I should’ve known something was fishy when they started speaking to us, out of the blue, in perfect English. But my friend was naive, and I didn’t have the will to steer him otherwise.

It all started right outside of Tiananmen Square. We arrived in Beijing just hours beforehand. A pleasant train ride dropped us off at a bustling station, and we managed to navigate through the confusion to find a taxi stand. Our taxi driver didn’t really understand our directions yet we still managed to reach the majestic Grand Hotel Beijing.

My two other friends, Chanel and Deja, decided to hang around the hotel and take a nap. Alex, being the go-getter of the group, wanted to go out and explore. “Why not?” I thought. Now I know.

Our exploration brought us right to Tiananmen Square and the giant portrait of Mao illuminated the darkness of night. “Regal but creepy,” I thought. You can only stare at Mao for so long before your eyes seek shelter in darker colors. Darker colors led Alex and I back to our hotel.

Not even two blocks away, we were met by two women who identified themselves as Chinese natives. One was visiting the other, the “other” being a native of Beijing. They indulged us in questions, eventually figuring out that we were students and revealing themselves as teachers–recent grads even. Cloaked in kindness, the two women invited us for tea. I figured it was a traditional Chinese gesture. Who doesn’t like tea?

We were told we’d find the tea spot a couple blocks away, but following the women for several blocks did not immediately bring us to tea. Around 10 blocks later we all arrived to this spot on the corner, very relaxed and not commanding much attention. The women asked us if we’d like to sing karaoke. Again, why not?

We went upstairs to find a room with a couch, TV, table, and karaoke tunes already queued. Whitney Houston it was! I sang a bit while the women ordered us tea, some form of milk (almond or coconut—I can’t remember which one), and a little later a bottle of wine and two beers for myself and Alex. I’m not a big fan of red wine, so I only had a couple sips.

About an hour passed and I got hungry. We began to wrap up our festivities. Alex asked the ladies if they were ready to cash out and they motioned for the bill. That’s when the problems really began.

The bill was around $600. Alex and I were befuddled to say the least. Him, a little tipsy, looked at me in this state of confusion. I nodded back. It seemed as though we’d been scammed. Unfamiliar with the area, language, and other important social contexts, we immediately decided to pay the bill with little contest.

“Let’s split it” we requested. The two women started to explain how it was a Chinese custom for men to pay the bill in these scenarios. When probed regarding why the bill was so expensive, they told us that it was a special wine in celebration of Chinese New Year.

Whatever.

They agreed to split the bill. Alex and I would pay half and they would pay half. We paid our half and walked swiftly back to our hotel.

The end? Pretty much.

I left this situation frustrated, disillusioned, and a bit pissed off at being scammed. Was I scammed? They could’ve been totally genuine, and the expensive bill a result of miscommunication.  The uncertainty still creeps on me from now and then. Maybe that’s just another effect from the vulnerability of travel.

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