Postcard 20.2: Shanghai, China

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Shanghai can certainly be exciting — especially for those who enjoy shopping, eating and the fast-paced city life — but having spent only one week here, I didn’t expect to find myself in somewhat precarious situations.

Nanjing Road
No trip to Shanghai is complete without a walk down Nanjing Road. Considered the main shopping street in Shanghai, it’s also home to dozens of seedy knockoff businesses. From counterfeit bags to sophisticated replicas of iPhones, the illegal market of knockoffs has been a major issue in China. But it’s also considered normal business for merchants and consumers alike.

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Approaching the entrance of Nanjing Road, a street lined with shops, restaurants and bars.
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Professor Leckey gives students directions to shops and restaurants in the Nanjing area.
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A Nike store lights up Nanjing Road in the evening.

As my friends and I walked down Nanjing Road, some of those merchants called our attention, shouting “Cheap Ray-Ban sunglasses! Cheap Gucci bags!” These tempting words led us to follow them through a dark alleyway, up a few flights of crooked stairs and into a brightly light room gleaming with Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Coach purses left and right. It was almost like a scene from a James Bond movie!

Some would call this Heaven. But the worrywart in me envisioned a group of Shanghai police officers storming through the shop doors and pinning us all down on the glass tables.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen, but boy, did I feel like I was living on the edge!

Although I didn’t purchase any of the counterfeit handbags, some of my classmates were able to bargain them down to very affordable prices. Think $20 (U.S.) for a Louis Vuitton purse that looked like it was valued at $1,000. In retrospect, I might’ve missed out on a great opportunity to trick my friends back home into thinking I had a brand new Louis, but at the same time, I’m content simply sharing this story with them.

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Tourists may be approached by merchants of counterfeit and legitimate businesses while walking down the street.
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Signs illuminate this busy shopping area.

Getting Scammed
I never expected my last day in China to be one of the most emotionally terrifying days of my life.

On May 18, my professors gave us a free day to explore the city on our own. My friends Lily, Sarah and I decided to catch a subway to two highly recommended tourist attractions: the Shanghai Yu Garden and World Expo Park.

As we exited the subway at the nearest stop to the garden, three bright-eyed young Chinese people — two females and one male — approached us and asked if one of us could take a photo of them. After snapping a quick photo, we engaged ourselves in friendly conversation about our backgrounds and what we were doing in Shanghai.

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A bustling street of pedestrians and vehicles leads to the Shanghai Yu Garden.

Responding in remarkably good English, they claimed they were college students from a small town in northern China and were on their break, visiting here for the first time.

They asked us where we were headed to next, to which we responded the “Shanghai Yu Garden.” Conveniently, the students said they were also on their way there, but were planning to stop off at a tea house for a traditional tea ceremony. They asked if we’d like to join them. Being the naive and zealous American tourists we were, we happily took them up on their offer and followed them down the main drag, through an alleyway — yes, another one — and into a hole-in-the-wall shop.

A cute and friendly Chinese girl — who ended up being our tea server — dressed in a traditional cheongsam-style robe led us into a tiny room with a table holding tea pots and cups. We sat on six chairs, side by side, facing the server who only spoke Chinese. The student who spoke the best English volunteered to translate everything for us.

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The tea ceremony server shows us a menu of teas to choose from.

While pouring a variety of teas into our cups, the server gave us detailed explanations of tea ceremonies, including the history, meaning and types of teas served to specific people. I’m not going to deny the fact that it was all very interesting and I learned a lot. But little did I know that I would soon be in for the shock of a lifetime.

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A flowering tea consists of a bundle of dried tea leaves and flowers.
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Sarah poses in a photo with the student who translated the server’s explanations.
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The two other students flash “peace” signs for the camera.

We glanced at the amount in front of us: 1,845 yuan or $300 (U.S.).

This had to have been a joke! We had spent 30 minutes listening to a history lesson and sipping tea. I mean, how expensive could tea possibly be?! But we couldn’t leave without paying, so we handed our charge cards to the server. Funny, I didn’t even look to see if the three Chinese students paid their share.

We left the tea house and walked over to a busy shopping area where one of the students abruptly announced that they had to meet a friend for lunch. The strange part was that, earlier, they said they were going to the Shanghai Yu Garden. It just didn’t add up.

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After a bizarre tea ceremony experience, the students leave us at a busy shopping area.
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Shops nearby sell similar tea for affordable prices.

Pressed for time, Sarah, Lily and I never made it to the garden because we needed to get back to the hotel to meet up with the rest of our study abroad group. After reporting our bizarre experience to Professor Wu, he knew instantly that we had been scammed. He tried calling the business that we went to and the person on the other line gave some dubious response, claiming that the tea shop wasn’t even open that day.

We Googled “China tea ceremony scams,” and the results showed that what we went through was a common occurrence for foreigners. Apparently, young Chinese people who speak nearly perfect English will approach foreigners and suck them into tea houses or other tourist attractions that they work for.

I panicked for about a week, frantically checking my credit card statements to ensure no other fishy activity took place. Luckily, nothing else happened. But I felt angry and incredibly foolish for being duped so easily. I remembered exchanging emails with the students, so I was tempted to write a nasty email to them, but I resisted. It wasn’t even worth it.

The moral of the story is: No matter how friendly and kind someone appears, never fully trust them until you really get to know them. And always do your research about scams and other quirks about a place before traveling there.

But on the bright side, it could’ve been much worse. And at least I can say I got scammed in Shanghai. Not a lot of people can say that.

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Posing for a photo with our Shanghai scammers.

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