May 8, 2010

First-Team All-Swindle, III

“You got tea-scammed?” she asked excitedly, as though it were part of the experience of going to Shanghai. And then it hit meI was scammed.

My cynicism regarding Chinese swindles isn’t natural. It has been learned – the hard way. The first time I was swindled in China was in 2007, when my brother and I went to Urumuqi, the capital of Xinjiang Province. On the bus from the airport to our hotel, we were befriended by a guy who spoke pretty good English. We chatted for a while and, when we were about 15 minutes from the hotel, he tossed us a sales pitch about his tour group, Turpan Happy Tours. We could pay 400 yuan for an all-inclusive package that included trips to a series of things that my brother and I wanted to see anyway. We would ride camels and go to a grape farm and peer into ancient caves and do other things unique to the Urumuqi area; this guy’s taxi-driver friend would provide the transport. Sounded good.

The dude came to the hotel with us. Inside the hotel was a huge poster featuring package-deals that included many of the same sights that this guy was offering. The major difference was that those tours were considerably more expensive. Thus, we agreed to terms: four-hundred yuan; sites A, B, C, D and E; his friend would drive; 8 a.m. tomorrow morning.

Come 8 a.m., his friend rolled up in a nice taxi – even had leather seats. We would first go to the furthest destination, where camels and caves awaited. Well, instead of getting on a camel straight-away, which is what we were anticipating, we were first asked to pay. “No,” my brother said in his broken but serviceable Chinese. “We already paid.” No we hadn’t, they said. “Yes, we gave 400 yuan to this guy,” at which point we showed then the Turpan Happy Tour card.

Turned out the 400 yuan wasn’t all that inclusive. This wasn’t what we were led to believe, of course. The Happy Tour was to include transportation and admission to all these sites. Not so. Thus, we ended up being nickel-and-dimed all day. Money for the camels. Money to enter the caves. Money to traipse around the grape farm. Money here, there and everywhere. The Turpan Happy Tour turned into a Turpan Crappy Tour.

More recently, I was swindled last fall in Shanghai. While walking around the city center, a nice-looking group of four approached me to chat. They were all Chinese and said that they were on vacation. They’d just gone to an art museum, and they were now on their way to get tea. They invited me to join them, but I declined. The woman who spoke the best English persisted. “Please,” she said. “You need to experience a Chinese tea ceremony. You seem so nice!”

I had other things on the docket, so I again said thanks but no thanks. Afterward, though, I felt a twinge of remorse. Maybe I should have gone, I thought. I mean, it probably would have been cool – experiencing a Chinese tea ceremony (whatever that was) with a bunch of Chinese people. It was a missed opportunity.

Luckily, though, about four hours later I was again approached to have tea. A pair of guys shot the breeze with me for about two minutes and then casually said, “Well, my cousin and I are going to have tea now. Have you ever been to a Chinese tea ceremony?” No! “Would you like to come?” Yes! I didn’t hesitate; I wasn’t going to miss another chance to experience a Chinese tea ceremony (whatever that was) with some Chinese people.

The sanctity of the ceremony was offset by the fact that it was held on an upper floor of a shopping center, that you had to walk past a series of clothing stores and manicurists to get there, and that the hostess of the occasion was wearing jeans. Whatever, I thought. Just Westernization.

The three of us sat down opposite the jean-clad hostess, who explained the prices. It would cost 39 yuan per person just to be there, and then 49 yuan for each variety of tea we drank. I was a little taken aback by the prices; it seemed insanely overpriced. But, then again, we were in Shanghai, and things are expensive in Shanghai. Plus, I was on vacation. What the hell!

There was a hokey explanation for what each tea was supposed to do – this one is good for your breathing; this one is good for men. After about 15 minutes and two different teas, the bill came to 137 yuan per person. I gave one of the guys 150 yuan, and he left the room with the hostess. The third guy didn’t pay anything, but explained while we were alone that his cousin was spotting him. I got my 13 yuan back and felt good as I left. I may have foolishly forewent a cultural experience when I passed on tea this morning, but at least I made up for it.

That night I met my friend, who was teaching in Shanghai, for dinner. She asked what all I did today. I told her that I went to an English language bookstore – can’t find those in Jinan – walked around the Bund, etc., etc. Shanghai stuff, basically. “Oh, and I went this tea ceremony thing.”

“You got tea-scammed?” she asked excitedly, as though it were part of the experience of going to Shanghai. And then it hit me. Yes, I was scammed. One-hundred thirty-seven yuan for a few sips of tea and 15 minutes of sitting in an annex buried atop a mall, presided over by some bimbo wearing jeans and paid for by an invisible exchange that took place outside the room? Scammed, indeed.

I have friends who have been scammed, as well. And heck, maybe there are other times when I’ve been scammed and I didn’t even realize it. Basically, scamming in China is not uncommon. And when Goel disappeared and informed us that he needed 200 yuan, it reeked of a scam.

Jonathan, John and I continue to play basketball. John’s intensity never relinquishes, and our squad rarely loses. Eventually, though, we tire of playing and decide it’s time to head out. Jonathan and I stuff our money and phones into our pockets, noticing that John’s phone is still nowhere to be found. Nor was Goel. I then give my phone to John to call his phone to see what was going on. Goel answers and says that he’d be about five minutes.

The three of us slowly walk over to the entrance and sit down next to Court No. 1, waiting for Goel. The people playing there invite us to join them, but we are played out. Five minutes passes and Goel is nowhere to be found; my swindle theory is looking stronger and stronger.

Then a cop car rolls up. Goel hops out of the backseat and jogs over to John to give him his phone. Sorry! He says. Sorry I was gone a long time! John earnestly isn’t upset and tells Goel not to worry about it. Jonathan asks what happened.I called them to meet and give them the 200 yuan, but they said that they wanted more money. So I called the police. He punctuates this last sentence by pointing to the police car. Sorry again, Goel says to John.

It’s no problem, John assures him. Good luck getting your stuff back.

I don’t know if Goel ever did get his things back. I do know, however, that he wasn't swindling us or trying to trick us. Nonetheless, I successfully tricked myself.

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