Discuss as:

In Shanghai - it's a small, small world

By Adrienne Mong, NBC News correspondent

SHANGHAI, China – I was keen to get a passport.

All around me, folks were waving their travel documents, rushing from country to country, and elbowing one another to get them stamped.

"They're fun," said a man who had traveled all the way from Hainan Island, China's southernmost province. In his hand were a dozen passports with stamps from seven or eight countries. "The one from Saudi Arabia is the best."

NBC News/Adrienne Mong
Visitors hanging out beside the UK Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo 2010.

I wouldn't know. The line to enter Saudi Arabia's pavilion was seven or eight people deep and wrapped around the block. We had too much ground to cover to spend what appeared to be at least an hour's wait.

But here at the Shanghai World Expo 2010, it's all about the passport.

The world's fair redux

First though, a bit on the Expo.

"I had no idea what an Expo was," confessed a native San Franciscan taking in the sights.  "But I want to know where the next one will be!"

Described by some journalists as the biggest and most lavish party that most of the world probably hasn't even heard about, the Expo is basically a souped-up world's fair for the 21st century.

Taking eight years to prepare, the event cost $4.2 billion to pull together – more than twice what was spent on getting Beijing ready for the 2008 Summer Olympics – although some have estimated it to be nearer to $45 billion once you throw in the facelift of Shanghai's infrastructure to accommodate all the visitors (a new airport terminal, new subway lines, etc.) 

An estimated 240 countries, international organizations, and companies are taking part in the Expo – most with their own pavilions laid out over a sprawling 2.5 square miles on prime riverside property in Shanghai. Opening on May 1, organizers are hoping to attract about 70 million visitors until it closes at the end of October of this year.

About 95 percent of those visitors are expected to be Chinese. 

NBC News/ Adrienne Mong
Denmark shipped in the Little Mermaid statue for the Shanghai Expo.

"Events [like this and] the Olympics are a way for the Communist Party to sort of broadcast their legitimacy," said Adam Minter, an American writer who has been following the travails of the construction of the USA Pavilion. (It nearly didn't get built, precipitating a potential diplomatic fracas between the U.S. and China.) 

But even in today's era of high-speed jet travel, the Expo still captures a bit of the original spirit of the world's fair and gives people a glimpse of places they will probably never get to.  

"We've never been overseas," said Hu Xin Yi, an elderly woman who sat with her husband on a bus for eight hours from Anhui province just to visit the Expo. "We've only traveled around China."
"China is not a terribly cosmopolitan place yet, despite the image we have of it," said Minter.  "Part of the idea from the Chinese government and the Shanghai government's point of view is let's bring the world to the Chinese people, because most Chinese people are not going to have the opportunity to travel abroad."

Stamping our way around the globe 
So back to those passports.

Everywhere we saw Chinese men with piles of passports.  It reminded me of the contractors I used to see on the Iraq-Jordan border, waiting to process the immigration paperwork for dozens of what the U.S. military called TCNs. ("Third Country Nationals," refers to Sri Lankans, Indians, Filipinos hired as contract labor to staff the dining facilities and other services on U.S. military bases.) 

Inevitably, we began judging pavilions on the basis of the national stamp. Especially the ones that didn't have a stamp, like Brazil.

A sign hung prominently at the exit: "We don't have the stamps yet, sorry for any inconvenience caused!" Some others missing stamps were several African and Caribbean countries, as well as Serbia, Armenia, and Greece. (OK, maybe under the circumstances, we may want to give Greece a pass.) 

We pitied the women with harried expressions standing behind counters at the pavilions for Moldova, Peru, or Pakistan – where people shoved their documents underneath their noses to get stamps.  We liked the "self-service" pavilions, where the stamps sat next to ink pads on counters for visitors to stamp their passports on their own.

But it's a shame that so many people seemed keener to collect their stamps instead of stopping to take a look around the displays. After all, the world's fair back in its day was responsible for introducing everyone to wondrous technological advances like the Eiffel Tower.

The Axis of Evil corner at the Shanghai Expo
Adrienne Mong/ NBC News
The Axis of Evil corner at the Shanghai Expo

Befriending China
In addition to learning about countries many will never get to, the Expo is shining a light on countries that some might not have even heard of.  Like San Marino.

Packed into a row of bite-sized nations like Malta, Lichtenstein, and Cyprus, San Marino's pavilion beckoned visitors inside, where a tourist might learn that San Marino is one of the world's oldest republics and the only surviving city-state. 

Moreover, it made Abraham Lincoln an honorary citizen in 1861, and over a century later it became "one of the first Western States to recognize and establish official relations with the People's Republic of China in May 6, 1971."

One display panel stood out, however, reminding us just why governments and corporations might have felt compelled to participate in the Expo. Photos and posters proudly proclaimed San Marino's economic advantages: "tax relief for reinvested profits in anti-pollution and energy-saving projects," and a "corporate tax at 17 percent."

Slawomir Majman, commissioner-general of the Poland Pavilion, a stunning structure that resembled a giant paper cut-out – referencing a traditional Polish craft – explained why attendance is so important.

"From the Polish perspective, there is no other opportunity in the number of generations to come to make such a promotion in China," said Majman. "It's an absolute must to be here and to make use of the fact the Chinese government treats the Expo as a priority. We should never be able to tell so many people so many things about our country during any national promotion."

An extra nudge from China to encourage attendance probably helped, too. 

"It was made very clear by the Chinese – this was not a rumor – that failure to attend would be considered a diplomatic snub and there would be diplomatic and trade consequences," said Minter.

Image: The China Pavilion
SLIDESHOW: Around the world at the Shanghai Expo 

'Axis of Evil corner'
As a result, participants as varied as the U.S. and North Korea have pavilions on display, both of which were subsidized in part by China. But that was perhaps the only thing each had in common. 

We were not allowed to enter the USA Pavilion. ("We're not doing media tours this week," USA Pavilion staffers told us).

But we had no problem walking into the Democratic People's Republic of Korea Pavilion,  which to the delight of cynics happened to sit next to Iran's Pavilion.  (It didn't take long for the "Axis of Evil corner" moniker to take hold in describing this particular pocket of the Expo.)

Inside the DPRK Pavilion, dozens of Chinese and the occasional South Korean posed in front of a giant poster of Juche Tower and a small bridge over Taedong River.  Archive video of the Korean War played on a loop in the background. 

And by the exit was yet another put-upon fellow, a skinny North Korean man, stamping passports.