Entry #23: I am not a big wad of cash.

For those of you that are distraught about the election I have some good news.
First, Bush will only be in office for 4 years, whereas here in China they had emperors that sometimes ruled for 70 years. And Chairman Mao was in power for 25 years! Thank goodness for two term limits.

Second, for all of the blunders you think Bush may have had in his first term, none compare to the emperor in China who decided to spend his entire budget for a naval fleet on one single boat. It wasn't some great big battle ship, it was made of marble! Yes that’s right, one single boat made completely from marble. Uh huh, marble...the rock. Not surprisingly, the boat didn't float, but even more shocking was that it wasn't very effective in defending China against an attack by the British Royal Navy! Go figure.

China: The land of the bad scam artists.

I'm not sure if my new found ability to spot scam artists from a mile away is the result of traveling so much in the last two months, or if most of them are really bad at what they do. I’ll go with the latter.

For instance, tonight I was walking through the back streets of Beijing in search of dinner. I walked past a restaurant that was chock full of locals, and thought, "It must be a good place to eat if all the locals are going there." So I went in and was greeted like a rock star, which is sort of commonplace for a westerner that has ventured off the beaten path. The locals are either excited to see you or they see you as a big wad of cash. I'm sure you can guess where the story is going.

At first, I was given the "English" menu...which doesn't have any prices on it. I smelled a rat. I called them on their obvious attempt to pull one over on me and I asked for the Chinese menu. I thought to myself that they were thinking, "No harm in trying", but now that I called them on it I thought the mischief would end there.

Keep in mind,I don't speak or read Chinese. I incorrectly figured all Chinese menus are laid out similarly, and I randomly pointed to what I thought was the chicken and beef section of the menu. Imagine my surprise when I was given whole chunks of fish (bones included) in a brown sauce and a plate of fried pig ears. I must say that this really proves that anything fried tastes good! I couldn't be bothered trying to eat/choke the fish down as well as "fish" out all the bones while using chopsticks. So I decided to get it "to go" to give to one of the beggars on the street. I asked for the bill. And the really good scamming began…

The waitress arrives with the bill... $126 Chinese! This is only about $15 US, but in China, it is a fortune (most meals cost around $30 Chinese.) Without putting money down, I ask how much each thing cost. In a panic, the waitress throws out some numbers that only add up to $116.

Hmmm...pretty fishy.

I ask to see the menu again. The hostess and waiters say "You can't look at it". As if it is suddenly a classified government document. After some debate, they realize other patrons are looking on, so finally they say they will bring me one in a minute. After about 10 minutes I get one.

My plan was to see if anything on the menu matched any of the inflated prices listed in the “check,” because I had forgotten where I had randomly pointed to when I ordered. But when the returned with the menu, it had two small peices of paper taped in over the prices of only two items. I'm thinking to myself, "Wow, I must really look dumb". Who would fall for this? Did they really think I, or anyone for that matter woudl fall for that?

Underneath, of course, were the real prices. I peeled back the paper and did the math to come to the conclusion that the real price was $56.

At this point I thought, "OK, they know the gig is up, and they'll just be happy to take the real tab," but unfortunately I only had $100 Chinese bills. I gave them $100 and the waitress came back with $5. "Are you kidding me?" I asked, which did nothing, since I was the only person communicating in English. For 20 minutes I badgered them with, "More money!" only to be shooed off by the hostess. She and the other waiters knew they had time on their side--it was 8PM and the restaurant was open for another three hours, so it seemed likely that I would give up and walk out.

Then I had an idea (not a stroke of genius, but an idea): if they were going to keep my money, then I had essentially paid for about 10 beers that I didn’t get to drink, so I found their refrigerator and started removing bottles. The hostess completely lost it and started screaming. I was cool and continued to remove bottles--I had paid for them, they were mine! Finally, a customer who spoke English came over to see what was happening. She told the hostess that she needed to be fair and to give me my [correct] change. The hostess and her cronies finally caved in and I got my money. Despite the absurdity of the situation, I was in good spirits because it was pretty comical to see how these idiots tried to cover their tracks after repeatedly getting caught.

Great Wall "vendor"

Chinese bad scam attempt #2: a few days ago, I walked 8 miles along the Great Wall. I got off the bus and was followed by three women as I started walking to the Wall. They didn't say anything, but walked shoulder to shoulder with me. I doubted they were going to jump me for my money, and if they did, I was pretty confident I could take them seeing how they were all smaller than my mother (which is very small). And I just didn't get the vibe that they were violent.

But something wasn’t right. They shared their umbrella with me when it started to rain, and they became shadowlike after a while—in fact, after a while I didn't really notice them, and assumed they were just out for a hike like me. But after about 2 hours of walking it began. "Hey mister...you buy book...I'm a farmer with lots of children...you buy T-shirt...beautiful t-shirt...mister you buy post cards for friends". For the next 2 hours that is all I heard as I constantly responded with "No...no...no". I repeatedly turned to them and said, "Listen you should really just go home because I'm not going to buy anything." Two of them eventually took my advice. But the third continued with me for the entire route! When we finished, she tried to claim that I was her "tour guide" and should pay her $10. When that didn't work, she claimed I should just pay her for coming all that way with me. Finally, I was able to escape by jumping on a zip line that carried me over across a lake, where she couldn't follow unless she paid money.

I was also able to attend a Chinese acrobatics show, which is just funny in general. I mean, who thought of these stunts? I can imagine that it started in the school yard with double-dog-dares..."I bet you and all your 14 brothers and sisters can't balance on your bike while your pedaling with your hands?” "Oh yeah well I bet you can balance 12 plates on long poles while your doing cartwheels across 10 people's heads," and thus the Chinese acrobatics were born!

Well that is it for now...next stop Bangkok.


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