08 May 2011

The Tea Scam

It was hard not to follow Janie. She wanted to practice her English with us. She complemented our beautiful skin. And she offered to lead us out of the cold and away from the swarms of other tourists.

After a long night at the ice bar in Hong Kong and an early morning flight, we were exhausted when we arrived in Beijing. Despite our fatigue, we'd adopted the traveler's "I'll sleep when I get home" mentality, so we headed out to visit Tiananmens Square.

The sun lay close to the horizon for more than half the day, reminding us that we were across the world from home. When it finally did go down, we found ourselves buying expired "2008 Olympics" beanies to stay warm.

When Janie approached us I wondered how she found us, or why she chose us, in the sea of other visitors at the world's largest city square. When I look back at the photos and consider our head wear, I realize how easy it was for her to spot us, even from across the site's 440,000 square meters.

When Janie spoke our language and offered to lead us to a restaurant with some of China's most authentic cuisine, we gladly accepted her invitation. We followed her white leather-shoed footsteps out of the square and into a series of dark streets, all lined with tall brick walls. She adjusted her sparkling headband often, chatting away about her love for the American Pie movies and the Backstreet Boys. We adjusted our beanies further down over our ears as the cold night set in, and continued to follow this stranger who promised a Chinese experience different than the tourist trap at the Square.

We emerged out of the walled alley ways onto a busy street with red lanterns hanging across skyscrapers above. Janie led us to a small restaurant brimming with eaters and imbibers. "It's too busy here," she complained. "Let's go get a beer first."

So we followed her again through the maze of brick walls, disappearing again into the dark network of alleyways. This time when we came out, we were on a darker, quiet street. I wished there were lanterns -it was so dark, and bitter cold, and I was starting to wonder why we'd walked so far for a brew. Wasn't there alcohol on the busy street we'd been on before?

Janie knocked on a dark green door. A grandmother-like woman silently opened it up and motioned for us to come inside. She counted the eight of us, and corralled four of my friends into one small room, and four of us into another. Before I could ask where the beer was and what the hell we were doing, another woman came in and delivered teacups and a variety of herbs to our table. She didn't speak either, but she began filling our cups with samples of tea - ginseng, jasmine, fruit tea, wheat tea, green tea, black tea.

Janie translated. "This is a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. These small cups are meant to be drank in three sips. Place your pointer finger and thumb around the rim of the cup and your middle finger underneath. Go ahead, try it."

We drank the small cups of tea in three sips each. Janie instructed the guys in our group to stack up their other two fingers underneath their middle fingers while drinking, and the girls to point theirs out. This was a sign of male professionalism and female beauty, she said. I wondered if my other four friends were also stacking their fingers in the other tiny room.

Janie taught us "Gan Bei," or cheers, and encouraged us to keep trying the different varieties of tea. I had no idea where in China I was, how I would get back to my hostel, or where the food and beer I'd been promised was, but the tea was delicious so I kept sipping.

Ten varieties of tea later, and yet another woman came in to deliver receipts. They were written in Chinese, obviously, so Janie continued translating. "500 Yuan... each." 

My friends and I stared at each other in shock. We hadn't been given a menu, and we had never expected to rack up a bill of $75 American dollars each. We looked to Janie hoping to find similar shock in her face, but all we saw were her sparkling headband and cheerful smile flashing back at us.

So we paid. We came out of the little room to find our four other friends similarly awestruck by the price of the tea ceremony, and the distinct suspicion that we'd all been scammed.

Janie stayed behind at the tea house, where she had clearly come from in the first place, and bid us farewell before we walked back out into the cold, dark alleyway. We walked away in silence, with absolutely no idea where we were going. We pulled our beanies back down over our ears.