I spend a lot of my time in China in airports, on planes, waiting for taxis. That’s not a complaint: I’ve already been able to see a lot of this vast, fascinating country in my few months here. I’ve interviewed dozens of people. I’m trying to learn the language. Understanding is coming in increments.
But I’ve always feared there was one thing China and I would never agree on. Queues. I never feel more English, more of a ‘Laowai’, than when the wheels hit the runway and the passengers jump up, grabbing their bags and bustling towards the exits. While the plane’s still doing 100 miles an hour. Or when I stand behind the safety line at the luggage carousel to find my way completely blocked within seconds.
And so the thing which struck me most on visiting the Shanghai Expo in its last days was not the scale of the four-billion-dollar jamboree, the beauty of some of its architecture, or the (often underwhelming) exhibits in the national pavilions. No. It was the queueing. World-championship-level queueing.
The word has gone around that the Saudi pavilion is the one to see. And so the visitors wait in a queue measured in kilometres, and hours. Ten hours on bad days, a mere six on good ones. And everyone seems perfectly fine with it. The patience and good humour on display are astounding.
A group of young salesgirls play cards, seated on tiny stools. “We can make our own fun,” one of them tells us. An elderly woman (not elderly enough to get the free pass to the front offered to those 75 and older) says: “I can handle this queue. I do heavy, physical labour, anyway.”
And what awaits these waiters? I did some shameless queue-jumping of my own, using my media pass to have a look inside the Saudi pavilion. It’s a 15-minute travellator ride above a huge, immersive, concave screen. You feel you’re flying over endless desertscapes. Briefly thrilling, but still – a promotional video.
As a national endeavour the Shanghai Expo has struck many as a bit odd. Why spend some $50bn ($4bn at the site, $45bn on city-wide infrastructure) to host an event that for many years has been going out of fashion? And like all big Chinese projects it’s brought an unwanted spotlight on the tactics used to clear the area of residents, and prevent petitioners and protesters from voicing their grievances.
But as an experience for the more than 70 million individuals who’ve come, it’s been a resounding success. Most Chinese will never leave their country, so this is an opportunity without precedent. Virtual passports are stamped at each national pavilion. Photographs are taken in front of landmarks. Foreign food is sampled and discussed.
The Expo has been talked up here as another grand event, like the Olympics. The latest confirmation of China’s new status.
But as the curtain comes down on Sunday, its real value might be measured in millions of individual memories. And the next time I can’t get off a Beijing subway train for the crush of people getting on, I’ll savour my own memories … of those marvellous queues.