavilion until mid-July (a second class of eighty ambassadors will overlap them by a week or two and serve until the end of the Expo on October 31).

Katie and Ryan are both recent University of Delaware graduates. Though University of Delaware doesn’t have a Chinese language major, it does have a foreign language requirement, and the two of them both chose Chinese. Along the way, they showed an aptitude for the language that resulted in both being selected for year-long scholarships at Beijing Language and Culture University, paid for by the Chinese government. Ryan spent two years at BLCU; Katie spent one. Afterward, both sought out additional opportunities to study, travel, and work in China. And so, in 2009, when the Student Ambassador program, was announced, both jumped at the opportunity to apply.

Last week, when I sat down with Ryan and Katie at the café outside of the US pavilion, I was expecting to gather info for a relatively short blog post describing the program and some of the “routines” or “acts” that they do to warm-up the crowd. But they turned out to be so well-spoken, and so thoughtful, that I changed my mind mid-interview, and decided that I’d instead let them speak for themselves about what they do at the pavilion. It really must be said: in person these two are utterly charming. And, on a personal note, they’ve got their lives so much more together than I did when I was twenty-two. In any case, what follows are what I think are the most interesting excerpts from our 40-minute interview, interspersed by a few comments from me.

Just by way of introduction to the first excerpt: The application process for the student ambassador program was rigorous. Among other requirements, successful applicants had to have a minimum of 2.5 years of Chinese study, and a recommendation from a language professor attesting to their fluency. And yet, after all this, Ryan was struck by the disconnect between how his American friends and Chinese friends viewed the program.

Ryan: I was a little surprised when I went back to America and told all of my friends, oh I’ve got this amazing opportunity at the Expo and they don’t necessarily know … they know what it is, but they don’t know –

Shanghai Scrap: It’s a trade fair!

Ryan: Yeah! It’s such a different reaction when I tell my Chinese friends about the Expo or my professors at [my Chinese university] BLCU and they’re just so ecstatic and it’s the best thing they’ve ever heard, and then you go back home and ‘oh, that sounds good, can you explain a little bit about what exactly is the Expo and what’re you doing.’ So I think that Katie and I both were in the unique situation where we really understood how important it was to the Chinese. And that’s how I feel. I don’t necessarily even care how people in America perceive it – it’s important to the Chinese and we’re here because it’s important to the Chinese. And I feel like my motivation to come here was because I knew how important it was to the Chinese people we’re here.

The student ambassadors arrived in Shanghai two weeks before the opening of the Expo and were divided into different groups based upon resumes and interest. Ryan and Katie – both obvious extroverts – were assigned to “Operations,” the groups that manages/warms up the lines and audiences inside of the pavilion (other groups include VIP services and office support). I asked the two of them their reaction to seeing the building, the pavilion programming and, above all, the long lines that were waiting outside.

Shanghai Scrap: At that point did your mind start churning, what are we going to do?

Ryan: Yeah, I think it started when I saw the queue – we hadn’t had these permanent stanchions set out there yet. But when I just saw this huge area and when they were saying, telling us these numbers and how many people were going to be coming through. I was just thinking, ‘wow there’s so much opportunity here. We’re going to be interacting with so many people.’ And it was only when I saw the physical line out there, ‘wow, it’s such a tremendous opportunity.’

[a few minutes later Ryan continued …]

R: [I]t really helps that we had had experience with Chinese crowds before. I had a commute in Beijing during rush hour where I would go from an internship to a teaching job and it was right at 6 PM when everybody’s rushing in there. I think all of the student ambassadors had some experience in China before and if you lived in Beijing or Shanghai – it’s nothing like here, but you sort of get warmed up to the idea.

What I find most compelling about the student ambassadors, and what I most wanted to discuss with them, were the acts and routines that they’d spontaneously worked up, on their own, to warm-up and entertain the crowds. As a whole, they suggest to me a linguistic and cultural savvy that I think escapes even Ryan and Katie. They just do what they do, based upon their instincts for their audiences. We first talked about what happens in the pavilion’s lobby in advance of the Overture, the first short film. At this point, the student ambassadors are facing five-hundred Chinese guests who have spent hours in line.

Shanghai Scrap: Let’s talk about how you started developing what you do in front of these crowds. I think it’s so great. How did you start developing this? To my mind, the hardest job in the house has to be the first room.

Ryan: Absolutely.

Katie: The Overture is a lot of fun because you have about five minutes just to welcome everyone and talk to all of the visitors who have just entered the room. So we have a few things we have to say, safety information, we introduce the videos. But then we have a lot of extra time. Usually between three and four minutes of time that’s just ours to talk to people in the room.

Ryan: They [management] gave us a few things to say, but not nearly five minutes worth of material, and then after that [they said] ‘just have fun, just entertain the crowd,’ and they just told us ‘whatever you want to do, however you want to interact with them is just fine.’ And when I heard that I was just, I knew, okay, now, time to be creative, you know? And I just started thinking, you know, what can we do? How can we entertain these people? It’s a cool experience to be in a room with 500 – 600 people and have them for four minutes.

The following routine, as described by Katie, and then Ryan, was performed for Secretary of State Clinton in late May.

Katie: And so one of the things that we like to do a lot is teach a little bit of English. So Ryan’s developed this act. We ask the crowd if anyone would like to learn some English and some hands go up. And then we ask them if they know how to translate or how to say in English, Ni hen li hai, which, in Chinese –

Ryan: Yeah. So, you say ni hen li hai in Chinese, right. And so then when we sort of ask, ‘how do you translate that?’ … [S]o the word that we teach them is ‘awesome’ … [I]t’s our own personal translation. Awesome is the sort of word you don’t really study in the textbook … [A]nd I explain in Chinese then this is the kind of word that’ll be really impressive if you use it in English because people will think your English level is really good. So then we just interact with them and teach them why this word is really important, and it’s really cool: ‘If you ever encounter an American who’s, like, really awesome like I am and you want to praise them [laughing].’ … [S]o we practice and then they repeat after me, and it gets everybody excited and everybody’s speaking –

Katie: And then all of a sudden you have a room full of people screaming “You. Are. AWESOME!”

Shanghai Scrap: You have that?

Ryan: We have that every time. So I say ‘awesome’ and then I say ‘let’s practice.’ And I say ‘awesome’ and they say ‘awesome’ and then I say the whole sentence is ni hen li hai, that means you are awesome. And then I say repeat after me. And I say ‘You are awesome,’ and then I hold the microphone out to them, and they all scream at me: “You. Are. AWESOME!” [A]lso the people waiting [outside the pavilion] in line, they hear the people screaming in here, and it creates a very exciting environment.

Katie: I’ve also tried to learn a few sentences in Shanghainese. One of them is ni hen li hai. And so, I also like to ask a lot of people in the room, ‘Who’s from Shanghai?’ Some hands go up, and then say to them nong lau jie guen eh. So that’s also a lot of fun, usually we get a good response.

Ryan: [W]hen a foreigner speaks Mandarin, it’s very impressive to them. But when a foreigner can speak one or two words in Shanghai dialect it makes the room just go crazy.

As difficult as the first room – the Overture – is to work,  it seems to this blogger that a greater challenge is entertaining and managing the lines – lines that can wind for hours. I asked about how they manage this assignment.

Katie: [E]dward is another student ambassador, and he’s Chinese American, and we have this little routine where Edward will face the crowd and introduce the pavilion in Chinese. And then I’ll have a bullhorn, and we’re standing back to back, and we flip around, and I’ll say it in English. And then he’ll say something else about the pavilion in Chinese. We do this a few times. So then the crowd starts to think that, well, because he looks Chinese and I do not look Chinese, that I only speak English, and he speaks Chinese. But then we’ll do a full circle, and then I’ll start in Chinese. I’ll introduce myself in Chinese. And usually at that point the crowd –

Ryan: They go ‘Whoa!’

Katie: And Ed will turn around –

Ryan: And they’re also impressed by his English, because he was born and raised in Kansas.

Ryan, an admitted lover of the microphone and crowds, takes a hammier approach.

Ryan: Usually I introduce myself, and during my introduction, I – it probably sounds really weird in English, but the Chinese love to hear it in Chinese – I say ‘my name is Ryan I’m a student ambassador from New York. I’m a really authentic American.’ And then I say ‘Every day I eat more than twenty hamburgers.’ And they know I’m joking. And then I say, ‘And like, other than hamburgers, what else do I eat. Um, probably hamburgers. I only eat hamburgers, basically.’ And so they just love it, because it’s just – it kind of fits into their stereotype. But they also know that – it’s not a bad stereotype or anything … [A]nd I think it goes well with sort of just the character of being American in general. We’re very light-hearted and we can have a sense of humor about ourselves. Sometimes they’ll shout out “Why aren’t you so fat?” You know? It’s good, it’s another interaction.

One of the things that I find most interesting about the Student Ambassadors is that they develop (and have developed) a performer’s instinct for what does and does not work with Chinese Expo audiences. It’s hard won, too: every day they spend hours and hours interacting with these audiences, joking and conversing with them, and measuring their moods. To be honest, I’m not sure of any other pavilion that has a staff with this kind of knowledge. At some point, I hope, somebody in the State Department will recognize that knowledge as a valuable resource for doing public diplomacy in China after Expo. In any case, here’s how Katie describes the Chinese audience as she’s gotten to know it.

Katie: I think they just want a little bit of exposure to the USA. And I think that’s what we as student ambassadors really focus on. Even if you’re standing at the turnstile if you can just make eye contact with everyone who’s coming through and smile and say huan ying guang lin (welcome) it means something to a lot of people, because it might be the first time they’ve heard a foreigner speak Chinese. I had an experience just yesterday when I was working. A kind of middle-aged woman was pushing her mother in a wheelchair, so I just said huan ying guang lin Meiguo Guan. The daughter said to the mother, ‘Isn’t that great, it’s a foreigner welcoming you in Chinese!’

Like many foreigners working at the Expo, the Student Ambassadors are subject to dozens of daily photo requests from Chinese visitors, many of whom have never met a foreigner, much less an American. I’ve personally encountered foreigners at other pavilion who dislike and/or outright refuse these requests. But not the Student Ambassadors. With patience and aplomb (that I certainly wouldn’t show!), they seem to relish it.

Katie: And we’ve just had countless people want pictures with us and autographs.

Ryan: Oh my gosh [laugh], that’s a big part of our responsibility.

Katie: I mean, it’s great. Some other pavilions have policies against it, but our management is fine with it and we’re happy about it. We love it, too. It’s a lot of fun … It’s been great because I think it’s very special for a lot of people to talk to us in Chinese and maybe have us take a picture with their kid or hold their baby.

Ryan: Exactly.

Katie: And people really really seem to appreciate that, a little bit of personal interaction.

Ryan: Well Katie, just by virtue of the way she looks is, like, she’s who they seek out. She’s pure American. I notice that when I have, like, some facial hair, they take pictures with me a lot more. So I finally found the time shave, so this will be an easy week at work. [laughing]

Shanghai Scrap: [laughing] Really?

Ryan: Yeah. Anything that makes you more American to them – they just love this … [I] mean, like how many digital copies of our image are saved to computers? Already, so many.

Ryan and Katie will both return the United States in early August, but both expect to remain connected to China. Katie will enter the University of Michigan Law School in the fall; Ryan is still evaluating opportunities, including a possible MBA. He hopes to do business in China at some point.

Speaking for myself, only, I really hope that the US State Department can figure out a way to tap into what the two of them – and the rest of the Student Ambassadors – are learning at the US pavilion on a daily basis. It strikes this American as invaluable.

[Note: the last two images were provided courtesy of the USA Pavilion at Expo 2010.]

24 thoughts on “Student Ambassadors: the USA (and its Expo 2010 pavilion) at its very best.

  1. Great interview, Adam! I met with a large crew of Student Ambassadors from UCLA and USC and their enthusiasm is infectious.

    You are right that they are a redeeming factor for the US Pavillion, and the resources invested in bring all them out here is less emphasized by the press. Though perhaps all their hometown papers will cover their time in China extensively!

    It would be interesting to see a profile of peers in other country pavillions to learn more about their mindset and process as well. Great job all round and kudos to such talent!

  2. They are great kids and I’m very impressed that you would do a post about them after all of the bad blood between you and the pavilion. Good for you.

  3. Really great interview. I haven’t had a chance to visit the USA Pavilion yet (going later tonight), but I’m glad to know that we have outgoing people like Ryan and Katie representing us. By the way, that hamburger bit is priceless.

  4. Language fluency without cultural fluency is an empty promise, something that far too many diplomats and analysts miss when they come of their intesive language training programs. To have the former without the latter can be incredibly destructive as we’ve witnessed over the years with certain officials of certain governments. It is nice to see that the Student Ambassadors have both and that will serve them and their government very well if said government decides to work with them.

  5. Thank you for this report. It’s good news that, within the USA pavilion “shopping mall,” there are bright young people representing our country so well.

  6. Student ambassadors are the software that makes the USA pavilion hardware run. Without them it’s just a cold machine. With them it really hums. I met some of them and your post really makes me feel proud as an American. Thanks for writing!

  7. Nice to read something about Americans and Chinese getting along for a change. Also nice to learn that the U.S. pavilion has done something right.

  8. nice review! I am from hong kong, going to expo in sept. I have only picked 3 pavilions i must visit so far. I am glad i read this and i think i will visit the USAP as well.I think the fact that Chinese like to hear American eat hamburger all the time. It is just like when a Chinese tell an American we always eat dogs or whatever strange food most western people never eat.

  9. Thanks for setting the record straight on the student ambassador program. I and the rest of the crew really appreciate this effort to acknowledge our work to help promote better U.S.-Sino relations at Expo.

  10. We always buzz how the next silly generation would possibly ruin the world, but everything turns out fine and better, always.

  11. I hear a lot of expats complaining about the Expo, but it really is mostly for Chinese people, and they’re so enthusiastic for the chance to experience new things, so who can begrudge that. I’m glad the ambassadors are so friendly and accommodating.

  12. i am a staff with a big european pavilion and we are all wishing that we had students like these at our place. hopefully none of these students are associated with the bad building and stupid film but are allowed to stand as their own people.

  13. I don’t understand how the uninspired building, those little movies, and a smattering of shows at the America’s Square cost 61 million. You make it pretty clear that the Student Ambassadors are the real attraction, but they’re paid nothing for their hard work. To me it’s a sign of how greedy and corrupt their bosses are.

  14. Lewis –

    The student ambassadors receive a stipend, as well as housing and transport to and from Shanghai. I don’t know the value of that stipend, but I think the idea is that the student ambassador program is an internship – so, not quite unpaid, but certainly paid like an internship. I don’t really have a problem with that – especially because the program is quite an old one, dating back many years to other US pavilions at other Expos.

  15. This was precisely my experience both times I visited the pavilion.

    Not surprisingly, I was disappointed by the building and how the official message was so heavily influenced by corporations… but it was the students that really made me happy that not all was lost. It was clear they were making honest connections with people.

    Incidentally, as a large, bearded American, I probably had my photo taken at least a dozen times each day I was there… and I was just visiting as media.

  16. cool post … I have heard so many negative reviews of the U.S. Pavilion that I didn’t bother stopping by the last two times I went to the expo, but this Student Ambassador thing sounds fun … so maybe it’ll make up for Pavilion’s otherwise corporation-controlled epic failure that this pavilion represents!!

    it reminds me that America’s greatness really lies in the people, and the innovation … (like the simple idea of bringing students to interact with crowds in Chinese to create a human cultural link) … so it is nice to hear this story and hopefully these students will slightly offset the nameless faceless corporate screw-up that is the pavilion, and arguably representative of the U.S.A itself

  17. Beautiful piece Adam!
    I’m very disappointed on how many participating countries “reduce costs” by hiring local people to represent them. All the times I have been to the Mexican Pavilion nobody from the hosting staff has been able to answer basic questions about the country. Yes, they speak Chinese because they are Chinese, but what’s the point if they don’t know anything about Mexico.
    I think the US did a great job bringing its own citizens to represent their own country and exchange ideas directly with the Chinese public. i think participating countries should look more towards their people as powerful channels for communication.
    By the way, we did a series of videos on the US Student Ambassadors, which are accessible in YouTube (http://bit.ly/cqS7Yw)

  18. Good to give the ambassadors exposure. It’s amazing, and very reassuring that there are some very talented young Americans coming to China to try and make a difference and bring a positive impact.

    I’m one such youngster myself being 24 from Florida and working in Beijing. I make peanuts now, but feel I am making strong inroads both with the language and culture that will have residual benefits down the road both for myself and for the Chinese I come into contact with.

    About not being paid for the ambassadorships, I believe the work experience gained will pay off in the future for Ryan and Katie with big returns.

    America F*ck Yeah!

  19. Alan – Don’t be an ass. The passage in question doesn’t refer to Katie as “a pure American.” Rather, it uses “pure American” as an adjective for how she looks; in context, it refers to why Chinese visitors are interested in being photographed with her.

  20. I am simply expressing my opinion when i say this but i found the american pavilion quite childish. i know it is, in a way, what the chinese appreciate and find humourous but in a westerner’s eyes it was quite sterotypically american. haveing see the impressive exterior, i thought the interior would hold something equally impressesive but i thought the USA would have come up with something far more exciting than three videos, which weren’t particularly educative in any way. on a high note, the staff i must say were by far the most enthusiastic i encountered during my time at the expo, incredibly friendly, positive and willing to inform.

  21. I’m a canadian visiting shanghai with my chinese girlfriend, staying with their family. We saw the USA pavilion today. It is all in all super embarrassing and I felt I should have brought a canadian flag in order to deflect any ire from the crowd. The speakers’ mandarin was terrible (and the girl actually said that this was her first job), their jokes were terrible, and there was some really weird and boring dancing to unrelated taiwanese music outside. The messages in the videos were incredibly condescending and lecturing – president obama *actually appears in a video and WELCOMES china to the world*. The first movie was a bunch of people failing to say Ni Hao. Oh you wacky americans and you inability to learn a word, ha ha ha! Mandarin is so difficult! The third video (the “4-D” one) was uninspired and unoriginal and really not powerful at all.

    Yeah, embarrassing and offensive.

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