Travelpilz starts the new year with a confession. After over 30 years of independent travel, I’ve finally been conned. I’ve survived India on my own. I outsmarted every trickster in Egypt. I’ve never had anything stolen in any of the 45 countries I’ve visited. But it’s finally happened. I’ve fallen for a textbook scam in Shanghai.
I am beetroot-red with shame. Because it gets worse. I only accepted that I have been scammed when I was back home and Googled ‘scams in Shanghai’. And there it was. The Tea Ceremony Scam. The number one trick to extort money from unsuspecting foreigners.
How the Tea Ceremony Scam works
It’s always the same scenario. You are visiting Shanghai’s most popular spots. East Nanjing Road, the Bund or People’s Square and suddenly a couple of well dressed students start a conversation in good English. You feel grateful to have finally found someone who speaks your language. They’ll claim to be tourists visiting Shanghai. You have something in common. You bond. Instantly. That’s what travel is all about. Maybe they’ll ask you to take their photo, then they’ll ask you to join them in their next sightseeing stop and experience the real Chinese tea ceremony. And you’ll think ‘ how cool is that’…
At least I did when Sam, Fify and Emily, fake students from Harbin in China’s far north, invited us after some animated chit chat to join them to celebrate the New Year at the tea festival in Bejing Road. I fell right into the trap. I hadn’t prepared myself for Shanghai. I’d been here 6 years ago, almost exactly to the day, wearing the exact same red coat, wandering around town on my own, fending off aggressive salespeople, scammers and potential pickpockets like the professional solo traveler I’d been for decades.
This time I was visiting with a travel companion on a 14 hour stop over. We were bone tired and massively jetlagged. It was meant to be an easy day, without plan, to get lost in the side streets of Nanjing Road, find interesting neighborhoods. A close encounter with Chinese students, hungry to absorb our language and share their culture was a perfect fit.
“Come. We drink tea from minority areas,’ Sam said, holding up a tourist map of Shanghai identical to mine. ” Here. We booked it this morning. It’s New Year. We go to tea festival.”
Celebrating Western New Year with a tea festival? A red flag? Maybe. But it felt right somehow to do this. To jointly celebrate a New Year that had begun with an unthinkable tragedy. Less than 36 hours ago 36 mostly young people had been killed in a stampede at the Bund.
I hang my head in shame and admit that I paid absolutely no attention to where we were going or what the place was called. It’s totally against my rules and gut instinct. But Sam, Fify and Emily had so many interesting stories to tell about Harbin, the ice castle, their lives, their grandmothers for whom they were buying tea. They taught me to say ‘yummy’ in Mandarin and praised my pronunciation. I was flattered. It felt so real, so authentic. By the time we sat down, we were best friends.
So what if the teafestival turned out to be a tea ceremony? Surely it was an error of translation. And the ethnic minorities were only dots on a map Emily interpreted for me. “Look here, very good tea, rolled by hand to catch the morning dew.”
I didn’t bother to question the English price list. I presumed that the charge of Y 49 per tea would be per pot, shared by all five of us. Surely a Chinese student wouldn’t be paying the equivalent of AUD 10 per tiny cup of tea.
The tea master who spoke no English made us taste six different teas accompanied by much ritual and skillful filling and emptying of cups, pots and cleansing of utensils. Fruity tea, 10 year old tea wrapped individually in white paper, tea cups that changed colour, jasmine tea that opened up into a flower inside a wineglass.
But no photos, please, he requested after I had taken his photo. People might copy his set up, Sam translated. Another red flag? It’s no secret that the Chinese are masters at copying anything and everything. They produce the best fakes. But fake cultural experiences? It couldn’t be. It was too convincingly enacted, too elaborate. To round it off, we even got a lengthy fable about tea and Confucius, first in Chinese, then in Sam’s laboured rapid fire translation in an increasingly incomprehensible accent. Who would go to so much effort in the name of extortion? It couldn’t be. Surely.
Then it was time to shop. “What was your favourite tea?” “I like the green tea, very good for you,” said Fify. The tea master handed us the menu. There were three different sizes, beginning at Y 270. But he’d run out of small gift boxes. I’d have to buy the next size up starting at Y 370, approximately AUD 74 for 100gr of tea.
It did occur to me that these prices were either incredibly high or the guy at the currency exchange at the airport had given us the wrong rate. Surely he must have been wrong. Surely our new friends couldn’t be wrong. They were busy choosing pretty gift boxes and buying expensive tea for their elderly relatives back home. “It’s our tradition. Our elders are important,” Emily said.
I was too tired to do the sums and my phone had run out of juice. That meant I couldn’t check the currency converter. Gut instinct told us not to buy any gifts. But that’s where my gut instinct stopped. Unbelievable. I continued to believe the scam even as I followed the corrupt tea master (or perhaps he too was a fake) and Sam the fake engineering student to the ATM to withdraw five times the amount of money we had budgeted for. Was I crazy? But Sam, using the ATM next to mine, was withdrawing a similar amount of money.
He suggested to share the bill and cover for Fify, the youngest and poorest. “It’s a Chinese tradition to share all of the bill,” said Sam. Including their gifts for their aging relatives? Now that seemed outrageous and alarm bells started to go off but Sam put on an Oscar worthy performance. He apologised, much embarassed, for the cultural misunderstanding. Of course we wouldn’t have to share that part. “It’s Chinese tradition. I am so sorry.”
“I am so sorry about this misunderstanding,” Fify seemed genuinely flustered. “Please allow me to buy for you the cup you liked so much. The one that changes colour. It’s the couples’ cup.” She insisted we take it.
Last time I had visited Shanghai, I had come with my Intercultural Communication students. Rule number one is never to make a Chinese person loose face. So how could I question the fact that these students were paying an outrageous amount for tiny sips of six different teas? Emily and Sam handed over the equivalent of AUD $150. How could I not do the same?
“Next time you come visit us in Harbin. We will show you the real China,” Emily was unstoppable in her enthusiasm. We exchanged email addresses and parted on friendly terms. “We hope you enjoy New Year,” they pointed us towards the Bund and then excused themselves. Fify needed to find a toilet, after all that tea. Of course, we understood. I was feeling severely sick by now. Was I the one who had lost face?
Before returning to the airport we stopped for dinner in a simple eatery. A man was making dumplings by hand, two elderly women in white aprons took orders. We pointed to a plate of steamed pork dumplings. How much? We had no idea what the woman in the white apron said. I handed her 10 yuan. She shook her head. Not enough. Of course. Not when a tiny cup of tea costs Y 49. I handed her Y 20. She handed it back. Still not enough? Two shy fingers slipped into my wallet. She took a 1 yuan note. She could have taken anything, I would have believed her.
The moral of the story? How to avoid scams
- Don’t trust friendly strangers. Don’t allow a stranger to distract you through rapid talking. Never go anywhere with a total stranger. It’s the lesson every parent teaches their child. But if you’d never disobeyed your parents, would you have had much fun? Go with your gut instinct. Be alert, not alarmed.
- Learn to walk like the Chinese. Take note of what goes on around you but don’t engage, don’t make eye contact. Walk as if your peripheral vision has been deactivated. Just keep walking. Scammers will soon focus on the next victim.
- Prepare yourself for your destination. Even if you are only visiting for a stop over, know the basics of where you are going. Take extra care when you are tired. After long flights your senses and body clock will be out of sync. Don’t let your guard down.
- Download Google Maps and find your position via GPS. I find it useful to know how to orientate myself from North to South.
- Find out about common scams. Google is your best friend. At www.smartshanghai you’ll find a comprehensive list of the 10 most common scams; Tripadvisor also has a useful list. But don’t become intimidated by the cascade of scam stories. Keep an open mind and stay focused.
- Download a currency converter app to your phone and get an idea of prices before you arrive. That way you’ll know immediately if something seems outrageously overpriced.
What I’ve learned?
Never be discouraged. Shanghai is a very safe city. Chinese people will be respectful of you. They may be loud and plentiful, but they will not approach unless they want their photo taken with you. This is very common and usually harmless. Violent crime is very low in Shanghai. Keep an open mind and go with your gut instinct. And don’t leave your common sense in a locker at the airport like I did.
Have you been victim of a scam in Shanghai? Please share your story.
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