As a Shanghai Expo reporter, I have a press card that allows me go to the Expo Garden every day. One question that I am frequently asked is which pavilion I like the best.
To be honest, I really don't know the answer, for most of the pavilions have long queues that take hours to enter. The longest queue is at the Saudi Arabia Pavilion, with an average 8-hour wait. I am not the type of patient visitor who likes to wait. My very first feelings of the Expo were not from the pavilions but from all the smiling faces.
As one who has lived in Shanghai for more than 30 years, I think the Expo Garden has the highest concentration of smiling faces in the city. The pavilion's staff, security guards, volunteers in different uniforms all flash big smiles even when you ask a question, even if it is "Where is the nearest toilet?"
The smile and politeness has rubbed off on policemen, too, it seems. The other day, I asked a policeman in the Expo Garden where the shuttle bus was and was pleasantly surprised when he accompanied me to the bus station, chatting all the time we walked. Of course, he too asked me which pavilion I liked the most.
I felt that Uncle Lei Feng, the cultural icon symbolizing selflessness, willingness to help and dedication, was back! During the dozens of trips I've made to the Expo Garden, I've been greeted with lots of smiling and warm-hearted helpers.
With a smile on my face and warmth in my heart, I stepped out of the Expo Garden only to be jolted by reality.
I went to a nearby, inexpensive restaurant and the waitress threw the plates on the table as if I was not going to pay. I visited a food market where shopkeepers seemed ready for battle with invisible swords in hand. I wondered how people who shop there were still alive. I went to a new flagship store of a famous brand. The shrewd but beautiful shop assistants looked as cold as the mannequins in the window. It made feel I didn't look like a real shopper.
Perhaps, my most awkward experience was when I met a neighbor in the elevator. Do you smile at someone beside you who looks familiar? The answer, in most cases, is no.
What's wrong with people in Shanghai? Is smiling that hard an exercise?
Actually, Chinese people do smile. But, according to my observation, a smile is reserved only for family members, friends and colleagues, especially bosses.
My mother always goes to a nearby food market to buy fruits. One day, the shopkeeper greeted her with a broad smile with apples from the boxes under a table. She said: "He told me that because I was a regular he wanted to give me fresh apples instead of the ones on the table." My mother ended her happy tale with the advice: "It's important to make friends in Shanghai, otherwise you will never get the best." Obviously, the not-so-good apples and cold faces are for infrequent buyers like me.
Smiles and kindliness are only for people one knows, strangers can go to . Is this part of the unwritten constitution of civic life?
Some may criticize me for chong yang mei wai (worshipping and having blind faith in foreign things). But I miss the smiling faces I saw when I was in London, which for me is a real metropolis.
The first dinner I had there was in a hamburger restaurant. The food, to be honest, was as hard to swallow as the cold faces in Shanghai. But the waitress looked happy while serving the food. When we finished, she asked me if the food was good. Seeing her big smile, I couldn't help but say, "Very nice". And I felt bad about leaving half of the burger on the table.
If half of the country thinks our big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai have already caught up with New York or London with many luxury skyscrapers, Michelin-listed restaurants, shopping malls and theaters, then I am part of the other half who doesn't agree. Just look at the cold faces everywhere. I refuse to believe we live in developed cities - not until we treat strangers as nicely as the Expo Garden staff do.
(China Daily 06/12/2010 page5)