Snared by Chi­nese whis­pers

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel - Ashleigh Wil­son

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.

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