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.

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