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Expo laowai guides speak Chinese

CHINESE people are frequently surprised to hear foreigners speaking their language with fluency, and the World Expo Shanghai is filled with surprises as hundreds of young laowai show visitors around, chattering away in Mandarin.

Local visitors find foreign guides speaking a little Chinese in almost all pavilions, and quite a few speak quite well.

Guides and greeters work throughout the pavilions, some posted at entrances and exits, others in exhibition areas explaining displays and concepts of "Better City, Better Life" in their countries.

They chat with visitors queuing outside to help them pass the time, tell them where to get passport stamps and souvenirs, point out the eateries and toilets, and generally answer questions.

Many guides especially like to be posted at the entrance where they can make a good impression for their country, welcome visitors and practice their Chinese.

Henrik Tornell, 23, Sweden Pavilion

Tornell is a VIP tour guide and he likes being able to stroll around the entire pavilion and explain everything.

Last month he guided Swedish King Carl VI Gustaf.

"I don't have one favorite place in the pavilion, it's all so interesting," he says. "So I can explain everything to visitors."

Tornell's Chinese is pretty basic; he studied for two semesters at Jiao Tong University in 2009. When he cannot understand, the Chinese staff in the pavilion help him out.

Chinese visitors are pleased to hear his basic Chinese and sometimes practice their English with him. Many want to pose for pictures with him.

"When they ask to take a photo, sometimes I joke in Chinese and tell them it will cost 5 yuan (73 US cents)."

The pavilion features an exhibit about how air pollution damages the lungs: A giant model of a healthy lung is bathed in white light. The colors are confusing to many Chinese, since in China red is auspicious while white represents death.

That taxes Tornell's ability to explain different concepts in different cultures.

Simon Vincent Kodnar, 21, Austria Pavilion

Speaking Chinese is easy since Kodnar has a Shanghainese mother.

The good-looking, 190-centimeter-tall fellow likes standing at the entrance.

"I love speaking to visitors and hearing them calling me shuai ge (handsome boy) when they first see me," he says.

Many locals are astonished when Kodnar responds to the shui ge compliment by saying xie xie (Thank you).

"That gets them interested and they keep asking how and where I learned. The most perceptive can guess from my looks that I'm half Chinese."

Kodnar is awed to see so many people in one place, as Austria isn't too crowded, but given his height he can see above most people.

Though Kodnar is fluent in Chinese, reading and writing were difficult until he spent a year at Fudan University in 2006. Then he fell in love with the language and the people.

"My parents insist that I should learn Chinese as it is half of my blood," he says. "I did a great job learning and had a great time here with my Chinese fellows."

He got rid of his mother's Shanghainese accent and has been preparing for the World Expo since 2006. During summer vacations he worked as an intern in China and was accepted as an Austria Pavilion guide. "I'm quite qualified, I have some working experience, I speak fluent Chinese and my good looks may have helped me win the post," he says.

Natanel Bigger, 24, Germany Pavilion

Chinese is one of the most difficult languages in the world, says Bigger, who works as both a driver and a guide, but he is confident about his language talent.

Bigger learned Chinese in university for two years and studied further at Fudan University in 2007. He speaks German, English and Hebrew, as well as Chinese.

"My Chinese always improves quickly when I am in China and regresses when I am back in Germany," says Bigger. "I may need to move to China to ensure my Chinese is always good."

He even speaks a bit of Shanghai dialect now and enjoys speaking to so many different people. He communicates easily but sometimes has trouble understanding elderly people with strong accents.

He has encountered many Chinese people who speak fluent English and was astonished that one of the first people he took around was a gentleman in his 80s who spoke flawless English.

"I know that their English is perfect, but still I insist speaking Chinese and try to speak first as I want to practice my Chinese," says Bigger.

When the pavilion opened, many Chinese were not accustomed to queuing and Bigger repeatedly explained that queuing gives everyone a fair chance. The situation has improved.

Kathryn Sirolly, 22, USA Pavilion

As a student ambassador, Sirolly says her job is to welcome people from around the world and help them learn about the American people.

She likes the entry area best.

"Queuing for hours isn't easy," she says, "so student ambassadors chat with visitors, cheer them up and help pass the time."

Sirolly studied Chinese for one year at the Beijing Language and Culture University in 2008 and her Chinese is still pretty basic.

But visitors love talking to the attractive young woman. They always ask why she learned Chinese and why she came to China.

She always says she really loves the country, especially Beijing and Shanghai, two cities with completely different styles, both appealing.


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