Monday, January 7, 2008

Is It Still A Scam If I Know It?

New Yorkers are very helpful. Many who haven't been there don't know that, but it's true. Get lost in New York, and a hundred people will stop to help you. On the other hand, walk through Times Square slowly, admiring all the dazzling signs (Oh look, they turned Legally Blonde into a musical! What the world has been waiting for!), and yes, you will likely get run down. Not by the cabs, either, but by your fellow pedestrians. In New York, those feet you have, they were made for walking, and that's just what they better do, or in about three seconds someone's boots are gonna walk all over you.

Beijing -- very different. Meander down the streets, as I am want to do, and not only will people not glare at you, they'll come right up and say hello, as though you are long lost friends. I can't tell you how many conversations I've had Chinese people just suddenly strike up with me. "Hi! You are visiting?" "Where you from?" "You speak English?" It's neat -- and they're all so interested in me. Where in the States I'm from, what I do, my pathetic attempts at saying hello in Chinese. One Buddhist man and his nephew, who was visiting from another part of China, walked with me for nearly an hour, talking about our different countries and religious traditions.

Usually these encounters conclude with an invitation to tea. I went to my first tea service, in fact, with the Buddhist and his nephew about two days after I arrived. What is a tea service? Well, you're ushered into a very small room, with a few seats very low to the ground. A young woman comes in and kneels before a small table with an indentation on which are placed a number of glasses. To her right are glass jars filled with different kinds of substances from which she will make tea. She begins to make the first pot, explaining all the while what different things mean, how tea services were a custom of the emperor, how men drink tea, what this practice means. And while she's talking in this way, she pours cups of tea in small glasses, then pours them out into the indentation, after which she gives the glasses to you, so that you can smell the fragrance of the tea, roll it against your cheeks (supposedly it reduces wrinkles and relaxes you), and place it against your eyes (no idea why). Then she begins to pour cup after cup of wonderful, relaxing tea.

For the low, low price of 50 Yuan per course (or type). That is, about $7.50, and you're going to have four courses, so $30 for tea. (It was explained to me later, the whole thing should have cost a couple bucks.)

Yes, that's right, it's all a sham. The guy and his nephew, the girl at the tea shop -- all in cahoots. The girls who come right up and say hello -- they, too, are anxious to get me to some tea shop or other place where they'll get a cut. The people who come up and say, "You need lady massage? You pick the one you want, she'll come to your hotel room and stay as long as you'd like" -- well, that one's a little more obvious. (But common, right on the main 5th Avenue-y drag of Beijing known as Wangfujing.)

But I'm telling you, the scammers are really, really good at it. I would dare anyone to spend 20 minutes with my Buddhist friend and not believe him when he said he thought Jesus was a very wise man, he read the Bible constantly. As far as I'm concerned, he deserved every penny he earned.

Shop prices here are likewise pretty malleable; it has been explained to me that there are the prices for Chinese, and prices for the rest of us. And you have to learn to just ignore what they tell you. Today someone offered to sell me 10 postcards of the Great Wall for 260 Yuan. That is, for $40. And when I counter offered with 10 (yuan, mind you), she looked as though I was literally stealing food right out of the mouths of her children. I'm telling you, some of the street vendors are geniuses.

After the Buddhist incident, I became more than a little defensive around Chinese salespeople. Everything ends up looking like a scam. But then it struck me -- it's a game. And if I'm willing to go with it, rather than get ticked off or run away, there's lots to be gained. Like, yeah, I paid $30 to sample four types of tea; but on the other hand, I did get to go to a tea service. Cool stuff. A guy in a rickshaw tried to trick me into paying him $20 (instead of 20 Yuan) for a ride; I started to walk away, then thought better of it, and had a great time riding through hutongs, tiny one story one room homes on narrow, back alley streets where many, many poor people of Beijing live. (The photo at the top is from a hutong near the Drum Tower where they used to sound the time.)

Lesson being, yes, some people in China might be trying to scam you, but that doesn't mean it can't be fun to play along.
(Or maybe, I'm the guy to talk to if you need a quick buck, I don't know.)

PS Just an FYI: Today I ate fried scorpions. Crunchy deliciousness.

1 comment:

googs said...

Having been duped into buying a $15 hamburger in Toronto all those years ago, I thought you'd be more hardened to scams by natives. Was your Buddhist friend perhaps Ron Orman's Chinese cousin?