There’s a line in Wallis Simpson’s memoir, The Heart Has its Reasons, about hearing the song Tea for Two for the first time in Shanghai. She wrote that the combination of the melody, the moonlight, the perfume – to say nothing of the man she was with – made her feel that she had really entered the Celestial Kingdom.
So taking tea in China was high on my list of important activities when I traveled there recently to research Wallis’ life. Wallis had spent nearly a year in Shanghai and Peking around 1925 and the hotel where she had first stayed was close by Tiananmen Square, the name so chillingly familiar today for other reasons. *So that was where I had to go first. We wandered around, me trying to imagine what it must have been like in the twenties, and then, as the guidebook instructed, crossed under the major road along to the mausoleum fronted by the giant picture of Mao, for a moment bewildered by thoughts of all that he had achieved and destroyed.
It was Chinese New Year, the year of the Tiger, which meant there was a holiday atmosphere with many families wandering around buying candy from street vendors and children running and shouting happily. They were all tourists in one sense but on this freezing cold February day there were not many obvious western tourists.
Everyone was staring at me. “I’m feeling very blonde,” I said to my husband. Little children pointed, waved and said ‘Hello.’ I felt uncomfortable as I waved and said hello back so put on a hat to cover my fair hair. I suddenly understood what it must be like to feel freakish.
A young girl approached and politely said in excellent English: “I’m so sorry to interrupt but you have such beautiful hair and blue eyes. I hope you don’t mind if I tell you.”
She had a charming smile revealing teeth that needed attention. But who could resist that for an opening gambit?
“Oh no,” I said. “I like your shiny black hair and dark eyes.”
We continued in this vein – me complimenting her on her good English as her compliments to me grew wilder and wilder. Was I in the movies, she asked, sure she recognised me. My husband was a very lucky man, she told him.
She was a student at Shanghai University, she explained and wanted to be a teacher. Her brother, too, the young man next to her, was there studying acupuncture so if we would like to walk with them a little they would point out interesting things and be grateful for the chance to practise their English.
The conversation flowed as we walked through the ornamental gardens and she explained the symbolism all around us of the water, the stones, the plants, the bridges and the pathways. And how Feng Shui, a forbidden practice after 1949, was now accepted. As we crossed a particularly pretty bridge we offered to take a photo of her and her brother. She immediately shunned this explaining that, as a Buddhist, she could not be photographed. “We say you lose a little part of your soul with every picture taken.”
We felt embarrassed suddenly; wrong footed and ignorant that we had trespassed on their hospitality and were full of apologies.
But we continued our walk through the garden and soon started chatting about more personal things; our families. She explained that she was the first born daughter, born in 1982 after China’s one child policy was introduced in 1980. But her father so badly wanted a son he had insisted on a second child. This one, too, was a daughter and her father had been punished with fines and demoted from his government position. This had been an expensive time for her family which resulted in our guide being taken out of school and taught by her mother, who was a teacher of mathematics. Yet in spite of this period of relative hardship her father had been so desperate for a boy that her parents had persevered and had a third child – the boy walking alongside us.
I was gripped by this tale. It was exactly the sort of insight into Chinese family life I thought we would never discover. I feared that we would return home having seen the usual tourist spots – The Forbidden City, the Great Wall and a silk emporium maybe -without having any understanding of ordinary people.
So I asked her how she felt about her position in the family as the first daughter but the one who had caused her parents hardship and pain until the younger brother came along. He spoke English less well and added little but occasional nods to the story.
“Why don’t we go somewhere for a tea or a coffee perhaps if you would like to talk some more?” she suggested.
Yes of course, we said. And suddenly there was a traditional Chinese tea room facing us in the road.
I had had my wallet stolen in a London restaurant the previous week so I was being extra careful, continually clutching the small bag I was wearing across one shoulder. I, the coffee addict who dislikes drinking tea at home, was carried along by the charmingly sweet brother and sister who every so often seemed just like my own children. Look, said the girl as she took her coat off. This is what my mother gave me for New Year. She proudly showed me a purple ring and matching bracelet.
She explained the symbolism of the paintings on the wall including one which featured a genie in the tea pot. That, apparently, was because magic often results from drinking tea.
A beautiful young girl in traditional Chinese clothes then appeared and started explaining in Chinese, all translated by our new friends, the significance of a tea ceremony. How the first cup was always poured over the Tea God, a plastic version of whom was sitting at the edge of the tray, how to hold the cup if you were a man and how for a woman. Over the course of the next hour as the heat in the room slowly became stifling and we had stripped to tee shirts we tried miniature cups full of ten different teas and then were asked if we would like to buy a box of whichever was our favourite tea.
“Ah, this is where they will sting you,” my husband whispered to me under his breath. But he was not cross; we were both feeling relaxed and rather pleasantly euphoric.
We asked the price of the presentation boxes; twenty pounds seemed quite high but not exorbitant. The young couple said they too would like one for their father. I realized we were expected to pay for this as a thank you to them for showing us around earlier and translating the tea ceremony. That seemed fair. Then the bill – a jumble of Chinese characters over several pages – but the total was clear enough… 260 pounds. At this point we had just enough sense left to realize we had been well and truly stung. Each sip may have cost only a few Renminbi, but each sip was multiplied by forty – ten different teas tasted by four different people.
But why had it taken us so long? Where had my normal critical faculties disappeared when we walked into the place? Why did I not ask to see other rooms or tables in the restaurant? Why did my husband not clarify how the price list worked at the outset? Why did we assume we had to buy a present for the parents we had never met and perhaps did not exist? Why did we accept that a girl and boy who did not resemble each other in any way were brother and sister? Why did my husband not jump up and down or scream and shout for the police? Although I had no idea how one would summon the police in China.
I failed so many elementary rules for travellers abroad that if our children had behaved in this way we would have been furious with them for their foolishness. For as my son duly reprimanded us when we fessed up: lucky we did not wake up 24 hours later with a sore tummy to find our organs harvested.
Later that night I finished reading the guide book. Here is what it said about personal security: “Friendly Chinese who suggest a chat over tea may be in cahoots with a bar or cafe and looking to leave you with an artificially pumped up bill for thousands of Renminbi.”
But part of me still wants to believe that that sweet girl with the slightly lopsided smile really did want to practise her English with a couple of middle aged English tourists.
*Now part of the title of one of my books … Battling for News: Women Reporters from the Risorgimento to Tiananmen Square (Faber Finds July 2010).