Ceremony - Culture
at a Cost...
The spread of tea and snacks.
|This doesn't show just how small the
|The Chinese girls that I had tea with.
October 3, 2006
There are those times in life where things happen and all you can do is laugh. As hard as it might be…you just have to laugh. If you
don’t, there is a good chance you’ll cry.
Today I had one of those times…
It all started when I was walking down the street en route to the Forbidden City. A couple of Chinese girls approached me and
started chatting me up. It was clear that they wanted to practice their English and I was more than happy to engage in conversation
This week is ‘National Week’ in China and it is the time when most of the Chinese people travel within their country. The actual
holiday was October 1st but cities, such as Beijing, are extremely busy throughout the entire week. These girls were from another
city and were spending the week in Beijing. They told me that they were going to a ‘hutong’ (a traditional area in the city) that was
just past Tiananmen Square. They were going to do a traditional tea ceremony. They asked me if I wanted to come along and I was
really excited to since I wanted to go check out the hutongs anyway. One of the important things to know is that many hutongs,
including the one we were going to, are set to be demolished so that businesses can be built instead. With that, a large part of the
older, traditional areas of Beijing are going to be wiped out. Really sad if you ask me. They have pictures of what the area is set to
look like. It will be modern and brand spankin’ new yet trying to look in the style of traditional Chinese buildings. People from home
will know what I am talking about when I say that the pictures reminded me of the new trend in American shopping areas (a la
Santana Row in the Bay Area and Kierlan Commons in Scottsdale) that is a man-made creation that you are somewhere cultural.
We passed by the city’s first restaurant and first pharmacy. This area also had excellent (and cheap) street food such as corn on the
cob, seafood on skewers and baked sweet potatoes.
The girls spotted a teahouse that they could tell was offering a tea ceremony. We went up a few floors and entered a small room
that was all ours. It was absolutely beautiful. I will admit my ignorance as before coming to China, I envisioned most places would
look like the restaurants I see in China Town in San Francisco (i.e. not very sanitary). I now knew I was an idiot for ever thinking
Many glass canisters sat in the middle of the table with a different tea (which looked more like potpourri than the standard tea we
are used to seeing) in each one. A girl then came in to perform the tea ceremony. There were several teeny-tiny glasses (smaller
than shot glasses) sitting in one bowl and several teeny-tiny saucer-like things in the other bowl.
Before the tea tasting would begin, the tea hostess performed a few rituals while preparing the first tea selection. We smelled the
tea both before it was infused and after. She then emptied out the glasses and told us to put the glass over each eye (to improve
eyesight). Then we rubbed the hot glass all over our face (to prevent wrinkles). We learned the proper way for girls to hold the little
glasses. She made the first pour into our glasses and we were to drink it in three sips for ‘good luck’.
This first tea was oolong with jasmine. She poured water into the tea and cleaned our glasses with the first pour. We would drink the
tea starting with the second pouring. This is how it was for each tea. This ensured that our glasses were rinsed of the flavors and
smells from the tea we drank prior. A bit like rinsing out a glass while wine tasting. Each tea we tried served a different function for
the body and soul. She then brought out some tasty treats that were as appealing to the eye as everything else in the room. I am
pretty sure they were pumpkin seeds – some were coated with green tea, others with oolong and others with something that was
pinkish (I couldn’t understand exactly what it was). We were also given green tea coated peanuts. When food is presented like this,
you tend to eat so much less. You become a dainty eater even if you are hungry. Even though I loved the taste of everything, I
probably had three of each seed and seven peanuts.
My two new Chinese friends (Meng Tong and Jiao Dan) were translating everything that was being said by the tea hostess for me.
This was great as I was made fully aware of the purpose of each tea. I would have loved to have bought the fruity tea with roses in
it but it was a little more than I wanted to spend and it was bigger than I wanted to carry around. They were also asking me
questions along the way. When it came up that I was a twin, they got really excited. They wanted to know about her. They asked if
she was married and I told them she was. Their next question was if my brother-in-law could distinguish the difference between us.
I assured them this was not a problem. One of them then told me a story about her friend who is married to a twin but she can’t tell
him and his brother apart when they are both together. Eek. They also noticed I was left-handed to which they told me I was very
smart. Geez, I just was in a country less than a month ago where it is considered filthy to do anything with your left hand (India)
now to be in a country where I am being praised for using this hand. Cultures are a funny thing, I tell ya!
The tea ceremony had concluded and the bill came. All I have to say is that it is a good thing that I drank a green tea that lowers
blood pressure as I would have definitely had a heart attack without it. I was sure there had to be a mistake. There had to be. When
splitting the bill in three, my share was 680 yuan. Once the currency calculations were done, this equates to EIGHTY-FIVE U.S.
DOLLARS! $85 for shot glasses of tea, about 10 pumpkin seeds and 7 peanuts. The other girls had looks on their faces that showed
they were equally as shocked. One of them asked how it could be so much. The girl explained that this is the only time of the year
that the traditional tea ceremony is performed and that we were paying more for the cultural aspect of it than the actual tea.
There was nothing I could do but throw in my credit card. I was still stunned. I mean I am the same person who won’t go to many
wineries at home that charge a $10 tasting fee out of principle. And now I just paid $85 for some tea. At least if I paid $85 for
tasting wine, I would be too drunk at that point to even realize it. In this case, I was completely sober and completely aware.
As I said, all I can do is laugh about this. But laughing is pretty hard right now. Cracking a smile will just have to do…
October 5, 2006 - 11:00pm
Ughhh… I just saw Sam and Dave. They were telling me about their day that they spent near the Tiananmen Square. As could be
expected, they were celebrities. After all, how could they not be with Sam and her red hair?
Aside from that, they also told me about other stuff that they experienced today. Namely, being asked by three different ‘art
students’ to come to their gallery. And also getting befriended by out-of-towners who invited them to come to a ‘traditional tea
ceremony’ with them so that they could practice their English. Dave even offered to treat me to lunch because if it wasn’t for the
fact that I told them my story, they would have just as easily taken the bait.
I was naïve enough to believe, up until this very minute, that the two Chinese girls I went to tea with were legit. That they were just
as startled with the bill as I was. Now a couple of things are clicking. When I was talking to Rosie yesterday at the Great Wall, I was
about to tell her about my expensive tea. Before I started my story, she said something along the lines of “Oh my gosh. Did they bail
before the bill came? I’ve heard about that. They go to an expensive tea and then they leave before the bill comes and the person
there gets stuck with the bill.” I was assured this wasn’t the case with me. But now I am thinking about it and I am pretty sure I
was duped. I am now remembering that the girl’s credit card ‘didn’t work’ so she had to step into another room. Did the bill get
totally jacked up so that when I paid my share, I was actually paying for the entire thing? Just a few minutes ago it became crystal
clear to me that I totally got screwed by innocent-looking scam artists.
The other day I was just irritated about spending all that money on something I never would have had I known the cost. Right now
I am feeling something totally different. I really want to cry. I can handle getting screwed on my perfume in Egypt. It comes with
the territory. And I can handle falling for a few things while I was in India that cost me far more rupees than they should have. But
once again, it comes with the territory. This is different. I truly thought all four of these girls that I interacted with on Tuesday
wanted to practice their English. I have seen more than enough evidence that they aren’t going to get anywhere with practicing
with their fellow countrymen as nobody seems to know anything beyond numbers in English (and that is only so they can tell you
how many yuans something costs). I thought I was doing them a favor and I chose to spend my time to help them out and engage in
conversation with them. But that is not why I want to cry.
I want to cry because now, from this point forward, I am going to be jaded against everybody else that approaches me in this
Follow Up - October 8, 2006
I decided to email the girls I went to tea with to let them know I was onto their scam. I just wanted to see how they would respond.
I was still not 100% sure I was scammed though...until I instantly received two emails after sending that one off. They were both
emails bouncing back to me and neither email address was legit. All I have to say is 'How naive am I???' I really thought they
actually gave me their real addresses. It just burns to go back and read what I initially journaled after having met them - how
genuinely happy I was to have met them that day. Just plant a big 'S' for 'Stupid' on my forehead!
Follow Up - October 10, 2006
I just got back from going to grab some beers with people from an Intrepid Travel group that I met at my cooking class and their
tour leader. I asked Blaire if he had ever heard of the ‘tea’ scams. He sure had and said it was all-too-common. Apparently all I had
to do was refuse to pay and say that I would call the police. If I had called the police, they would have been arrested right away.
How was I to know??? I didn’t want to be seen as that pain-in-the-ass American. I feel like such an idiot for signing the credit card
slip. In addition, I remember signing another piece of paper where everything was written in Chinese. Ughhh….