Monday, April 28, 2008

The Tea Scam

My recent trip to Shanghai showed me that even China-savvy travelers have to keep their wits about them when visiting the Middle Kingdom.

In five trips to China, I've experienced my fair share of shady encounters. I've had ladies of the night approach me on the streets and buzz the phone in my hotel room. I've plowed through hundreds of street peddlers wielding counterfeit goods. I've downed a shot of baijiu (a clear grain liquor) to be culturally sensitive. And I've even withstood the ubiquitous art scams, where English-speaking students charm tourists into taking just two minutes (it's always two minutes) to see the "authentic" work of an artist and paying exorbitantly to take some of it home.

But even with this well of experience, I was unprepared for a new form of trickery that befell me earlier this month in Shanghai, a fast-moving city of about 18 million people.

I had some time to kill before a meeting, so I walked the shopping street of East Nanjing Street and headed south on Xizang (Tibet) Street toward People's Square, a huge green space in a popular area of Shanghai.

I figured I'd use the quiet setting and lush scenery as a backdrop for a video report for GlobalAtlanta. Except for the occasional jackhammer resounding in the distance, the park was peaceful. Fat white and grey pigeons pecked their way through manicured lawns. Families gathered on benches while their kids fed and chased the birds. Tour groups passed through, marching in lines toward their next attraction. School groups posed for pictures on the steps of the museum, giggling as teachers struggled to corral them. Car noise was noticeably absent.

I must've looked lost as I ambled around aimlessly, because soon, two girls approached me and asked the usual questions about where I'm from, what I've done in Shanghai and how long I'd stay. They were English students from the north, near Beijing, and seemed very nice. I was waiting for the punchline: We're selling art to raise money for our university. Would you like to look for two minutes at some authentic work? That line never came, but they did ask me to accompany them to a famous Shanghai tea ceremony. Citing my upcoming meeting, I politely declined. After I turned down an invite to an acrobatics show, we parted.

Similar exchanges happened a few more times during the same walk. Each time, the questions followed a similar path. Maybe my China game was rusty after more than a year away, but I naively assumed these folks were curious and their motives pure.

When I got back to the States, I found out a different story. While the acrobatics show is a legitimate attraction in Shanghai, the tea ceremony is more "infamous" than famous, as the girls suggested. On, users posted tons of stories about getting nailed by the "tea scam." Most of the encounters followed the same pattern as mine, and the stories ended up the same way - the foreigners joined a host at a local tea house, sampled five to 10 teas and then were slapped with an astronomical bill, sometimes for hundreds of dollars. Luckily, I was just reading the horror stories, not living one out. Albeit unwittingly, I escaped unscathed.

So watch out for the dreaded tea scam in Shanghai and Beijing, the hotspots for this ruse from what I've read. But don't assume that everyone's out to take your money. Most people in China are very welcoming and straightforward, and many are excited at the chance to see foreigners and practice English.

Any travel, especially into unfamiliar territory, is unpredictable and risky. I carried my backpack in front of me on the subway in Shanghai for the same reason I guarded my wallet in the seedy Chorrillo neighborhood in Panama City and locked my car when I went into the grocery store in Atlanta the other day. The key to fulfilling, adventurous and safe travel is finding a healthy balance of skepticism and open-mindedness. Keep your wits, but don't let them keep you from what your host culture has to offer.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


A journalist is supposed to have an eye for detail, the ability to edit a scene while living it, filtering out meaningless content and honing in on the best sensory material to be recalled when pen hits paper. In short, the journalist should notice things that aren't meant to be in the foreground. Those nuanced observations provide the color that can make a story engaging.

As a first-year reporter, I still have trouble breathing in the sights, smells, moods and tastes of an event and getting my mind to grind a colorful experience into the black-and-white confines of language. To make things worse, the inability to see detail increases proportionate to the commonness of the setting observed. This seems counterintuitive, as you would expect a more familiar place to lend itself to vivid description.

But while everyday occurrences can desensitize us, an unfamiliar setting seems to flip some switch in the brain, like a flashing alert that this could be the one chance at recording this unique information. On some weird level, I feel like that's what happens when I go to China, and I'm usually able to sustain this strangely heightened memory capacity for the entirety of the trip.

Maybe it's because I'm an outsider or because I'm so intrigued with the language and culture in the first place, but I soak up China like a sponge. I eavesdrop on conversations, try (unsuccessfully) to read every character and drink in the scenery of a world where every small fulfillment of curiosity only sparks a thirst for more.

My fresh cultural lens and my openness to see helps me notice things some insiders wouldn't, including the habits ingrained within the culture. In China, this means the spitting, the constant rush to get ahead, the lack of courtesy, and at the same time, the hospitality and welcoming nature of people and how they try to claw out a niche for themselves in a huge mass of humanity.
Also, much more so than in America, I really look at people and attempt to understand their hard lives. India has its untouchables, the Dalit caste that has been trampled on by the higher-ups on the social ladder, and China has its unnoticeables, the migrant laborers and farmers that make up the majority of the population. They're the ones that build the skyscrapers but don't get the recognition for all those days they toiled away, living in a ratty dormitory next to an opulent tower.

On a recent trip, I was with millions of them in Shanghai, walking around like a scuba diver submerged in a strange aquatic environment. I had the necessary survival gear: four times in China already and enough language ability to keep me buoyant. But foreigners are always laowai, literally "old outsiders," in China. You can rub elbows with folks inside a subway train, but don't expect to pass as anything but a foreigner.

While some might see the outsider role as a disadvantage, as it invariably is in some cases, being a laowai also gives us a chance to make a difference. Because we're so novel, we have a chance to be ambassadors, not only for our nation, but for Jesus. Our intrusion into someone's life could be the thing they talk about for years to come, especially in rural areas where a laowai sighting isn't an everyday event.

Because of this, each time I go to China, I feel called to live like a journalist as I walk around, taking special interest in characters who are relegated to the bit parts in the daily drama unfolding on China's great stage. The dime-a-dozen waitress, the lady directing the line at the airport, the street sweeper, the bottle collector and the occasional crippled beggar - they're all souls. Jesus knows them, and he notices them, even as the world rushes by to catch the next taxi or train.

Our tour bus driver was a quiet man who spoke no English. He whispered softly to nail down directions with our guide as we rode around town but otherwise kept to himself, unable or unwilling to crack the language barrier between us.

As he stood by the bus waiting for some of our group to transfer to another vehicle to catch an airport shuttle, I walked up to the driver and introduced myself in Chinese.

"What is your honorable surname?" I asked, using the most polite language I could muster. Boredom, detachment and self-consciousness cleared from his face as he smiled.

"Shen Wei," he said. Still beaming, he used his forefinger to trace the characters on his hand to show me which "Shen" and "Wei." (Chinese has a lot of homonyms.)

From then on, he was Mr. Shen to me, and there was a noticeable difference in our relationship. Somehow, I had torn down the wall and imparted a small measure of light into Mr. Shen's day.

Of course, Jesus won't be saving someone based on whether or not a foreigner asked their name, but somehow I believe that if I notice them, they'll know that God notices them. If a mere foreigner can take the time to see them, an even more foreign God can move closer.

If and when that happens, I hope that Mr. Shen and the millions of others like him will notice Him for who he is: a God who notices our struggles and comes alongside us in them.

Photo: Yuyuan Shopping District, Shanghai
Video: Wooden buddhas preparing us for the magnificent (no cameras allowed) Jade Buddha at the Jade Buddha Temple, which was built around him after he was brought back from Burma about 120 years ago.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008


Although I've been having a blast here in Shanghai, I haven't been able to share any of my experiences in this venue. This city truly is a business center! Work has reigned, and I've been writing for GlobalAtlanta rather than myself. Rest assured, there will be plenty of personal content associated with this trip to share here. I've already had some great experiences on my fifth excursion to China. But for now, you'll have to sift through the articles on GlobalAtlanta, to find out what I've been up to. And these aren't even chronicling half of what's gone on here, both with the Georgia delegation, and in my own experience.

Read my article about the launch of the Delta flight here. Another one about the festivities here is soon to come.

Also, I have a GlobalAtlanta blog with links to videos we took at the opening ceremony.

Photo: I finally got to meet Gov. Sonny Perdue. Strange that it had to happen on this side of the world.