A quick visit over to Wikitravel’s China page will leave one somewhat worried about any Chinese person who approaches them with a smile. In my edits on that page, as well as the work of others, we have tried to cool down the: “Don’t trust anyone who comes up to you speaking English…” rhetoric. For many reasons foreigners in China have become dismissive of Chinese who approach them. Old China hands may be dismissive because they do not really feel like making new friends or giving free English lessons. Tourists who have read the horror stories about getting taken for a ride by scam artists working with rip-off tea shops tend to ignore or brush off the advances of otherwise friendly Chinese.
Disclaimer: I am not pretending that there are no scam artists working to part foreigners and their money. There certainly are. I am trying to explain two points:
1. Even legitimate places can feel like a rip-off sometimes
2. Foreigners taken in by all the “new friends” they make instantaneously need to sit back a little and review their situation.
Regarding tea shops – one of the most common scams mention on the Wikitravel site, the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree and elsewhere in the blogosphere is a tea ceremony, tea tasting, or tea sampling (among other names). The scam goes something like this: young, usually attractive, Chinese approach foreigners traveling alone or in pairs and strike up a conversation in English. They later suggest the foreigners experience a Chinese tea ceremony. Without seeing a menu or otherwise really being told what is going on, tea is sampled and out comes a bill in the thousands of RMB. If the situation goes down just like this, it is likely to be a scam. An easy way to avoid it is to ask for, and KEEP, the menu. If there are no sampling prices listed, get them in writing when you start or better yet, go to another tea shop that says up front how much the tea ceremony will be. If your new friends are legit, they will likely not object. Scammers will come up with all manner of excuses to prevent you from leaving the shop but a simple rule should be: no menu or price? No sampling!
That being said, tea culture in China can actually be very high-end. Akin to wine-tasting and wine-snobbery in the West, tea sampling is a fine art practiced by true connoisseurs who know their Pu’er from their Dahongpao and Long Jing from Tie Guanyin. If you stop in a high-end tea shop (which I recommend, if for no other reason than to look at the surroundings and then go – they are an oasis of calm in the bustle of modern China), check out the actual prices. Tea is occasionally sold by the cup or by the pot (hot water refills available) but often is purchased in small packets that make two pots (or so) of tea. Prices for even low-end teas in these establishments will usually not be less than 50 RMB for a cup/pot. High end teas quickly and easily spiral into the many hundreds – per unit. Hence a group of four businessmen sampling two kinds of high end tea could easily run up a bill of 2000 RMB (8 cups of high end product at 500 or so a pop) plus any extras. Tea shops, like movie theaters, make a killing on concessions.
Second, foreigners like to act shocked and hurt when they get taken for a ride by their new friends in China (although this happens throughout the world). I think it is important for everyone to take a step back and think about how they got into that situation. In your own country, if strangers started walking up to you and immediately wanted to be your close friend and then suggested where to eat, would you not be suspicious? Why does this rule suddenly no longer apply when overseas? People are people everywhere and people love to take advantage of those who have no idea what they are doing. Hence tourists make easy targets. So lets try not blaming the scammers and try instead to look inside and say, who was the fool who played along?
But we should still try the teas….whether alone or with new friends.