For many first time travelers to China, a trip to the Middle Kingdom is touched by the same minor inconveniences, misunderstandings and troubles that come with any international vacation and make for funny travel anecdotes without souring the experience. Smart travelers are wary anywhere—different countries and cities around the world have their own pitfalls.
Travelers to China (especially in Beijing and Shanghai) are often approached at major tourist attractions by young, well-spoken students pretending that they would like to practice their English. Most likely, the unsuspecting tourists are about to be scammed in China.
A Bad Welcome
You've just visited the Forbidden City and Tian'anmen Square. With those checked off your list you wonder where to go next. Scanning your guidebook, you see you're relatively close to Wanfujing shopping street and decide to check it out.
"Hello." You turn around to see three girls, pretty, probably college age, walking towards you. They strike up a conversation and ask about your trip, how you've enjoyed China and where you're going.
After you tell them the direction you're heading in, they say they're heading there, too. They can take you, but maybe you'd want to join them for some tea. They steer you down a lane towards a quaint-looking tea house and into a little room in the back. They say they'd like to show you good Chinese tea and you're presented with what tastes like any other tea you've ever had, but you're polite and smile, pretending to enjoy it anyway.
Then the bill comes. At RMB 888, the numbers suggest luck (8 is a lucky number in China), but not for you. These things happen. To people who've read all the guidebooks and thought themselves prepared. To people that arrive with a steady grasp of Chinese. To people with a passport full of stamps from around the world.
In my first months after arriving in China, I took advantage of a three-day weekend to travel from Ningbo (where I worked) to Beijing, where I'd studied for a semester and still had a few friends.
After touring the Forbidden City, I found myself in a similar position. Spotting a rube with his guidebook outside one of Beijing's top tourist attractions, three college-age girls approached me and struck up a conversation. I immediately thought about a conversation I'd had with a coworker about his first week in Shanghai when he was taken in by a tea house scam. I wasn't invited to a tea ceremony but just for a drink and a chat. I was pretty sure it was a scam, but being interested to see where it would go, I dove in.
We ended up walking among mildly gentrified hutong, passing tea houses and little shops aimed at tourists. The lead girl pointed out a place that I rejected because it was too dark. I knew what I was getting myself into, but I didn't want to get trapped. I said something about looking for someplace with windows so I could enjoy the nice weather. After a series of proposals and rejections, we entered a tea house with large windows out front and a number of customers, some of whom were also foreign, sitting down enjoying tea.
Inside, I was led to a partitioned-off table with the girls and handed a menu. Mine appeared to be the only such table, and our menu was not what I saw sitting on other tables. I ordered a fabulously overpriced Sprite (RMB 45, or about USD 7.25) and the girls each ordered a drink along with a fruit plate. When it arrived, I mentioned I had already eaten and wasn't hungry, plus I only had a small amount of money with me for the weekend and couldn't afford much.
Our conversation, which was perfectly nice, began with them asking about my prior time in China and my experiences teaching, me asking about their studies and city (they told me they were Nanjing University students who were traveling). They tried to offer me fruit, but I declined.
In the end, the RMB 500 or so (USD 80) bill came and they offered to split it 50/50 with me to which I refused, reminding them I hadn't eaten the fruit plate and reiterating my previous objections. They continued to plead and I continued to reject until the lead girl, angry and exasperated, finally relented.
I gave her an RMB 100 bill to pay for my Sprite and waited with the other girls for my change while they sat awkward and silent. They attempted to leave, so I told the lead girl I needed my change. We argued a bit more before she again relented and took me to the front for my change.
Leaving them behind, I returned to the main street and again pulled out my guidebook and soon found myself greeted by three college-age girls. "Hello." They offered to take me for a beer and I told them I was headed to an English language bookstore and in a hurry, but I would walk with them (particularly because I didn't know where I was going).
They steered me towards an upstairs café near the shopping area and I apologized and said that I needed to continue on my way. The lead girl of the group got angry and said I had already agreed to come with them. I reminded her that I had told her maybe because I had been in a hurry and left the girls behind, though not before asking one of the other girls where the bookstore I was looking for was. She directed me with a defeated, limp gesture and a brief explanation.
Anatomy of a Scam
The people, schemes and places vary and there are a number of different ways the deal goes down, but in general they have a few things in common.
Travelers in bustling, popular shopping areas or near major tourist sites—places like Shanghai's Nanjing Lu or People's Square or the Beijing attractions mentioned above—are approached by a small group of friendly young people, or a single young person, who often say they're students at a Chinese university or language institution (it's possible they even are).
Obvious signs of being a tourist (opening a fat travel guide or spreading out a map) will attract them. Levels of English vary, but in many cases they'll speak with consummate skill.
At some point in the ensuing conversation, which may even include them guiding you somewhere or helping you shop, you will be invited to a language exchange, a tea ceremony, a drink, a beer, a coffee or an art gallery. They'll want to choose the venue.
If it's a tea house or café, you may be taken to a back room or simply a screened-off area like I was. If you're given a menu, it won't be the same as what regular guests are perusing. You're a special guest.
You may be served a few cups of different teas presented as if they were samples or a snack or fruit plate. Eventually, you'll be presented with the bill, which will no doubt contain more numbers than you expected. These bills can go into the thousands. Attempts to explain your way out of the bill may be met with anything from pouting and shy, polite appeals to making a show as if they might call the police. Any situation that actually involves the police would still pit your word against theirs, which is not a good place to be when you're out of your element and have no proof.
Recognize the feeling—and get out while the gettin's good
Travelers who've been in these situations often report feeling unsure or suspicious of what's happening even early on, but set it aside. You didn't come to China not to meet new people and have new experiences, right? From the beginning, be suspicious of a stranger offering to take you somewhere. Mom said that, right?
Examine your situation. People you've ended up in conversation with over breakfast at your hostel asking if you want to join them on their tour of the Summer Palace is one thing. A stranger approaching you on the street asking you to join them for a coffee is another.
After a certain point in such a scam, you will probably find yourself trapped—get out before that happens. Blogger China Mike wisely notes that your new friend insisting on choosing the venue him or herself is a big red flag. In my experiment, the first group of girls took me to several specific tea places before I agreed to one.
The most important thing is to be aware of what's going on around you. Don't get involved in any situation you feel uncomfortable with or that seems strange. Don't let scam and fears of theft dampen your trip to China, but travel smart and travel safe.