For foreign students like African-American Tristan Hampton, working as an expo volunteer provides the perfect platform to network for jobs in a fiercely competitive environment, while also giving him behind-the-scenes access to hidden facets of Chinese society.
"For fresh graduates like me, it's still hard to find jobs. I'm hoping to meet some businessmen and look for potential opportunities," said Hampton, a Chinese major at Shanghai University who speaks fluent Mandarin.
"To be honest, there are much more opportunities in Shanghai than there are in America," he said. "I'm not that worried about finding a job since I'm still young. What I'm planning to do during the expo is send business cards to foreign businessmen, do tours, and schedule trips for them, kind of like a travel agency."
Hampton and his friend Silas Doyle-Burr are among 20 foreigners and 1,000 Chinese volunteers who rotate shifts at the Shanghai Expo Exhibition Center. The center, which opened on Huaihai Road M in May 2008, offers highlights from past expos, such as models of the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Crystal Palace in London, and explains the layout and content of the Shanghai Expo.
It also gives young people a chance to liaise with high rollers and the corporate world in a city where only 90 percent of last year's graduates landed a job in 2009. Volunteers, whether foreign or Chinese, also get to build their confidence by dealing with public crowds and walking them through various aspects of the expo. The center on Huaihai Road sees an average of 3,000 visitors a day, or over three times this number at weekends.
"I'm from a small town in Vermont, New England with a population of just over 2,000," said 22-year-old Doyle-Burr. "To think that I would serve 10,000 tourists someday was simply crazy."
Speaking at a national ceremony in Tian'anmen Square in Beijing on the one-year countdown to the 2010 Expo, Shanghai Party Chief Yu Zhensheng described volunteering as "a key opportunity for young people to develop themselves, and a platform to showcase local youth."
Since the main recruitment drive started last May, organizers have been inundated with applications. Some 50,000 people, mostly students, had already filed applications by the time Yu issued his comments in Beijing last year. Sixty percent of them did so online.
The deadline for volunteers passed on Dec 31, but the traffic is huge. Organizers want 70,000 to work on the expo grounds and another 100,000 for the 1,000-odd service centers that will be set up around Shanghai. They are expected to work for at least 14 consecutive days, with only their travel expenses paid for.
But for many, it is a sacrifice worth making, with unique experiences and adventures in store.
The two American students discovered this recently when they were sent to give local police an English lesson, and ended up getting an escort back to their campus.
"It was our first time in a Chinese police station and we were really nervous," said Hampton, adding that it made quite a change from giving tours, selling souvenirs, and telling toddlers not to bite the top off miniature buildings.
The officers soon loosened up and wanted to learn everything about their opposite numbers in the United States, he said.
"They asked us everything about American cops, like whether they carry guns, under what circumstances are they allowed to use guns, etc.
"At the end, they offered us a ride back to campus in their police car. We even turned on the siren when we entered the gate." said Doyle-Burr. "Then we decided to play a little trick." The prank involved getting out of the car pretending to be handcuffed with coats slung over their heads, much to the shock of their classmates.
"All of our friends were asking us the next day what kind of crime we committed, and if we were going to be deported," he added.