Snared by Chinese whispers
LIKE any other foreign tourist with hours to spare — strolling, holding a map, glancing around trying to make sense of it all — I am easy prey. It is only a matter of time before someone pounces.
It shouldn’t be this way. During the past few years, after visiting a handful of countries in Europe and Asia, I have begun to feel the innocence of the naive traveller fading.
Trying on suits to satisfy a persistent salesman in Hong Kong, avoiding the advances of a camp Italian hostel owner, paying a clearly fraudulent mystic $50 just to be left alone, mistaking a brothel for a new age massage centre in Singapore: all of it counts as experience. Each occasion is supposed to make me just that little bit less gullible.
Yet here I am, walking down Shanghai’s crowded Nanjing Lu pedestrian walkway towards the Bund, when three teenage girls skip up and ask where I am from. How friendly, I think, stopping to chat. That is my first mistake. The usual banter about Australia follows, with questions concerning kangaroos and beaches. My new friends giggle a lot and are charming in a teenage kind of way. They’ve adopted Western first names but struggle with the pronunciation of Ashleigh. They tell me they are tourists in Shanghai, too; they are from the province of Shaanxi.
They apologise when they stumble on English words. I tell them their language skills are rather impressive, thinking that conversations with visitors such as me help them improve their English. They ask if I’ve seen much of the city. I say I’ve just spent several hours at the Shanghai Museum. Did I like the calligraphy at the museum? Sure.
This is the second mistake. By astonishing coincidence, my new friends are calligraphy students. The conversation stays light, but soon I find myself asking about their work. As it turns out, it just happens to be on display in a nearby building.
Vaguely suspicious, I tell them I am in a rush and have to go. This clearly is a lie, since we’ve been chatting idly for 15 minutes. So I give in. They take me up in an elevator, then along a corridor to a room with several pieces of calligraphy on the wall. I amtrapped.
They ask which one I like best. Trying to wriggle out of a sale, I replied lamely: ‘‘ They’re all very nice.’’ Twenty minutes later, not wanting to offend my new friends, I hand over 100 yuan ($16) for a small piece of calligraphy that apparently means prosperity.
I move, stunned and ashamed, towards the exit as another tourist is being ushered inside. Hoping the girls won’t understand me, I tell the tourist she is entering a tangled web that is impossible to escape. A moment later, she is standing beside me waiting for the lift.
I am incredulous. How did she escape? ‘‘ I said no,’’ she shrugs.
Later that day, I relay this story to expat friends in Shanghai. They find it hilarious. Being approached in tourist areas is nothing new, they tell me, and this particular scam is well known. The trick is not to stop. But what should I say if someone asks where I amfrom? Nothing, it seems. Just keep walking.
I thought I read somewhere that Chinese students sometimes approach Western tourists to practise their English. ‘‘ These people don’t want to be your friend,’’ the expats laugh, as one waves at me with my newly acquired calligraphy.