Posted on Jul 14, 2014

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I got scammed today in Shanghai and enjoyed it.

I was admittedly nervous to travel to China on my own, despite being relatively well-traveled. Coming here crossed off the last inhabited continent that I had yet to travel to. The language barrier I knew would be more extreme than anything I had yet experienced. In the week leading up to flying to Shanghai, I started building up my guard – installing VPN services on all my devices, printing out addresses in Chinese, strategizing to never leave any hard drives unattended in my hotel room, researching what masks I should wear in case of terrible air pollution. I loathed all of this. While I’m a diligent planner by nature, I rarely enjoy applying plans to travel. Perhaps I was ruined by watching Lost In Translation just before I began my now-voracious appetite for international travel. I’m captured with the romance of having an open heart to stumble into unexpected travel experiences. Whatever the reason, I found myself missing my former trips to London nearly a decade ago where I could just show up and figure it out on the fly.

I woke up this morning feeling confident with a side of uncertainty. I knew I had today and tomorrow free to explore. I had spent the last three days working while also being shown around to a few destinations by local friends, but today I knew if I wanted to look around I would have to take myself out. I had settled in to Shanghai rather quickly – it actually really didn’t feel that foreign at all. It felt more like a mashup of London and Las Vegas, with a dash of Los Angeles traffic. Still, I felt uncertain – always painfully aware of my Kansas upbringing as a handicap, having never grown up with public transit, taxis, street vendors and your general array of things you would never see in a run-of-the-mill Midwestern suburb. My lack of confidence in figuring out public transit combined with my certainty in never having a sense of direction isn’t a lot of fun.

I wanted to go to Yu Garden, which felt simple enough. A huge tourist destination that no locals go to, but I was okay with playing tourist for a day. I navigated the metro station, the ticket machine, the security line, and the train with extreme ease before popping out of the Yuyuan Garden station, following signs to my destination. Just as I did, I heard a girl, about my age, calling out to me asking me to take a picture of her and her friend. My first reaction was to keep walking. Anyone who speaks to you in English here or in many other countries is looking to scam you. I had successfully already avoided dozens of people wanting to talk to me in English while here. My second reaction was “be nice, take their picture and then be on your way if they try to sell you something”. As you can probably already discern, I chose the second reaction. I handed her camera back to her and asked if Yu Garden was the direction I thought it was. She said it was but that she and her friend had just come back from it because it was too crowded and they weren’t letting anyone in at the moment. This raised a red flag, but I countered my alarm with having been told that I should arrive at Yu Garden at 8:30am due to the excessive crowds. It was now 12:30pm. My next red flag was that I knew Yu Garden was like Fisherman’s Wharf – a place that all tourists go to, but no locals. Without prompting her, she told me that her friend was visiting Shanghai from another city in China and that she was showing her the garden. This fact countered the red flag again.

I thanked them for telling me and told them that I’d just walk around the garden until they started letting people in again. She then told me that her and her friend were headed to a tea room to pass the time and invited me along if I wanted to join them. Agreeing to hang out with any stranger is worrisome, but I sized them up as best I could quickly. Two women around my age, both friendly – one overly extroverted and the other quite introverted, but not in an off-putting way. Neither seemed pushy. They had umbrellas and purses, cameras and ballcaps on them – looking like any other person who was planning on spending the day in the garden. I decided to give in. Traveling alone, while exhilarating, also is taxing – the idea of getting tea with a couple of other girls was admittedly appealing.

Still skeptical and careful, I remained very reserved in chatting with them, watching the streets they took me down, while we exchanged basic details like names and what we did for a living. The extroverted girl was “Sarah” – her friend had a Chinese name that I couldn’t remember. Sarah spoke incessantly, but in a friendly manner. After a few short blocks, we dashed into a tea room, where the hostess and Sarah exchanged a few words in Chinese before we were escorted into a private room with six chairs. The room was tiny but cozy, with an elaborate tea setup. I am a bit of a tea aficionado, so this was a welcome sight. Sarah’s friend tried to take a picture of the tea setup before the hostess came in and waved her hands and said something in Chinese to say that no photography was allowed. This furthered my comfort level – surely, I thought, if I was being scammed, Sarah’s friend wouldn’t have tried to take a picture before pissing off the hostess. Sarah explained to me that the hostess said that no photography was allowed because they were worried someone would copy their technique. My hacker instinct was to keep an eye open for an opportunity to sneak a photo anyway.

The tea service that I snuck a photo of.

The tea service that I snuck a photo of.

The hostess only spoke Chinese and was very serious, I felt the sense that she was annoyed by Sarah’s constant chatting which felt loud in such a serene little tea room. As the hostess presented the various teas to us and a menu, Sarah translated. Sarah would even catch places on the menu where they had misspelled the English translation – teas claiming to be good for “momory” or “skinl”. The tea service consisted of trying six different teas – all served in a very elaborate way by the hostess, pouring the pots from great heights to signify something that I honestly can’t remember. Sarah, Sarah’s friend and I chatted throughout – chatting about the economy in the States, if I had watched the World Cup, where I had been in Shanghai so far. Sarah said her and her friend were into astrology, which I indulged, always wanting to be respectful of people’s interests even if it’s at odds with science. She asked me how I had met my boyfriend, if I traveled often, if my dark hair was my natural hair color. She could sense my being reserved about it all, commenting that I was much more British in my serious and quiet nature than American. But, admittedly, underneath the layers of guard, I was quite enjoying this. Having my little travel romance moment. Enjoying having tea with a couple of girls I could talk to, albeit shyly, and getting to have an experience that I otherwise wouldn’t have had I walked away. Plus, I really love tea. And the tea was really good. The tea service featured little statues to pour tea over and lessons in various Chinese myths. There was a poster on the wall with Chinese writing that the hostess pointed to and explained. Sarah said it was hard to translate but did her best, while trying to teach me various Chinese words. She would push me to try when I said a word was too hard to try to repeat. She joked that maybe she could help me learn the language if we stayed in touch.

The street that the tea service room was on.

The street that the tea service room was on.

The tea service concluded with the woman trying to sell large boxes of tea to us. “Aha!” I thought. Here’s the scam. The box consisted of three boxes of tea. I did really like one of the teas, but my guard was up. I asked if it was possible just to buy one tea and the hostess said no. I said I wasn’t interested then. Sarah offered to split the cost with me and honestly, after having a lovely time, I decided “fuck it, I’ll splurge on this overpriced tea” and handed over my card to be charged for part of the tea service and tea. The bill was over 1000 RMB, a price that I hadn’t seen *anywhere* in my excursions in Shanghai. Nevertheless, I calculated in my head that it was around $150 and again said “fuck it” since I had been very conservative in my spending so far. Sarah handed over lots of cash to the woman and joked that she was taking all her money. She left a tip in American dollars, which I thought strange and asked her about it. She brushed it off that she traveled often. I didn’t ask anything further because I knew from traveling to Africa, that other countries would sometimes prefer you have American dollars.

The three of us left the tea house and the girls asked if I wanted to dash in to the public restroom. I followed. One of the girls used the restroom first and then I went in after she was finished. Squatting awkwardly over a hole in the floor (I have no idea how a woman pees in those types of bathrooms!), I thought to myself “Okay, Ariel, don’t be surprised if you come out of the bathroom and they’re gone. This would be a perfect opportunity for them to ditch you”. After deciding that I simply couldn’t bring myself to figure out how the hell you’re supposed to pee into this flushing hole in the floor, I emerged out of the bathroom to find the two girls still waiting for me. Furthering my suspicion that they were actually being genuine. If not, I thought, they were certainly spending a lot of time on me for a scam. We meandered down the streets to go back to the garden. On the way, Sarah asked to take a picture with me. Her friend snapped a photo and then I asked her to take another using my camera. Sarah then said her friend was leaving town that evening and they wanted to buy a souvenir in one of the shops and that I should go on to the garden without them. I offered to go to the shops with them, but they insisted that they didn’t know what they wanted to get and that they were going to spend a lot of time looking. Sarah asked for my email and said she’d try to email me when they knew they were going to the garden. I handed her my business card. She pointed out the way to the garden, we hugged, and she told me to be careful with my bag while in the crowds.

Me and "Sarah"

Me and “Sarah”

Six hours later I’m staring blankly at a wall in a tiny dumpling restaurant when my dinner companion asks if I’m alright. I stumble with my words. “What? Oh. Yes. I’m just jetlagged.” I lie. I’m obsessing over the fact that just prior to getting picked up for dinner, I googled the name of the tea place that charged my card, “SHH Zhen Rui Culture”, to discover two posts written in Japanese about it. Both saying that they experienced EXACTLY what I had. Two girls. Waiting outside of Yuyuan station. One seemed “pure” (shy). Started by asking to take their picture. Tea bill was extremely expensive. I felt embarrassed. My pride as someone who nowadays lived in a city for several years shrank. Mostly, I felt the hard-wired embarrassment to my parents and grandparents finding out. The feeling of a past teenager so desperately wanting to prove that they’re an adult and the parents never accepting it even a decade or so later. Somehow my logic fails me and it feels like this one fuck-up in a decade will undo my years of convincing my parents that I’m fine on my own. My Mom still asks that I call her when I get to my hotel safely.

My dinner companion suggests getting post-dumpling Chinese massages. Exactly what I need. We walk to a spa and I settle in to enjoy getting the crap beat out of my shoulders via strong thumbs. My mind still drifts to continue obsessing. I felt stupid for contrasting what turned out to be their scam with all the other scams I had encountered – most of which are so so obvious when they reveal themselves. Almost always they get pushy at some point or in your face or claim to have something better than anyone else. This was subtle. This was a long burn. It was… exquisite. I was honestly impressed. I had had a delightful time getting to hang out with two girls my age and spending time chatting about the world. There were multiple opportunities for them to ditch me, steal my camera or any other number of things that I went in being fully prepared for, but they didn’t. Thinking about it, if someone had offered to be temporary friends and take me out for a nice afternoon of tea and chatting for $168.97, the final charge on my card, I might wince at the cost but consider it an enjoyable tourist opportunity. And that’s just what I had. I ended the day by canceling my debit card.