Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
Every time after a “golden week” vacation in China, there are always a few “horror stories” about how gullible tourists were set up by greedy business owners waiting for their prey on the Internet. In some cases, the tourists may have read about similar stories hundreds of times but the warnings still failed to prevent them from falling into a trap that is often more sophisticated than ever.
The leading example this past “National Day golden week” was clearly the Qingdao shrimps, which were listed as 38 yuan ($5.9) on the menu of a restaurant of this coastal tourism city. But gullible tourists only learned when they got the bill that the price was for a single shrimp rather than the entire dish, which normally has a few dozen of them.
But despite the frequency with which such shenanigans happen in China, they are not an exclusively Chinese phenomena. Not only are some developing countries known for various tricks around their tour sites aimed at the wallets of tourists, but even in developed countries where a more honest image may be portrayed, there are also plenty of similar scams.
In New York, one vendor charged tourists $35 for a hot dog and a pretzel, a combo that normally costs $5. And the hawkers around the Empire State Building won’t hesitate to claim to you tickets are not available inside the building, and you have to buy from them instead – at a big premium of course.
In Paris, restaurants around the Eiffel Tower will provide tourists with expensive bottled water and the locals with free tap water even if they all ask for water. And be careful of asking prices of snacks or memorabilia from street vendors if you are holding some money in your hand. The price, you’ll find, is magically the exact amount in your hand, whatever that is.
On a visit to Madrid at the same time as “golden week” in China, I was charged 47 euros in service fees for changing $200 into euros at a currency exchange service in the Spanish city’s old town area thronged with tourists. That meant I received 120 euros instead of 167. The services fees, under two different names, were not mentioned by the clerk who dealt with me. And he covered them up with his fingers when he held the receipt for me to sign. It seems there was fine print on an instruction sheet stuck on his window.
I got most of my loss back by simply standing there, informing other tourists of the hefty fees, and making the clerk and his boss realize that they were losing much more by refusing my request to cancel the transaction.
All of these anecdotes lead to a conclusion that shouldn’t be too surprising. The honesty of business people in the modern world is mainly based on self-interest rather than altruism. In developed countries, heavier regulation and a focus on retaining customers encourage honest dealing. But when it comes to tourists, who are less likely to become a recurring patron, business people are pretty much the same everywhere – and sometimes won’t bother trying too hard to conceal their greed.
But what intrigued me was not so much the “horror stories” themselves, but the reaction of Chinese people when we become victims of such traps.
When I wrote about my experience in Madrid for a Chinese language website, several readers who claimed they were Chinese living in Madrid criticized me for getting myself into trouble by not using the ubiquitous ATM machines (though I was changing cash), not reading the fine print for the transaction, and not looking carefully at the receipt before signing it.
This mentality is typical for many Chinese. After all, we all know the famous line from the Analects of Confucius: “Zengzi said, ‘Each day I examine myself in three ways…'” We are so used to examining ourselves that even when we are victimized in a scam, we blame ourselves.
This is completely opposite to the mentality of a Westerner, who will almost always blame an external person or factor for their predicament.
Our tradition may be able to help us to make more self-improvements and to be reasonable people, but it also diminishes our chances of changing the world.
In recent years, more and more Chinese have begun to change. The victims of the shrimp dish in Qingdao posted their ordeal online and caused a nationwide outcry, which helped to prompt the authorities to punish the unscrupulous restaurant with a penalty.
In the US, Chinese new immigrant customers for years have been targeted by used auto sellers and lured in to sign contracts that they don’t fully understand.
Nowadays, more and more victims stand up and fight against such predators rather than blaming themselves for not reading the contract carefully. But clearly, not everyone, in China or overseas, has made this transition in mind-set.
The author is a New York-based journalist. firstname.lastname@example.org