Thursday, February 4, 2016

How I Lost My Mind in a Dirty Chinese Bathroom

A certain amount of risk is involved in any backpacking journey, especially one that will extend for four months. Tourism often goes hand in hand with pick pocketing, bizarre illness and slimy scams. The realistic traveler not only willingly accepts these risks, but also budgets for the day they wind up getting robbed or taking a ride to an emergency clinic. In the weeks leading up to my journey I jokingly referred to this risk with friends, but I never expected that it would manifest into reality on only my second day of traveling.

Beijing is a hub for old Chinese culture and world famous sites such as the Great Wall and Forbidden City. On the flip side, Beijing is also world famous for its scams targeting tourists. A fact that I learned the hard way. The most famous of Beijing scams, and the one that got me, is commonly referred to as the tea room scam. In this scam a couple of locals will befriend a foreigner and invite them to tea. After some quality conversation and fragrant Chinese tea you will be served with a bill that could be totaling as much as $1000. For me, it wasn't a tea ceremony that got me, but rather an invitation to a rousing night of karaoke extended by two outgoing, Chinese women.

Internet victim blaming is a sport these days. I'll save you some time and give you a little back story, so that you don't waste a second of your day thinking, "How could she fall for that?" In Vietnam karaoke is king. People love wasting time by belting out sorrowful traditional songs and a Katy Perry jam here and there. Inviting a foreign friend (or perfect stranger) to partake in the fun is completely kosher. Locals have invited me to sing karaoke so many times that I eventually accepted it as a completely normal and safe activity to partake in while living in Asia.

So of course, as a solo traveler I was elated at the opportunity to make some friends and put my full vocal range on display. Let me tell you, I was spectacular. I worked my way up from the simple classics like 'Lean on Me' and Abba's 'Chiquitita'. By the time we popped our second bottle of wine I was transformed into a full-on diva, accompanied by my two backup dancers. To us, we were professionals, deserving of a Grammy. To the man at the bar, we were cats slowly dying in an alleyway.

These women were professionals. They had been feeding my ego by swearing to me that I had the voice of an angel. Seriously, they said that. Flashing lights and flowing red wine accompanied with harmonizing, synchronized dance moves and the kind of validating, man bashing that only happens on the sloppiest of ladies nights, had me fooled. They understood me, and literally agreed with every word that poured from my mouth. I genuinely liked these saucy Chinese women... and then the bill came.

I excused to myself to bathroom to panic, and maybe throw up. That two by four, black bathroom became to me what a confessional booth is two an eighty year old Catholic woman. All of the feelings came out to play because those two hours of karaoke and two bottles of wine had totaled $700. Sweat began to bead on my forehead, and the culprits could probably hear me panicking and whispering, "Jesus Christ Katie," from outside of the bathroom door. My first thought was to run, but then I remembered that there were some unusually large men tending the bar and that they would catch me before I even hit the stairs. With my nose inches from the mirror I stared deep into my bulging eyes and had a terrifying, high pitched, full conversation with my level headed self and my more anxiety-prone self.

"You're going to have to pay something. You got played. So just accept it."

"F**k. F**k. F**k. F**k."

"Focus dammit. Think. You can get out of this okay."

"No. No. No. No. No. No."

"This is fine. I'm going to be fine. I'll just talk to them."

"I'm imagining this."

"This is happening, so be real bitch."

"We didn't even drink good wine. At these prices, this should have been the best night of my life. It should have been like a P. Diddy video!"

"You need to go out there."

"Wait. First, steal all of their toilet paper. It's the least they can do."

... uncontrolled laughter...

There was nothing that could be done, so I faced the music. My deceivers so generously offered to split the tab with me (Another lie. My card was charged for $600), and I crept away with my tail between my legs. My head was spinning with ideas on how to realign my budget during the long walk of shame back to the hostel. Any stranger that stepped with in my vicinity was quickly frightened away by the strange white girl muttering obscenities under her breath. I didn't care. I kept trudging on thinking,

"This would have never happened in Vietnam."

Moments like this one will define your perspective on the world, if you allow them. By thinking that Vietnam was exempt from this kind of slide of hand, I opened the door to start blaming it on the character of Chinese people. Would anyone have blamed me if I completely wrote off China for the remainder of my time in country? Probably not, but if I had done that, I would have missed out on so much. I would have missed steaming soup dumplings, quaint traditional restaurants, ancient architecture and cities that are six times larger than the state of Kentucky.

The truth is, China is a wonderful country and the overwhelming amount of the time I spent there was amazing. What happened to me was unfortunate, but those types of scams take place in every corner of the world. I refuse to allow that to dramatically alter my view of the world. That was the first time that I had been seriously scammed since my very first, very green trip to Europe about eight years ago. There were infinite, positive human interactions between these two negative ones. Of course, I still get a little sick to my stomach when I think about how much money I lost that day. However, it would truly be a shame if these overwhelmingly unusual occurrences prompted me into looking for the potentially negative or dangerous qualities in a person prior to assuming the positive.

In the end, I can chalk it up as another valuable life experience and an entertaining story. My advice to everyone is to visit China. Be very aware while you are there, but don't close yourself off to this culture because it's as a bold as the szechuan spices that season the local food.

"That fake Jamaican took every last dime with that scam. It was worth it just to learn some slide of hand." 

- Modest Mouse