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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!