“If someone you just met is nice to you, they are after your money.”
— German business student
I had already learned that my first day.
I was wandering through People’s Square taking pictures when a nice Chinese couple asked me to take their photo in front of the fountain. A common enough request. And they did the same for me.
We got to talking. What luck, I thought, a friendly couple who speak English. It turns out they were tourists from Sizhou, about an hour away. He had a computer engineering background, but was in sales, and had three sisters, demolishing my stereotype of the Chinese as only children. She also had siblings. (They said the Chinese can keep having children until they have a boy.)
They told me about a cultural festivity their friend had taken them to yesterday, just on the other side of the CapitaLand building. They were Han Chinese, the majority, they said, but the cultural activity they saw was from one of the 56 ethnic minorities of China.
We discussed each other’s plans for the day, what we’d already seen, and they offered to show me to the cultural activity if I wasn’t doing anything. We walked past the CapitaLand building—they were nice enough to point out things on the way—that character means “3rd floor” in Mandarin, or that lion sculpture is a symbol of protection—so that I had hardly realized we had made our way into…
A tea room.
Wait a second, the tea room scam? This is the scam I had been warned about! I told myself I would never be gullible enough to fall for this one. But no one asked me for tea. This was a cultural festivity. And these were fellow tourists. Should I make a run for the door, or am I being too hyper-vigilant?
I thought of Wei’s advice as I left for China. I had asked him what to do about the distrust of foreigners here. He said to eat what they eat, and it will help build trust.
So I told my new tourist friends I didn’t have a lot of money. The wife said something to the pourer, and translated back to me, “It is okay. They take credit card.” After one cup of tea, and a look at the menu prices (50 rmb for a thimble of tea) I politely put my hand over my cup and declined more. “You don’t like tea?” the wife asked. “No, I don’t like tea.”
I escaped for under $15, but had I stayed for the recommend minimum assortment of 6 types of tea, with the room fee, time fee, etc., the damage would have been pushing $100—this in a city were you can eat a meal for under $3. I’ve been told some victims have even felt it necessary to pay for their host’s tab as well (which would have tripled the bill), but I was not feeling so generous.
In order to complete the illusion, the couple escorted me back to People’s Square and taught me how to purchase tickets for the subway, so I could make my way onward to the French Concession, and ostensibly so they could find another, less stingy victim at the Square.
In retrospect it seems obvious. But they were so authentic, I didn’t let myself believe it was a scam until the next day when other “tourists” started being nice and inquisitive in People’s Square. “Hello, where are you from?” asked one smiling girl, as I walked by. I responded, “I don’t like tea.” Without missing a beat she replied, “How about coffee?”
The sad part of all this is I began to doubt the authenticity of anyone being polite or friendly—and believe me, it is rare in Shanghai.
One couple approached me in the Urban Planning Museum—also claiming to be tourists—and asked me to take a picture of them, with MY camera. They said they wanted a picture of the two of them in front of the model of the city, but only had a cell phone camera, which wasn’t doing the job under the low light.
I kept waiting for the scam, but none came. Who knows, maybe when I email them the photo, I’ll get invited to tea!