The (First) Big Day

Trip Start Dec 02, 2011
Trip End Dec 02, 2012

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What I did
Yeosu EXPO

Flag of Korea Rep.  , Jeollanam-do,
Saturday, June 9, 2012

Today was the long awaited day of my first visit to a World's Fair. My train arrived promptly at 9am, and I headed straight across the street to the Expo. Once inside, I didn't know quite where to start. The information booth closest to the train station was out of English maps, so even though I was actually at the Expo, I still wasn't entirely sure what it was. Close to the gate was a convenience store, so I bought two of the literally hundreds of kimbap (aka emergency rice triangles) for sale and went down to sit by the lagoon. My plan was to just observe the area and try to figure out where to start. I hadn't eaten breakfast because nothing was open in the Jeonju train station at 7am, but stopping for a snack gave me a good excuse to sit back and just take my time.

As I was eating, I noticed most of the Koreans I saw were hurrying off to my right so I decided to start there. That turned out to be the section for corporate pavilions. The first one pavilion caught my eye, and didn't have a line, was the GS pavilion. The GS building was set inside of an artificial bamboo forest. Still uncertain what I was getting into, I approached a little tentatively. Just outside of the entrance, a very enthusiastic English-speaking Korean man working there came up and gave me a spiel about his pavilion and it's theme. It was way more info than I was ready for at my first stop so I basically just nodded and tuned it out until he pointed me upstairs to where people were gathering to watch a show.

Before the show, we got to take a quiz. The quiz player started when you swiped your park ticket in front of a sensor. Interestingly, the GS pavilion was the only place I went that made use of the park ticket. Anyway, a guide swiped hers to start the quiz for me. The quiz was tricky because I couldn't remember which button was yes and which was no. "No" was a green X and "yes" a red circle. Like in some cruel psychology experiment my brain said X is no, but green is yes. O is no? maybe?, but red is definitely no... Argh...

The show itself was a digital movie of vaguely sea-related theme projected onto all the walls of the room. It was a cool start and very enjoyable, although when it finished the English-speaker apologized to me that it apparently wasn't as flashy as the other corporate pavilions. In my opinion, I think there's something to be said for understated class.

Exiting the show, I saw a few more exhibits about oil production and refining in the pavilion. There was another computer terminal where you could "operate" a refinery to produce various petroleum products. I wanted to play, but when I swiped my ticket to start it, the game said I had zero barrels of oil and couldn't make anything. It took me a few tries to figure out what was going on. I think we were supposed to earn barrels at the quiz station for use in this game. The guide who scanned her own card stole my oil! I should have four barrels. Grr. I have to go back through sometime...

It turned out most of the pavilions at the Expo had the same basic modus operandi, although the implementations varied, sometimes dramatically. The corporations and the larger or richer nations usually had a small, museum-like section introducing ocean-related environmental issues or their group's relationship with the oceans. Then visitors were directed to the central focus of the pavilion, which was inevitably some sort of digital/multimedia laser projection show with vaguely aquatic themes and sometimes live performers or moving parts.

Next door to GS, the LG Pavilion had an interesting digital screen ceiling installation where the screens moved as pictures were displayed. I think they made us watch it from the wrong angle, though. There were also displays using 3D glasses that impressed many of the audience members way more than they should have. Does nowhere in Korea outside of Seoul have 3D movie theaters?

SK Telecom had, among other things, the most interesting digital work of art that I've ever seen. It was an Asian folding screen with one digital flat-screen on each panel. The screens showed a different reportedly famous work of Asian art. The twist was that the screens were animated. At the beginning, a butterfly slowly flew from screen to screen and started the animations moving. Bamboo swayed in the wind, tiny figures slowly schlepped their loads across the landscapes, and birds flitted from tree to tree. The paintings slowly transformed from day to night and season to season. None of my pictures or video do it justice. If I'm ever a millionaire, I'm going to buy one for my home and just spend my life staring at it until my business manager hires a celebrity therapist to film an episode of his or her reality show dedicated to bringing me back into the sunlight.

But, eventually I did leave and look around for another pavilion to visit. Samsung had a crowd, and the robot pavilion already had a three-hour line, so I went to the UN pavilion where visitors were greeted by a virtual Ban Kim Moon and got to help clean-up a virtual oil spill (does GS know about this?). Next door, was the Expo history museum, which was as devoid of concrete information as it was filled with amusing errors. Nancy Johnson invented the ice cream cone at the St. Louis World's Fair? Uh... more like she invented the hand-cranked ice cream freezer. Try again. Check-out "Chocolate, Strawberry and Vanilla: A History of American Ice Cream" for the real story. The exhibit did have a handful of interesting pictures, although they weren't always well labeled as to which Fair they were from. (Hmm. I think my crazy millionaire home will also have a 3D digital tour of classic Expos from the end of the 1800s.)

So it was time to stop reading about past Expos and get down to the business of visiting the International Pavilion. I obtained an English map at one of the many other information booths and began heading vaguely in the direction of the US pavilion. On the way, I was stopped in my tracks when I spotted the Lithuania pavilion. That had to be my first visit. I'd been to Lithuania a few years ago and loved it.

The Lithuanian pavilion featured, of course, amber. It also had information about the Curonian Spit. A short but pleasant strip of land off the Lithuanian coast. The pavilion was "manned" by several young Lithuanian women. One of them offered to take my picture, and we ended-up in a fairly long but enjoyable conversation about my visit to Lithuania and possible spots I could visit in the future.

Not a lot of visitors to the Expo spoke English, and I met several out-going exhibitors who seemed desperate to have a long conversation about their country and/or the Expo with an English speaker. I'd say the Expo crowd was 95% Korean. (Okay, I did hear two or three people in line speaking Chinese, so maybe 94% Korean and 1% other Asian). Several exhibitors and a Chinese woman I sat next to on the train back to Jeonju mentioned how surprised they were by the lack of Koreans who can speak English. If the woman from nowhere-I'd-ever-heard-of, small-town China thought Korea had surprisingly few English speakers, that must be saying something. (Not that I'm judging them, just FYI if you're planning a trip here.)

Next, I went to Turkmenistan, which was the opposite of the Lithuania booth. There were two Korean guides and no natives. The guide I talked to had never actually been to Turkmenistan. I had been offered a job in Turkmenistan and, while their pavilion made their country look a lot nicer than what my research had revealed, it still screamed "unfriendly autocratic dictatorship", and it did not make me regret my decision to turn the job down.

So, those two pavilions were fairly typical of the international exhibits. A bit about the country and it's ocean/environmental issues, sometimes a display of it's culture, and a few native or Korean guides to answer questions. As I mentioned before, fancy pavilions had their own digital art installations. Several had restaurants where you could buy some of their country's food. Australia offered Vegemite on toast. More had souvenir shops where you could buy items made by artisans from the country, or just souvenir t-shirts. This was in addition to large, country-themed souvenir shops lining the main hall of the International Pavilion.

A few stood out. Israel had giant glowing columns you could walk through that I think were supposed to represent coral, maybe, but were fun to walk through. Spain and Turkey had really cool museum displays where the glass at the front of the exhibit was animated. For example, Turkey had an astrolabe and the glass protecting the item moved to show how the device was assembled as well as displaying mufti-lingual descriptions of the exhibit. If this catches on, museums will become a lot more informative or at least a lot more interactive, especially if this display glass is combined with touch-screens.

Some of the pavilions were fairly lame. India had an exhibit that had clearly been knocked over and then just put back in a pile instead of reassembled. I thought Egypt would be cool because it had a line, like virtual pyramids or something, but the only exhibits inside were cheesy cartoon graphics probably running on a Kinect box that project visitors into the scene. Maybe they were too busy having a historic revolution to properly plan their exhibit.

There was an Atlantic Countries Pavilion for countries that didn't want to buy space in their own pavilion. The booths there were manned mainly by glum looking natives transfixed by their laptops and not appearing the least bit interested in promoting their countries to visitors. The only booth in that pavilion getting any serious attention was the Colombian booth, which had friendly young women, a large array of digital screens playing a Shakira concert, and a 3D movie about Colombia.

In general, there were more interesting exhibits than disappointing ones. The Pacific Counties Pavilion had open-plan booths with coordinated design and in general more enthusiastic guides than in the Atlantic. Cambodia had artisans making traditional stone carvings. Australia projected their digital show onto a wacky geometrical shape instead of the walls. Russia had an actual ice breaker simulator and took the opportunity to remind us that global warming also means it's getting easier to travel by sea from Northern Europe to East Asia. You can always count on that Russian optimism!

The only country pavilion I went to today with a significant line was the USA pavilion. The first portion of the exhibit was very cool because it used a curtain of water as the screen for it's projection. The second show was probably entitled "This is My Ocean" and had way too many fast cuts for me to enjoy it. It combined an "America's sea shores are as diverse as it's people" theme with a message about the dangers of global warming. I couldn't help but think the movie would have been completely different under a Republican president.

As for the pavilion itself, the biggest difference from other pavilions was the prominence of info about the sponsors. Many international pavilions had sponsors, but the US pavilion was very in-your-face with sponsors getting their own exhibits instead of just a logo somewhere. On the positive side, I do think the pavilion helped a little to bring down that no-English language barrier as I heard many Koreans repeating "this is my ocean" as they exited the pavilion. So they now know at least one English phrase.

I had dinner at the Russian pavilion. I realized that I had either been in Korea too long or gotten up too early this morning when it took me several tries to figure out the best way to hold my knife and fork. I don't want to sound like an idiot, but I've been in Korea for almost 8 months now, and this country just doesn't have knives. They use scissors to cut their meat at dinner, seriously. Maybe they break out knives for actually butchering the animals, but anything short of that and it's the side of your spoon or scissors, I mean "kitchen shears" (sorry 5th grade Home Ec. teacher). On the other hand, for my lunch I got about halfway through my bowl of rice before I noticed I was holding my chop-sticks backwards, so maybe I am an idiot...

At this point, as you can probably guess by the length of my entry (and I've left out several stops and a lot of details) I was pretty pavilioned out. I wandered over to the unfortunately named "Big O" arena alongside the lagoon and saw it was packed with Koreans. The arena and seating area were huge, but I couldn't get more than a distant glimpse of the stage. At one of the backstage entrances screaming fans were greeting what I assumed was some K-pop idol. I continued to walk around the lagoon after determining it would be impossible to actually see the show.

When I completed my circle of the arena lagoon I found myself back at the corporate pavilion area. I saw a big screen TV setup in the plaza showing the broadcast of the performance. The group performing at the time was Korean, despite mainly singing covers of US songs. The internet told me later I was seeing the "K-Pop Culture Concert" featuring Miss A, BEAST, Jay Park and BTOB. That explained why everything was super crowded in the evening. Probably K-Pop Culture Night wasn't the best time for me to choose.

Anyway, the night was cool and pleasant, the music was inoffensive, and the pavilions were nicely lit so I enjoyed my stroll. My only regret was that I had to get the train back to Jeonju before it really got dark and the nightly capstone "Big O" show began at 9:30. I suppose I wouldn't have been able to get near the Big O anyway with the K-pop fans there. Tomorrow I'm leaving even earlier because I have to make it back home in time to get some sleep before going back to work on Monday. I may try to come to the Expo again and stay closer, or at least leave later, so I can see all of the nightly festivities.

I made it back to my hotel, despite my taxi driver being unable to find the place even using the map on the back of the motel's business card. I ended up having to direct him in my horrible Korean. The train ride was also not uneventful. A Chinese college student in Jeonju for foreign exchange who was fluent in English sat next to me and we chatted about Korea and her life. She asked me if I thought she should move to Japan to live with her Japanese professor (he was Chinese). She was very sweet and pleasant to talk to, but if you're asking a stranger on the train for advice on major life decisions, you should probably just buy a magic eight ball. I didn't really comment on her specific quandary, but basically told her the words of wisdom I learned from many an after school special: "stay in school".

So my review of the Expo after the first day? Overall, I'd say that if you're really into digital media art, or cultural performances, or shopping for handmade nicknacks from around the world, and don't mind waiting in lines, then the Expo is fantastic. If not, then it's probably a lot like spending the day at a kiddy amusement park holding onto balloons while your children enjoy the Gnome Coaster you're too big to ride on.

Luckily, I fall into the first category, and I can't wait to go back tomorrow. I even plan on seeking out long lines to visit the popular exhibits I didn't see today. I'll bring a book.

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