A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Shanghai, Part Four: A Tale of Three Weekends

This post was written on June 7, 2014, but was not published until now.

Like I said last time, being a tourist is hard. And it's a lot harder if you are a tourist alone. Traveling alone not only means you don't have anyone with whom to share the experience, it also means you are substantially more likely to do something stupid. This is the story of three days visiting places on three separate weekends.

Day 1: The stupidest thing I've done so far

There are two UM professors here for the summer, both of whom are men in their 60's and both of whom are teaching one 13-week course instead of my two 8-week courses. Fred normally teaches at the Residential College at UM and is here teaching a course on the history of Western thought. He gives off an air of cosmopolitan intellectualism vaguely reminiscent of Truman Capote. This is his third summer teaching in China but he still takes a fork with him whenever he goes out. Bill is a biologist teaching a course on the biology of sex. It's his first time in China, and he's here with his wife Sara.

Bill and Sara have unofficially adopted me as their occasional travel companion. They remind me a lot of my own parents--a fairly easy-going academic family of that generation who enjoy good beer and dirty jokes and are frugal but willing to spend money on a good experience. They make good tourists. One weekend they invited me for a tour of Yuyuan Garden. I made it into town and phoned them, only to discover that Bill was feeling under the weather. So I resolved to explore the neighborhood on my own.

I couldn't find the gardens, but the surrounding area boasted a sprawling shopping center (most of Shanghai is basically an endless series of sprawling shopping centers punctuated by high-rise apartments). The entire area had been built in the last 25 years, but in a 19th century architectural style, like an Epcot Center version of old Shanghai.

While taking it all in, two young girls approached me and asked me to take their picture. They said they were students visiting town from Beijing and chatted with me about the U.S. for a while before inviting me to go to a "traditional Chinese tea service" with them. I agreed. This is the stupidest thing I've done here so far.

Having had Bill and Sara cancel on me, I took this as an opportunity to make what the movie Fight Club refers to as "single-serving friends." This had been a common enough experience when I backpacked through Europe. They took me to a hole-in-the-wall tea house down a side street of the shopping area that I couldn't find again in a million years--this should have been a sign that something was amiss, but it went well over my head. They showed a menu, and everything listed cost 66 or 68 yuan--about $11. Pricey for a cup of tea, but this was a "tea ceremony." A woman took us into a room and showed us a bunch of teas, giving the history of each as she poured tiny cups--about two sips' worth a piece. My two companions translated as we went, asking questions about America and acting vaguely flirty between sips of tea. I was growing increasingly anxious. Then the bill came--685 yuan. I was shocked. Apparently the menu I had been shown listed the price per tea, not the price for the ceremony. My two companions initially tried to convince me to pay for them because they were "students." I refused. I should have protested further. Of course, I really should have not come at all. But I paid and left. My companions left with me and asked me to come explore the city with them, but I quickly said goodbye and left them.

Yes, I had fallen victim to what I later discovered was the  infamous tea ceremony scam. The thing left me feeling cheated and objectified, but honestly, the young women were so convincing I didn't even realize it was a scam until well after the fact. Their performance plus my extreme naivete created a perfect storm. The experience still stings, but I choose to consider it an idiocy tax, one that many traveler's must pay in one form or another.

Day 2: European colonialism

A week later, Bill and Sara again invited me and Fred to join them at the Yuyuan Garden, and this time we actually made it. The garden is an elaborate, maze-like space built in the Ming Dynasty. It features stone paths that zig-zag through old wooden structures, the originals on which the architecture of the surrounding shopping center is based. Coy ponds and a wide variety of flora filled the garden, including ginkgo biloba trees dating back to when Europeans still assumed that ginkgo biloba was extinct (this fact courtesy of my biologist travel companion).

After touring the garden, we ate lunch at a restaurant previously visited by Queen Elizabeth II and Bill and Hilary Clinton. Then we took a subway to The Bund, an opulent waterfront neighborhood and famous vestige of European colonialism. The British (and others) did horrible things to this country, but I'll give them this: they built some pretty building and they made good alcohol.

China doesn't have a drinking culture the way Europe and North America do. Their beers are pretty weak and flavorless. So it was a treat when Bill, a beer connoisseur, brought us to The Bund Brewery, where we enjoyed a half-liter of a proper German-style craft beer. We then made our way to the Waldorf Astoria's famous Long Bar, where once only the wealthiest of the wealthiest could even set foot. Stepping into the hotel was like being transported back to the 1930's. This was the Shanghai of pulp fiction stories and old film serials--a land of mystery, adventure, and romance accessible only to a privileged few. It's hard to forget the racism and exploitation on which this place was built, but it's also hard to deny the beauty of the place in and of itself.

That Saturday was the day of Bill's official retirement from UM, so he sprang for the 100 yuan cocktails at the bar. They were both the best and the strongest cocktails I have ever had. On top of the beers, they made for quite a night.

It was a beautiful day, exploring the city with these friends, sharing our impressions of the city thus far. At one point, we walked past a tea house and Sara advised us to watch out, because she had read about scammers massively overcharging people for tea ceremonies.

And I thought to myself, "Well, shit."

Day 3: My favorite day

This weekend I decided to forgo tourism, which is really just another kind of work, and take a true day off. Once again I took the shuttle into the city. But instead of European colonialism, I decided to enjoy some American colonialism. Instead of a tea ceremony, I decided to partake of a coffee ritual. I went to Starbucks. I bought myself a 20 yuan cup of coffee, sat in a poofy chair--the most comfortable chair I've found in all of China so far, including at the Long Bar--and I spent the next several hours making it two thirds of the way through Larry Niven's Ringworld, a science fiction classic that I had until now managed to overlook.

I was interrupted only once for about ten minutes when a man in his 20's took a seat across from mine (the place was packed at this point) and engaged in some small talk. He worked at the Sheraton hotel but confessed his dream of becoming a sports journalist. We chatted about NBA basketball for a little while until his friend met him and he left, shaking my hand and telling me it was nice to meet me, thus restoring my faith in single-serving friends.

Then I returned to Ringworld. Wherever I am, there really are few things I enjoy so much as sitting in a coffee shop reading an old science fiction novel.

NOTE (August 4, 2014): I withheld publishing this entry with the intention of calling my credit card company when I got back to the U.S. I explained that I had been the victim of a scam, and they eventually credited me for $98.56 of the $109 that I had been charged in the tea scam. So, a happy ending.

NOTE (August 20, 2014): Nevermind. Turns out they had only "provisionally" refunded the money while conducting an "investigation," after which they denied my claim. To hell with Visa.