13 October 2006

Friendly Advice About Friendly Beijingers

In China, nearly everyone who approaches you wants to get you to spend some money. This is a pity, because it makes you very suspicious of those few who really just want to say hello and welcome you to their city.

In the two main tourist areas downtown (Tiananmen/Forbidden City and Wangfujing) there are a few classes of schemes. If you are aware of the scheme, you can better choose how to react, and whether you think it is worth the outlay of finances for the conversation.

1. The obvious ones. These include those selling postcards, hats, Mao watches or offering guide services. At least they are very honest that they want your money. A polite "no thank you" and a gentle wave of the hand, and, after one or two more tries with lower prices or different merchandise, they will smile and walk away, not wanting to waste too much time on a non-sale.

2. The innocuous ones. This is the class of art students. All over Beijing are student art exhibits, for raising money. These are in and around the museums and gates around Tiananmen, inside the Forbidden City, even near Wangfujing now. In this case, a university student, usually female, will approach and ask what country you are from, whether you like Beijing, how many times you have visited and other small talk. The skilled ones will continue to shape the conversation, share knowledge of Chinese culture or history, and only later explain that they are a student and have an art exhibit. The less skilled ones skip most of the small talk and go straight to inviting you to the exhibit. Now, if you are looking for a Chinese painting, these are not too expensive (US$5 and up), and all original. The students will explain the meanings of the colors and symbols in the paintings, of the meanings behind the Chinese calligraphy, the techniques - in all it is rather enlightening. And if you do not spend anything, they will usually just smile and let you go. This soft-sell method can give you plenty of information if you get a skilled student, and buying a picture or two is a cheap way to get a decent introduction to Chinese art.

3. The underhanded ones. The third group is the most annoying, as they will do their best to soak you of US$50 or more. These are students or, these days, graduates involved in import-export businesses, who wander Wangfujing and other areas looking for wealthy (by local standards) foreigners. They approach just like the art students, share small talk, walk around a while, and usually say they just want to practice their English. Then, as you wander, they will suggest sitting down to chat, or say they are thirsty and suggest getting a cup of tea or coffee. They then take you to one of a select number of tea houses in the various buildings along the street, and continue conversation as you sip Chinese tea and eat a snack (they will usually order fruit). When the bill comes, that is the shocker. The tea was some 80 yuan a cup, the fruit suddenly comes in at 300 yuan or more. In all, you find yourself shelling out nearly all the 100 yuan bills you are carrying, spending 50, 60, or more dollars – all on a cup of tea. This is a very underhanded scheme. Few foreigners think that, in a place where you can get your tea for a quarter, you will end up spending more than ten dollars a cup. But they aren’t done. Before the bill comes, they begin to ask what you do for fun, and invite you to go dancing, or to a karaoke bar. That would inevitably put you out quite a bit more money. Now, I suspect that these "students" or "office workers" later get a cut of the take at the teahouses and karaoke bars. It is sneaky, and costly, and makes the visitors instantly standoffish toward any other approaches by the locals.

And this is a pity. Because there are an increasing number of Chinese students and workers who really do just want to talk, to practice English, to share their knowledge or love for their city with the guests from overseas, particularly as the Olympics near. One can only imagine how many people in 2008 will get cheated out of large chunks of cash for a cup of tea and 20 minutes conversation. But, if you know the schemes, you can play back. Suggest walking and talking longer before getting a drink. Pick your own drink location. That will mess up their plans. If you are lucky, they will relent, and you will get a conversation on the cheap. If not, they walk away "to meet their friends."

Anyway, there are some people who really do just want to talk. And those showing the art are not trying to take anything from you, just sell you something. But that third group, they are the ones to be on the look out for.

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