Not 10 minutes after stepping out of our hostel in Guilin, he was upon us. Like a shadow—albeit, an extremely charming and talkative one—he kept pace with us, smiling and asking us about ourselves and our interests. It’s a sad thing to admit, but the very fact that a local was being so friendly to us in a country where we had rarely felt welcome or wanted immediately made us wary of him and his motives. Our second warning that something was likely afoot was the fact that his English was not just passable, but exceedingly good. Some countries we had visited thus far had enough of an English presence that someone speaking with near fluency wasn’t out of the ordinary; in China, it is.

He mentioned casually that his brother ran a teashop nearby, that he had studied for many years to become a tea master. When we failed to rise to the bait, he switched gears, mentioning that he could procure us discount tickets to a well-known acrobatics show that evening. We told him that we had other plans, but thanked him and told him if we changed our minds we’d let him know.

We figured that was that and that we’d never see him again.

We were wrong.

For the next three days, he haunted us. Though it’s true that the area of Guilin we frequented was not especially large, it seems far too great a coincidence that we would repeatedly run into this man. On one such crossing of paths, we were hungry and thirsty, and he was now such a common sight that we allowed our guard to drop. When he asked us what we were up to, we answered honestly, saying we were looking for a place to get some bubble tea. Immediately his face lit up and he said he had a cousin who had a shop nearby, and that said cousin had studied four years to become a tea master.

Warning bells sounded in my head. This was the same story he had told us the previous day, only last time it had been his brother who was master of the teas. Maybe this is a profession that runs in families, but somehow, I doubt it. A few days previous, I had just been reading an article about how to spot a scammer. If this guy were taking Scamming 101, he would be passing with flying colors: he was incredibly friendly, his English was unusually good, and whatever service we required, he seemed to have a family member who could hook us up.

This is near where his network of underground tourist talking passages are located. Pure speculation... or is it?
This is near where his network of underground tourist stalking passages are located. Pure speculation… or is it?

As our fast friend ushered us through some of Guilin’s winding alleyways in search of his “cousin”, I frantically tried to think of some way to put the brakes on our little expedition. As crazy as it sounds, although I felt uncomfortable about the situation we were potentially being dragged into, I was more worried about being rude or potentially insulting this guy.

Just take a moment to bask in the utter insanity of that statement: I was worried about hurting the feelings of a stranger who was potentially out to bleed me dry.

I feel ridiculous typing those words, but they are the truth. I’ve learned a few things about myself while traveling, and one of them is that I have extreme difficulty asserting myself around those I do not know very well (and sometimes even those I do!). I would much rather make myself uncomfortable or unhappy rather than risk doing the same to anyone else. I don’t like inconveniencing people, and I don’t ever want to ever have someone think I am rude or ungrateful. It’s something I’ve been trying to work on — saying what I want and what I don’t, learning that I can be assertive without being seen as aggressive or abrasive — but it’s an ongoing process, and a painful one at that that requires a lot of conscious effort on my part. And so even though my instincts were screaming “THIS IS A SCAM” and memories of all the people who had written angry indictments about pricey teahouse visits while in China raced through my mind, I just followed along mutely, casting wild looks at Tony, hoping he would somehow rescue us from this situation that I felt I had somehow tacitly endorsed.

Disclaimer: not the tea shop, but we love the name!
Disclaimer: not the tea shop, but we love the name!

We reached the teashop, which looked more like a jumble shop, piled high with clutter and random doodads. It’s the kind of place you’d never think to enter, and certainly seemed rather humble for someone as lofty as a tea master. Our friend called out something in Chinese, and a lady slinked out from the shadows in the back. She swiftly went about setting up some boiling water and clearing aside space at an old table, placing box upon box containing various teas upon it.

A common technique with scams is to get the ball rolling fast so that you hardly have time to figure out what is going on and don’t have enough time to say no. If you feel like things are progressing faster than you feel comfortable, do not feel bad about saying that you need a moment to think or collect your thoughts. Also, it can be hard to say no when something is right in front of you, but unless you have explicitly agreed to something, you do not have to feel obliged to accept things that are offered to you that you did not ask for.

Our friend chattered away happily, much like a handler trying to soothe a skittish horse, but Tony had sufficiently gathered his wits and was able to interject, asking how much this tasting would cost.

This stopped our new friend in his tracks. He paused for a moment, his smile only wavering slightly, and said after just the slightest hesitation that it would only cost 5 RMB (~80¢) each to try one tea. Reluctantly we agreed to have one cup each, and settled down to try this ba boa cha that had caused us so much grief.

The best way to halt a scam in its tracks is to bring up money. Ask for explicit prices in thorough detail, and don’t agree to anything in which the price is decided after the fact. People who try to avoid naming a concrete price are not to be trusted.

What followed was an elaborate ceremony in which water was poured into various cups in long gushing streams, almost as though it were being aerated, before finally being mixed with the tea. We were still too nervous and uneasy to try to capture any of it in photos, worried that if we let our guard down for just one second, the results could be very costly indeed. As we waited for the tea to steep, our friend, still smiling as always, commended us for asking the price upfront. He told us that we had nothing to worry about here in Guilin, but that in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, tourists are often swindled for ridiculous amounts of money over a single pot of tea.

That threw me for a loop. If this guy was actually trying to con us, it seemed odd that he would speak so freely and earnestly about other tea scams. He showed no real signs of guilt, but perhaps he was just a master scammer. Or maybe he was just a nice guy who likes to help tourists out and legitimately wanted to take us to a hole-in-the-wall teashop… sometimes those are the best places, after all! I really had no idea what to think at this point.

With a flourish, our tea master poured us our tea, serving us in tiny ceramic glasses that were not much bigger than your standard shot glass. We both tried to slurp the scalding brew as quickly as we could, eager to end this maybe-scam as quickly as possible. Tongues throbbing and lips burning, we set our cups down, only to watch in dismay as she filled them again.

Tony quickly turned to our “friend” and verified – it was 5RMB per tea, not per glass, right? Thankfully, our friend agreed.

When discussing prices, don’t be afraid to get anal over the details. It might seem pedantic, but clarifying whether a price is for one person or two, one glass or two, etc., can save you an awful lot of heartache and unintended cash. We got lucky in this situation, but you might not!

Although our friend waxed rhapsodic about the various health benefits of ba boa cha — it has no caffeine, it aids in digestion, it is an all around panacea — to my non-masterful palate, it simply tasted like the tea you get at any Chinese restaurant. You know, the kind you tend to pay about 1RMB for. After 3 cup fulls of this magical tea, during which we warded off invitations to try sundry other teas (I’ll admit, the lychee tea was really tempting… it smelled so good!) and explained multiple times that we couldn’t buy any of the expensive teas they were showing us because we weren’t returning home to bestow them on our families any time soon, we were finally able to make our escape, firmly paying our 10RMB and then legging it out of there as fast as we could.

Guilin at night... Our friend might be in this picture somewhere, or he might not...
Guilin at night… Our friend might be in this picture somewhere, or he might not…

Clearly making 10RMB off of us for a pot of tea that was likely worth not even a tenth of that price was quite a coup for this shop. It’s clear from the way they kept trying to entice us into trying more teas that they were hoping to make more money, and certainly they would have made a pretty profit if we had foolishly purchased any tea to take away with us (the prices they quoted were ridiculous… you would have thought we were dealing in something far more illicit than tea!). Undoubtedly, we were overcharged for the single tea we did try, but in the grand scheme of things, 10 RMB only amounts to just slightly more than $1.50USD so it’s not like we were raked over the coals. When you consider that people are routinely landed with bills well over 100 times that in legit teashop scams, we didn’t really do too badly. Certainly it’s a small price to pay for some education and real-world experience dealing with scams. I learned that it’s not just ok, but important for me to speak up for myself, that letting someone take advantage of me doesn’t really make me look nice, it makes me look like a sucker. Instead of being so concerned about seeming mean to someone who may be trying to rob me, I should focus on the fact that the person trying to swindle me clearly isn’t worried about causing me unintentional pain — quite the opposite, in fact!  Expressing my feelings and desires, speaking up when something makes me unhappy or uncomfortable, these things don’t make me a difficult or unpleasant person. I can do these things in a way that is respectful to others while still respecting myself first and foremost.

In the end, I can’t say for sure whether or not our whole tea-tasting adventure was a scam. I like to believe that, in general, most people are good and not out to hoodwink us, but I’d be naïve and foolish if I didn’t acknowledge that there are certainly those out there who do wish to do precisely that. If this was a scam, it wasn’t very successful really, and our friend’s candor about similar scams was either incredibly nervy on his part or perhaps speaks to his innocence. Then again, there were so many aspects about the situation that are standard hallmarks of scams, it would be awfully strange if it wasn’t one. Most damning of all? Though we stayed on a few more days in Guilin following this afternoon tea session and had routinely bumped into this guy at least twice a day prior to it, after we spent our 10 RMB, we never saw him again.

I share this story, not to add yet another “I got scammed in China” story to the many that drift about the internet like tumbleweeds in the desert, but to show how easy it is to get sucked into these kind of situations, even when you think you know what’s happening. Unsurprisingly, Tony & I did ample research on scams in China and Asia before ever leaving home, and yet all of our studying still didn’t make us fully immune to falling into some of the traps. Without knowing about common scams, the results of this tea tasting would surely have been far pricier, but obviously simply knowing about scams is not the same as knowing how to effectively avoid or rebuff them. Book smarts do not equal street smarts, and a healthy dash of each comes in handy when traveling! If you ever find yourself in China looking for some tea, hopefully this post will help you avoid some of the mistakes we made. As for us, we’ll stick to water from now on!

Written by: Stephenie Harrison


In another life, I moved from Toronto, Canada to Nashville, TN to pursue my doctoral degree in Psychology. That chapter of my life is now finished, but I did earn the right to demand you call me Dr. Steph (though I respond just as well to plain old Steph). I am an avid reader whose book collection is rivaled only by my many pairs of cute shoes. I also like to knit, hold impromptu karaoke parties, and try new and unusual foods. Generally not all at the same time. I also really love to learn languages, which may explain why I took 3 years of Latin in highschool. I'm turning over a new leaf, so instead of looking forward, I'm going to work on enjoying the present, so the country I'm most looking forward to is whichever one we're in right now!

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Read comments (25)

  1. February 1, 2013 at 8:24 am
    Feb. 1, '13

    I didn’t know such a thing existed! Wow. Glad it all worked out. I was tense the whole time I was reading this, so I can’t imagine how you guys felt.
    jenn aka the picky girl recently posted..Review: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

    • February 2, 2013 at 7:15 am
      Feb. 2, '13

      Yeah, I think the worst thing is that we knew tea scams were a popular thing in China, and yet we still weren’t able to fully avoid this one! I mean, it’s a bit like waking up during an operation but not being able to convey that to your surgeon – your mind is screaming “NO!” but you feel helpless to stop it… Hopefully this will be the one and only scam we encounter on the road, but if not, I at least hope I’ll be better prepared next time!

  2. February 1, 2013 at 8:58 am
    Feb. 1, '13

    Oh no! It’s a good thing you recognized it for what it was and put a stop to it. At least you tried some nice teas!
    In Beijing a boy walked up to us and started chatting to me about his life in China and what not. Nick knew right away he was one of those ‘come see my art’ scammers but I had no idea. I talked to him for a good half hour, super happy to finally connect to a local. When he asked me to come see his art I was super disappointed.
    Angela recently posted..How To Avoid Sunburn On a Motorbike Tour in Vietnam

    • February 2, 2013 at 7:17 am
      Feb. 2, '13

      Oh, I can only imagine how heartbreaking that must have been for you! We really had a hard time connecting with locals in China, and it was really frustrating to find that in many instances the only people being nice to us were ones that wanted something from us. Then again, I’ll take that any day over the touts who were just super aggressive and mean with us…

  3. February 1, 2013 at 9:26 am
    Feb. 1, '13

    I often wonder if I am overly cautious and cynical when strangers approach me. I sometimes see the interactions others have while traveling and think that I am my own worst enemy in not engaging myself. But I have come to the conclusion that I yam what I yam (as Popeye would say); cynical and introverted do not mix well with spontaneous interaction and maybe that is just as well. I hate being on edge during these conversations/interactions and avoid them at all costs; I’m probably considered rude more often than not! Glad you didn’t get ‘taken’!
    Gillian @OneGiantStep recently posted..Back In The Land Of Smiles

    • February 2, 2013 at 7:20 am
      Feb. 2, '13

      I am super introverted as well, which definitely makes it difficult for me during interactions with strangers. I find that I am generally better when I am the one being approached, as I find it really painful to make contact with people I don’t know. I have found that on the whole, most of our interactions on the road with people we did not know have actually been really positive and not stressful ultimately, but while in China, I found it really hard to let my guard down. My first impulse generally is to be suspicious or dismissive of people I don’t know, but I have to acknowledge that we would have missed out on some great connections if I always let those instincts rule me.

  4. February 1, 2013 at 9:50 am
    Feb. 1, '13

    I’m with Gillian. I tend to go on the defense immediately. I’m not a terribly experienced traveler, but I do worry that sometimes my immediate defensiveness causes me to miss out on opportunities to meet locals or end up looking like the “rude American.”
    Carmel recently posted..Christmas Dinner & a Farewell (for now)

    • February 2, 2013 at 7:23 am
      Feb. 2, '13

      As we have traveled for longer in more places, I have learned to loosen up a little more when it comes to dealing with strangers. I have found that generally speaking, most people do seem to be good and do just seem to want to help or are curious about us and have no ulterior motives in talking to us. But I think I will always experience some amount of “stranger danger” and I’m sure the fact I can be quiet and close off at times makes me seem cold or unfriendly, but I’m also trying to worry less about what others may or may not be thinking about me at any given time. And clearly sometimes it is a good thing to be wary of other people’s intentions!

  5. February 1, 2013 at 10:09 am
    Feb. 1, '13

    I can’t believe that this happened to you! It must obviously be a huge problem if it was covered in the guide books and on the internet so thoroughly, but the fact that this weasly little man stalked you for days and days until he could scam you really astonishes me! I am glad that you guys were able to get out of there without too much damage done!
    zibilee recently posted..Every Last One by Anna Quindlen — Audiobook Review

    • February 2, 2013 at 7:24 am
      Feb. 2, '13

      There is this part of me that really wants to believe this guy really was just super friendly and that he wasn’t trying to bleed us dry, but the rational part of me thinks that there were just too many coincidences for it to be anything but a scam. In the end, it could have been so much worse than 10RMB, so we learned a lesson and got a good story out of the deal and let’s all just hope this never happens again! Once bitten twice shy, as they say!

  6. February 1, 2013 at 12:09 pm
    Feb. 1, '13

    I would much rather make myself uncomfortable or unhappy rather than risk doing the same to anyone else. I don’t like inconveniencing people, and I don’t ever want to ever have someone think I am rude or ungrateful.

    YES. This is something I struggle with, too, albeit in more mundane situations. A recent dating experience gave me another reminder that I need to keep working on it. 🙂 Glad you guys made it out relatively unscathed. And on a formatting note, I love the little highlighted “tips” sections you’ve been putting in recent posts!
    Trisha recently posted..Snow, Sun and Sleet

    • February 2, 2013 at 7:27 am
      Feb. 2, '13

      I feel like this must be a common trait of introverts. It’s just so much easier to take on the burdens ourselves rather than dealing with other people and potentially having interpersonal awkwardness as a result. Sometimes I am amazed at my own inability to speak up for myself, and it’s moments like this that have made me realize that it is something I really need to work on. It’s hard and can actually cause me a lot of angst, but I know it’s worth trying to overcome some of these ingrained habits I’ve developed.

      Also, I am glad the tips are coming in useful! We will certainly try to include more in future posts!

  7. February 1, 2013 at 2:16 pm
    Feb. 1, '13

    >> As crazy as it sounds, although I felt uncomfortable about the situation we were potentially being dragged into, I was more worried about being rude or potentially insulting this guy.

    Just take a moment to bask in the utter insanity of that statement: I was worried about hurting the feelings of a stranger who was potentially out to bleed me dry.

    That’s not insane, that’s what we’re culturally conditioned (as women) to be like! Even when I know I’m in the right, I have to steel myself to ‘get bitchy’ with strangers. And I’m far from a shrinking wall flower. I went to a two hour women’s self defense class offered by my school one time, and much of the emphasis was on getting us to really feel that it’s ok to scream at the top of our lungs and fight back. When we practiced yelling as loudly as possible, it shocked me how difficult it was for me to actually do so.

    Anyway, I’m sorry you and Tony were so stressed out during the situation, but I’m glad that you came out of it only 10 rmb poorer! It’s a difficult line to walk when travelling, wariness re: potentially dangerous strangers and openness to friendly strangers who can really make your trip.
    Eva recently posted..Field Notes, vol 4

    • February 2, 2013 at 7:31 am
      Feb. 2, '13

      So funny you mention the “woman” angle, because I had originally written a paragraph where I talked about societal expectations on women being acquiescent, before taking it out as being a bit too tangential for this blog! 🙂 But, I do wonder how much of these problems I have speaking up for myself have to do with the way I was raised, particularly the emphasis my mother placed on always being polite and putting the needs of others before myself. I definitely know what you mean about how difficult it is for women to be assertive – as soon as we do speak up for ourselves, people somehow push us right over the line into “aggressive” or “bitchy”. It’s something that really frustrates me, because I have been accused on many occasions of being exactly that as I can be extremely argumentative and outspoken when I am in my element (generally a scholastic environment). When I’m in social settings or amongst many strangers, I’m far more likely to bite my tongue rather than say what I really think, but I really want to start changing that!

      • February 3, 2013 at 6:57 am
        Feb. 3, '13

        I’m so similar re: outspokenness in academia! And in high school/early college, I didn’t tone myself down at all-I was somehow completely oblivious to cultural pressure and was thus always the one nominated in my group of friends when a bitchy task was called for. It worries me that as I’ve gotten older I’ve softened myself: some of it is growing up and seeing the world in a more nuanced way, but I fear that some of it is a cultural thing too. But get me in a classroom, and I am anything but soft! I’m trying to gain back some of my old assertiveness too, although this time tempered with a more mature outlook. 😉

        I wish you’d left that paragraph in your post but I understand why you didn’t. I almost didn’t bring it up in my comment! But it seems like something that’s especially highlighted during travel, compounded by concern about appearing to be an ‘obnoxious Westerner.’
        Eva recently posted..Field Notes, vol 4

      • February 3, 2013 at 6:59 am
        Feb. 3, '13

        Forgot to add, have you The Curse of the Good Girl? It’s aimed at mothers/educators of middle school aged girls, but I was horrified to see how well I fit the ‘grown up good girl’ description. Sadly, there’s lots of advice for girls but none for grown up women, but even just reading it and becoming aware has encouraged me to change certain behaviors/patterns.
        Eva recently posted..Field Notes, vol 4

        • February 4, 2013 at 8:54 pm
          Feb. 4, '13

          I haven’t read that one, but thank you for the recommendation! It sounds like something I’d probably identify with quite a lot; sometimes just being made aware of an unhealthy behavior pattern can be the push you need to change it! I’ll definitely check it out! (Off to see if there’s a ebook version of it…)

  8. February 2, 2013 at 11:21 am
    Feb. 2, '13

    I wouldn’t feel too bad over being charged 10 RMB for a pot of tea. It’s not uncommon to pay that for a small cup in a tea house (of course that’s assuming a good quality tea) and as you wrote, it’s a far cry from the hundreds of dollars ‘tea scam’ victims are generally “encouraged” to part with.

    I’m glad it ended well, because I couldn’t help but laugh when you described the guy with the gigantic family–I’m pretty sure I talked to him when I was in Guilin.

    I actually think I met most of the scammers that hang out on the main tourist street, but one guy especially talked to me every morning as I was waiting in line for dumplings and he never seemed to remember that he had just given me his spiel the day before.

    After the first couple of times, I started mentioning my interest in random weird things to see how he would react, and without fail, he had an appropriately helpful relative. If I told him I was looking to buy a purple piano, he had an uncle who specialized in pianos and had just received a shipment of high quality purple ones…what luck!

    And thank you for linking to my post. It’s nice to know the only person to ever read it actually thought it might be helpful. I myself don’t even expect it to be useful to anyone…
    Daniel McBane recently posted..The Drunken Muay Thai Master

    • February 4, 2013 at 8:56 pm
      Feb. 4, '13

      Yup, we figure that although this probably was a tea scam (if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck… it’s a tea scam! 😉 ), in the end we escaped pretty well. 10RMB is not really an amount we feel too bad over losing, especially when it could have been so much worse! And honestly, if not for having read your post on common scam signs a few days earlier, I likely would have been completely oblivious as to what was happening!

      Love how you dealt with the scammers in Guilin. If we ever find ourselves in that kind of position again, I hope I have the confidence to cause some mischief of my own with them!

  9. February 2, 2013 at 3:37 pm
    Feb. 2, '13

    Ah yes, the good ‘ol tea scam. A friend of mine was, unfortunately, hit with this scam when she visited Beijing, and paid close to $100USD! Ouch. So after hearing about her account , I was aware of the possibility that I too would be approached when traveling through China. Sure enough, I was in Shanghai and was approached by an older Chinese man claiming to be an English Professor who wanted to practice his English. I declined and said I wasn’t interested in getting scammed and he disappeared in a flash. Sounds like you got off quite easily 🙂
    Arienne recently posted..Photo Essay: Travel Patterns

    • February 4, 2013 at 8:59 pm
      Feb. 4, '13

      While I am always initially wary of strangers who approach us, I have to admit that we have had more encounters than bad while on this trip, even while in China! We did actually wind up in a conversation with a student while waiting for a train while on our way to Pingyao who said he wanted to practice his English – we spent the whole conversation waiting for the scam portion to appear, but it never did! He legitimately seemed to just want to chat and when our train arrived, he told us to have a nice trip and headed for his own seats. It’s moments like that that remind me that although it is good to be cautious, the world is full of legitimately good people… even in China! 😉

  10. February 2, 2013 at 9:25 pm
    Feb. 2, '13

    I am so much like you, I cant be rude or loud even when I feel I am being conned! You have written the whole account in such a detailed manner, I was feeling like I am sitting there along with you watching all this from a nearby table! Their main target is that you buy things from you after tasting stuff where they can really rip you off. The pressure they put is incredible, it happens in India too.
    Arti recently posted..Heian Jingu Shrine and Garden in Kyoto, Japan

    • February 4, 2013 at 9:02 pm
      Feb. 4, '13

      I always try to remind myself that ultimately I am in control, because people cannot force me to part with money unless I am willing to do so. As long as I take my time to think about what is going on, I have nothing to fear. We hardly buy anything on this trip unless it is immediately necessary, so we are actually really good at resisting sales pitches, but I definitely need to work on being more assertive so as to avoid these situations in the first place!

  11. February 5, 2013 at 5:55 pm
    Feb. 5, '13

    Once again, I’m behind and catching up on my Reader now! That really does sound like a scam, especially if you never saw the guy again. I think if your gut feeling was screaming at you, you probably had a good bead on the guy. At least you were both smart enough to not get scammed too hard!
    Amanda recently posted..Hello, 2013!

    • February 5, 2013 at 7:21 pm
      Feb. 5, '13

      Yes, one thing I’ve learned since traveling is that my instincts are generally good and if something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t. In the end, I think this is just one of those nominal fees you pay when traveling in China, and I’m just really glad it wasn’t worse!

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