Tea Shopping

“Wow, you so handsome!”

When I first arrived in Beijing I felt like I was in a very small boat on a very large ocean. I had no map or compass or even any sense of direction. However, I soon heard a number of stories from a friend of mine, all of which seemed to end “and then I legged it down the street in a pair of flip flops.” The very idea of this particular friend successfully navigating the city made me realize that I was going to be fine.

In Tongzhou (where I live) and Beiyuan (where I used to live), foreigners are a rarity. Most people are not shy about staring, gasping or even taking your photo. Only the other day a middle-aged woman started poking the freckles on my arm without even asking. I’ve had people rush up to me to ask if I have an umbrella or if I speak Latin or just to tell me how shaui (handsome) they think I am.

In Wangfujing, though, if someone is telling you how shaui you are it’s because they’re trying to rob you blind. Wangfujing is a great place to visit if you like arcade games, or want to know what a squid on a stick looks like, or are easily distracted by really useless shit. It’s also the part of Beijing that is world famous for its teashop scam. I’ve been approached (or ‘tea-shopped’, as I like to call it) three times, and it always unfolds like this:

You are approached by either a ridiculously attractive woman or an hirsute old lady who looks like the villain from a Sammo Hung movie.

They say exactly the same thing as the last person who tried to tea-shop you: “Wow, you so handsome! Where you from? How long you been in China? You want to learn Chinese? I help you learn? Maybe we go grab a beer and coffee?”

At this point, if you’re the type of person who gives your credit card details to email contacts who’ve mysteriously moved to West Africa and run out of money, then you accept this offer of ‘beer and coffee’. You head off with your new Chinese teacher to a dingy little tea shop down a pungent alleyway. She orders you a pot of tea, then mysteriously disappears out of the squatter window, leaving you negotiating with some burly tea shop owner over a huge bill that’s landed in your lap.

Then you leg it down the street in a pair of flipflops.

This doesn’t mean you should avoid Chinese tea shops. There are some very reputable, enjoyable tea shops in Beijing. Not long ago I was in one in Nanluoguxiang with another friend of mine. We met a couple of Chinese students who we sat with for half an hour, sipping complimentary samples of oolong, jasmine, flower tea and various other delights. After awhile one of the students lowered her voice conspiratorially and said, “Is it true that there are real vampires in England?”

I considered making a political statement about the Tories, but my friend just said “No. No it’s not.”

“Ah,” sighed the young woman, sadly. “Unrealistic.”