Getting Tea’d Off In China
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Tea drinking is a huge part of Chinese culture dating back thousands of years. It was originally consumed for its medicinal qualities and has now evolved into a mainstay item found at any meal. It’s been used as cash, given as gifts by kings and queens, used to show a sign of respect for elders, to bring families together, and to celebrate special occasions such as weddings. So it’s no surprise that tea is considered one of the basic necessities of daily life in China.
As a tourist travelling through China, you’ll undoubtedly want to see what all the fuss is about, and I highly recommend you do! Tea drinking in China can be a great cultural experience. But don’t let your curiosity and desire to get that authentic experience cloud your street-smart judgments. There’s unfortunately a scam operating in China revolving around tea and you don’t want to fall victim to it.
A couple of young people, who look like university students, approach you, either in a touristy or non-touristy area. They explain that they’re studying English, but don’t get a lot of opportunities to practice their conversation skills. They invite you to go for tea so that they can practice their English with you. They say they know a place, usually nearby, and that it won’t take too much of your time. Sounds harmless right? They practice some English, you drink some tea, it’s a great cultural experience and a story to tell when you get home.
The first part of the experience will go as expected. You might spend 30 minutes, maybe even up to an hour, chatting with your newfound friends. But somewhere during the conversation they may say something about splitting the bill, or they’ve forgotten their wallet, and they ask if you could pay. You’re thinking, it’s just tea, it can’t be that expensive. But this is where the scam comes into play.
When you go to pay, you’ll be charged an exorbitant amount of money, usually in the $100 range.
If you know the exchange rate well you’ll catch onto this right away, but if you’ve just arrived and aren’t too familiar with how much Yuan you’re dolling out, you won’t realize you’ve been hit until a few days later when you start to question how much that pot of tea actually cost you.
Young travellers are usually the targets for this scam, especially if they’re travelling alone or as a pair. It’s easy enough to spot and avoid this scam, as long as you know about it.
I was well aware of it before travelling through China, as it had happened to a close friend of mine. I wondered during my four weeks in the country if I was going to be approached, and sure enough, in my final days in Shanghai, my boyfriend and I were. We were walking through the crowded streets of the Old Town when an older gentleman approached us. He claimed to be a university professor wanting to practice his English. When we said, “no thank you, we know that this is a scam, ” he ran off faster than he appeared.
Believe it or not, this seems to be an effective scam.
I was quite surprised by the number of people I met throughout China who had been “tea’d, ” as it’s been affectionately called by many backpackers.
If you’re looking for an authentic tea experience, make sure to go to a reputable teahouse and be clear about the price before you place your order.