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The Tea Girls

I knew from the start that Chinese tea girls were a scam. They take you to a restaurant, or club, or somewhere surrounded by four walls hidden from the public. You’re served a cup of tea, then a 300 dollar bill arrives along with the Chinese Secret Service kindly offering to escort you to the nearest ATM. Tea girls are all over the streets bringing oblivious tourists inside.

Tourists like this one English guy I met hiking the Great Wall. “She felt bad, I could see it in her eyes, I think I was her first,” he told me. His friend shook his head. We all shook our heads. “The crazy thing is, someone warned me about tea girls just before I got to Shanghai. Someone told me this exact story I’m telling you now. But I still fell for it. Because they’re THAT good,” he finished. He took a swig of water and peered out into the deep brown hills of Beijing. What an idiot.

Two days later I arrived in Shanghai. Walking up the steps to my hostel I discovered my credit card was missing. The one thing I couldn’t lose was gone. All that remained was a defunct American Express card that looked so much like the Visa I needed. It had all the embossed numbers, glossy finish, little swiper thing on the back with a security code. It was so close to the right one, why wouldn’t it just do the thing at the ATM that my other one did. Cash is the only thing the Chinese people and I agree on. We don’t see eye to eye on anything else, but we have a mutual understanding when it comes to cash. Now I’m in the city of Shanghai, the banking capital of the world according to my guide book, and I can’t get any of it. ATMs are cold and heartless, just as the people of China will be as soon as I run through this 95 dollars in my pocket. I need a plan.

I convinced the hostel staff to front me for a few days, using my passport as collateral. It was Friday night, I needed to make it to Monday morning when banks opened. I grabbed chicken kabobs and a water from a street vendor for dinner – 92 dollars now. I sat on my cot under an army style blanket with all my warm clothes listening to the heater pretend to heat. I fell asleep.

I felt like a new man the next morning. I can do this. I can live on the cheap. Essentials only from here on out. I walked through a maze of back alleys shaded by hanging laundry. Meat swung above steaming grills on busy corners, inviting you to start your day with a donut and a sugar glazed kabob. People smacked up their breakfast and spit out what they didn’t want into the ever-flowing spittoon that is the ground. I imagined I was a young hoodlum in turn-of-the-century New York with a fitting nickname like, Scrappy B. He’s a tough kid, that Scrappy B, ain’t so good with the books but real street wise he is.

I found a little market with fruits and nuts and hanging fish. I bought an apple and a bag of almonds for breakfast after getting dirty looks from the owners for meandering around their hut too long. $90.50 left.

After another hour of wandering the bustling streets alone, I made it to the waters’ edge. I took in the crisp January air, doing my best to ignore the lingering smog from the city. This was great, and best of all, free. I didn’t need a museum tour, or sky lounge cocktail, or acrobat show. My show was here, watching the real people. The bright blue sky and puffy white clouds turned the distant futuristic city into a Pixar movie. Everyone fought foolishly for a good photo spot, but not me. I didn’t need that. I could just appreciate the moment without being another sheep, obsessing over silly pictures for Instagram, needing the empty validation of our vapid society by capturing every stupid litt– “Would you like your picture?” A small elderly Chinese woman interrupted my thoughts. “Yes that would be wonderful!” I gleefully replied, immediately handing her my phone and rushing to the empty spot where I could frame myself between the Pearl Tower and city skyline, getting just enough of the shimmering water below.

“Would you like one too?” I offered, after asking her to take at least 20 of me, so I could choose the perfect one for Instagram.

“Oh yes, please, thank you” she replied, handing me an old Nikon camera that reminded me of college. “Where are you from?”

“America, California, Los Angeles.” I handed back her artifact.

“I am from Suzhou.” No idea where that is, but I nodded anyway. “I am here on tour, first time, I am with friend. Would you like to walk with me that way?” she pointed. I considered this. My only agenda was to not spend money today, so why not. “We are visiting Old Town, have you seen it yet? It is just right there, would you like to join us?”

“Of course,” I smiled. Non of that dumb touristy stuff for Scrappy B. I was going to Old Town with my new Chinese friends.

“You are from Los Angeles? The Hollywood? You look like the movie star, so handsome. You look like Brad Pitt,” her friend told me, shaking her head up and down.

“Ohhh ha, noooo, no but thank you,” I replied, shaking my head side to side. I must have been the first white guy they’d seen in person. I mean, Brad and I did have the same initials, and maybe a similar smile. Our noses are almost identical come to think of it. But I always imagined myself as more of a character actor than a leading man. A Daniel Day Lewis method type.

“This is good place for tea, very good place,” they hurried me into a door. We’d seen about two minutes of Old Town. “My friend she come here last week and recommend. Say I must go here for authentic Chinese tea.” We entered a small room decorated with hanging silks, porcelain, and waxy plants. A woman in colorful garb pushed up her giant sleeves and gestured for us to sit in front of her like a black jack dealer.

“You should be in movies, so handsome, do you have girlfriend, this is Oolong, you sip this way with pinky out, are you married? This a black tea made from hills, smell the leaves. Can you believe he is not have girlfriend?” The tea lady returned and poured drink after drink in tiny shot sized cups as they went on. I did my best to keep up. My new friends continued to neverendingly tell me how awesome I was, while I sat there and believed them oblivious to what the hell we were doing. I’m so likeable and cultured. Before I could ask any questions we’d been served three cups each. I noticed a laminated menu tucked under a cloth napkin. All in English, no prices.

“How much is this?” I finally broke between pours and pinky lifting. “It’s okay, try this one now, we get good price,” they assured. “I can’t, this was good, thank you but no more please.” I reached for my backpack. “Okay okay.” They spoke back and forth with the Tea Lady in Chinese before she disappeared behind a curtain. “She just getting bill, how long you stay in China? Maybe you find wife and stay forever.” They giggled.

Tea Lady returned and set down a piece of paper. It was an elaborate math problem with things like “Oolong x 3” scribbled. At the bottom of the equation was a number – 192.50. They looked down with me, their faces calm. I was tucked under the table tightly, flanked by both. To escape I’d have to push back my chair, walk around the arm wrests, grab my bag, lift it over my head and squeeze behind the one blocking the door without knocking any of the porcelain shit. Then there was the hallway before the door, was it left or right to get out? I thought of my tiny hostel room and imagined a cement prison half the size. I kept a straight face.

“I don’t have this. I honestly don’t have the money. I lost my credit card yesterday and have no way of getting cash from the ATM until hopefully mon–”

“Okay okay”, they interrupted. “We split. Three ways, thats hmmm,” she pulled out an actual calculator she just happened to have on hand. “64.16” She wrote in blue next to the total and circled. Her friend reached for her purse with no objection. I wanted out of this room, back in the open air enjoying a beautiful blue sky without the Chinese police hunting me down. My being-friendly-and-cultured days were over. They placed their stacks on the table, waiting for mine. If I was going to make a move, now was the time.

I wimped out. I meekly reached into the money belt tied securely around my waist and pulled out $64.16. $26.34 left.

So much for Scrappy B. I walked back to the waterfront after my elderly friends bolted. I removed my gloves and grasped the cold railing above the river, taking in the view once more. It was an ugly city.

On Monday, I discovered Western Union. A scant five hours later and a rousing argument over the importance of middle initials on formal documents, the Bank of China handed me a brick of cash. I paid off the Hostel, ordered the most expensive thing on the menu at the restaurant next door, and booked the first train out of town. So long and good riddance.

Weeks later I was on a hiking tour through Sapa in the northern hills of Vietnam. A couple guys from Australia were on the first leg of their holiday trip, their next stop – China, Shanghai. I told them about the tea girls. I told them someone had warned me right before I got to Shanghai. I told them someone had shared this exact story that I’m sharing now, but I still fell for it because they’re THAT good. I took a swig of water and peered out into the deep green hills of Sapa. They shook their heads and looked at me like I was an idiot. I looked back at the lush landscape, and smiled at the unfortunate fate that lay ahead for these poor men, and everyone to whom they’d tell their story.



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