In May 2006, I spent three weeks in China, visiting Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Han Cunhe village, and Hong Kong. I am slowly posting stories about my Chinese experiences, visually aided by my photographs. I’d love to know what people think, so feel free to add a comment below if inclined.
This story begins on a May afternoon in Beijing. I had taught myself how to navigate the subway system, and headed to the pedestrian-only shopping district of Wangfujing Street. The Times Square of Beijing, Wangfujing was riddled with brand name shops, street vendors, and bright neon. I was looking to buy a small backpack.
That’s when she appeared.
In my quest for a backpack, I met a Chinese young woman who introduced herself as Jenny. She claimed to be a college student and parttime English teacher, and asked if I’d join her for a cup of coffee so she could practice her English.
I don’t drink coffee, I told her. But she seemed nice, so I offered to drink tea with her.
That was a mistake…
Jenny led me across the street, into a department store, past the leather goods section, up an escalator, past some musical instruments, and into the Dragon Spring Tea House. I thought it a little odd that a tea house was hidden inside a department store, but I had been in China a few days, so maybe this was some real estate gem.
I saw a few staff milling about, but no customers. Oh, and I was also the only white person in the entire department store.
A girl whose name I never caught, primarily because she didn’t speak English, ushered me into a private, draped room and the tea ceremony began.
It was hypnotic wanderlust.
I was led on a tasting trip to oolong tea, green tea, black tea, hibiscus tea, jasmine tea, and several other teas. Maybe about eight teas. The whole experience lasted about an hour. AN HOUR!
Something didn’t feel right. I asked for directions to the toilet, which was upstairs. A tea house staffer led me there, but then she stood guard while I used the bathroom.
I thought about escaping, but where? How?
I had to return.
I returned to the tea house, and was asked if I wanted to purchase any teas or tea cups as a souvenir.
I pointed at the jasmine tea.
The girl comes back with two boxes. One box for me, and one for Jenny. I didn’t ask; I just wanted to get out of there.
I am presented the bill. Jenny is not reaching for her purse. I look at the total: 1658 RMB. The equivalent of $170.
Some back-and-forth confusion, and Jenny understands my frustration at the high price (though not realizing that it’s expensive to me, considering she invited me)
so offers to pay for her tea. Not the ceremony, just her box.
What can I do? I whip out my Visa, and sign away $170. No description on the receipt. I make note of the name and location of the shop on my way out.
I later learned that tourists from English-speaking countries were constantly exploited in what is known as the so-called Beijing tea house scam. That night, while staying in a dorm room at the University of International Business and Economics, I googled (from google.cn) various keywords and discovered the scam and suggestions for financial relief.
In the end, the experience with Jenny and the teas was a positive experience, for it became fodder for stories, such as this one. Great stories usually involves a cost, financial or otherwise, to be appreciated, don’t you agree?
EDIT: You can see a similar story by Mike here.