Tea For Three

This site is ostensibly about nature, and I haven’t added much content recently, so maybe going off-topic is unwise. But this is a human story, so I’m leaning on my conviction that humans are of nature and not held apart from it. This is simply the best story I have to tell from my current work trip to China.

On Sunday afternoon in Shanghai, I had a very surreal experience that turned out to be a highlight of the trip. I had been birding along The Bund for a couple of hours, and had just put away my binoculars and checklist. I was walking briskly and looking for a place to buy a bottle of water before returning to my hotel by Metro. A young woman flagged me down, held up her phone, and said “excuse me, will you help me take a photo?” Well, of course I would! It did seem a little odd that a Chinese woman would ask the one foreigner in sight (in English) with hundreds of Mandarin speakers nearby, but I wasn’t going to say no to such a simple and polite request.

IMG_0621So, I took a couple of quick photos, returned her phone, and asked her to check if they were OK. I started to leave, assuming the interaction was concluded, but she began to make conversation. At first I gave short replies, again assuming this was just polite interest in return for the small favor. She introduced herself as Vera and we exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes. As the conversation progressed, it became increasingly clear that her English was excellent, and it was nice to be able to hold a conversation with someone when I couldn’t speak the local language. I was happy to answer Vera’s questions and ask a few of my own.

Eventually she asked, “What will you do for the rest of today?” I sheepishly explained that I was very tired from 24 hours of travel, and would probably return to my hotel soon for a long nap. She smiled and then related her own plans for the afternoon. She was on vacation with a friend, and they were about to go to a teahouse and then explore some of the older architecture in a nearby part of the city. Again, I assumed this was the end of a pleasant interaction. Then came the real surprise.

“Would you like to join us? We can meet my friend and all have tea together,” she said. Alarm bells rang. Here was a charming, pretty young woman asking a complete stranger to go somewhere with her, totally unprompted. I was jet-lagged, sweaty, and wearing cargo shorts, so I couldn’t have looked my best. She had to be no older than twenty-five, and was probably younger. This seemed like the textbook example of how to get scammed when traveling abroad. Yet, she was so earnest and sweet (yes, a skilled scammer would appear to have exactly those qualities). So, I politely declined, begging tiredness. She was, however, persistent. She assured me it would only take half an hour. Then, she explained that she and her friend were graduate students in linguistics – English was a specialization for both of them. They wanted to make friends with English-speaking people to practice.

I’m not sure what it was that made me trust her. She did look the part of a graduate student on vacation, and her English was good enough that I believed her story. Was it only that, or was it the jet lag? Maybe there was a hint of ego involved – I had no interest in being “picked up” but a small part of me wondered if that might be at least some of the motivation, and that part was flattered. Again, I realize that these are the exact strings a practiced scammer would be trying to pull, but in the end I had to make a judgment of this person’s intentions and it all felt too honest and innocent to be a trap. After a couple more halfhearted protestations I agreed to accompany Vera and her friend.

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Vera led me a short distance to meet her friend, Yuki, who seemed surprised but delighted to have a guest. This, too, put me at ease. It seemed that much less likely to be a setup, and if it turned out my new friend was interested in something more I felt equipped to decline with appropriate grace. I wouldn’t say I let my guard down entirely, but I was able to relax and enjoy making small talk. Within my own culture this type of social interaction can sometimes induce a paralyzing fear. But here, divorced of Western trappings and with no expectations to conform to Chinese expectations, the stakes seemed much lower. All that societal pressure which can make it so hard to make new friends as an adult was simply absent.

Vera explained that the teahouse was at the “feet” of a famous and important building. I didn’t understand the exact significance of this building. More embarrassingly, I also completely spaced on her usage of the word “feet.” I was tired, so the mental picture I created was a building with a large statue at the bottom, and perhaps the tea house was between the statue’s actual feet. It didn’t even occur to me that she meant the “foot” as in the base or foundation, so I just shrugged like an idiot. In hindsight, maybe her English was actually better than mine.

She went on to explain that the area we were heading toward had very old architecture – they chose this particular teahouse for the chance to view these older Shanghai buildings. As we neared our destination she began pointing out some of the differences: notably the rows of street-level shops with residences above. I was impressed – I could really feel the history of this place in the contrasting designs of the centuries.

As we walked, I tried to explain the purpose of my visit to China. Sometimes I have trouble explaining this even to other Americans, so I’m not sure how successful I was. Vera told me a bit about her hometown in Hubei Province. Of course, as everyone in China wants to she did also ask me about President Trump. I hope I made it clear that he is an idiot and a national embarrassment, and that I am sorry we failed the world so badly by electing him.

We soon arrived at the teahouse and were welcomed inside. Vera and Yuki helped to translate and explain the ordering process as well as each step in the tea ceremony. Each of us selected one type of tea and the hostess prepared them one at a time. Before the first tasting, she poured some tea on a frog Buddha and passed it around. Each of us in turn stroked the frog’s back and spun a disc in its mouth. Then the hostess described the first tea, heated the water, and poured. We were instructed to hold the teacups with our first two fingers and thumb. The ladies were to point their remaining two fingers out while I was to tuck them back against my palm. Next, we were told to swirl and sniff, much like a wine tasting. Finally, we were to finish each cup in three small sips. When this tea was exhausted, the hostess repeated the process with the next choice.

Early in the ceremony Vera asked to add me on WeChat – an extremely popular social media platform in China. She remarked on the hat I was wearing in my photo, which was a perfect opportunity to make my intentions clear (just in case). “Thank you; my wife made that for me,” I said with pride. I couldn’t quite read Vera’s reaction to that, but I thought I detected an amused smile from Yuki. A little later, though, I could read the reaction when Vera asked my age and I replied, truthfully, “thirty-five.” Her eyes immediately grew three sizes like the Grinch’s heart and she appeared briefly mortified. From this I gather there may have been some flirtation in the mix after all, but I hope mentioning my marital status early allowed things to progress platonically without any loss of face.

As long as we lingered, the hostess continued to reuse the tea leaves. We ordered one additional variety after a brief deliberation. There was one awkward moment when I asked for recommendations and they said “you’re the only man here; it’s your choice.” I winced at this, but I didn’t see a graceful exit so I chose a jasmine tea. Apparently this choice was the most womanly tea, but I saw no problem with this. It was delicious and light, as I expected it would be.

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After perhaps an hour of tea sipping and idle chatting, and a few more minutes waiting out a sudden summer squall, it was time to settle the bill – and for the final test if this was some sort of setup. It wasn’t! We split the bill equitably, and Vera and Yuki even bought some tea for me. As we left, Vera and Yuki offered to walk to the Metro station with me. I agreed.

Soon Vera said, “The Metro is a little far. Do you want to try the bicycle?” I must have looked horrified, because Yuki and Vera both laughed and assured me it was perfectly safe. Despite my survival without incident, I maintain that it was very much not. I know a little something about cycling safety, and this violated virtually all of those rules. Cycling without a helmet through the streets of Shanghai was a heady experience. Fun, yes, but still I was glad it was a brief ride. That said, I was impressed with the Shanghai bike share program. The bikes have wheel locks which can be released with various electronic means of payment. Vera unlocked mine and hers with WeChat and off we went. We kept the pace slow and before you know it we had reached the station.

Yuki had apparently intended to ride with us, but she said she was having trouble finding another bike and would meet Vera at the station later. I took this at face value, but after further reflection I wonder if this was intended to provide a last opportunity for something intimate to happen. The idea that it was at all difficult to find a third bike doesn’t seem to hold up to scrutiny. I’m hopeless at reading these things even in my own cultural context, so I really don’t know and probably never will.

The goodbye was as sudden as the hello. Here we stood, new friends who may never again see one another, and parted with a polite handshake. Here ended my encounter with what I am choosing to call “Chinese YOLO.” As Vera put it in the beginning, “It’s new experience. You should try.”

That Sunday afternoon in Shanghai was a whirlwind through about two hours which I will never forget. The experience reminded me that it is OK to trust others sometimes, and that human life is at its base level a series of fleeting moments. Humans are social animals, so some of those moments are meant to be shared. Even for introverts like me, great happiness can come from embracing such moments when they arrive.

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