I went to Shanghai with the idea that I might casually get laid. My loser low confidence—at bars, parties; any hook-up situation with which pensive celibates are obsessed—would finally be reprieved because I would be among “my people,” or so my racist preoccupation went. Call it an ethnological test: to figure out, once and for all, if it was actually race, or just my grim public demeanor that kept most women at bay.
The main reason for my trip, lest the reader think I am a complete douche, was to visit my grandmother while she was still lucid. But yes, there was indeed a gross, underlying part of me that wanted—even felt entitled to—docile Chinese ass. I might be a horrible person.
My plan for getting that ass was unclear, desolate, yet unwavering. Every morning I rode the metro to a random stop at one of the 300 stations spanning over 300 miles. I was partial to the 10 line, as it went to the French Concession, a district named after the invoked imperialists, who, like the British, left their bougie mark on this "Gateway to the East." Districts like the French Concession and Xīntiāndì ("new heaven and Earth") are rather "white," from the faux-European Lost Generation-ish cafes, to the designer boutiques bracing mannequins up as idols. Chinese in ethnicity, but ultimately American, I perversely patronized establishments made to look American, read aggravating postmodern literature written by white men, ate imported cheese from Europe, and wondered if I might feel less empty at a Buddhist temple, to which I later went, vapid and curious.
The term "Shanghaiing" originated on the docks in the 19th century, where civilians were often tricked into forced labor aboard American merchant ships, usually heading to Shanghai. In 1842, after the First Opium War, Shanghai was designated as a treaty port, to which the British, French, and US came to trade. It soon became the respective landing and launching ports for Europeans with a penchant for exoticism, as well as disillusioned Chinese who wanted a little Western decadence. Enter corruption, bribery, prostitution, drugs, organized crime, and other follies. Then, in 1966, with the Cultural Revolution, Mao seized control of the city, disabling its economy. Shanghai remained under something of a shadow throughout the next few decades, until the early 90s when things loosened up with notable economic reform, which spawned massive development.
The schizophrenic nature of the city may be a microcosm of China at large. Impoverished families with one haggard chicken to their name sell rice cakes at 20 cents a pop next to couture boutiques stocked with $30,000 handbags. Farmers sit on construction rubble selling vegetables. Fresh tofu at the market will run you a dollar, while a glass of OJ at a new high-rise hotel is priced like a single malt whisky. A bowl of ramen is a fraction of a slice of pizza from Pizza Hut or Papa John's. Even the Buddhists have gotten into the market. Monks, ostensibly sans desire, sell incense at a 1200% markup, and outside the temple cripples in formidable contraptions chase you down for change. Empires and revolutions come and go, but the genius of free-market capitalism lives on.
The German or Japanese tourist in America may pay a handful for a ticket to Disney World, but in Asia and South America, where past imperialisms seem to rumble from beneath the soil, the American tourist is economic prey. The virginal sacrificial lamb.
To be Shanghaied now points to Western naivety, which is essentially political solipsism, the notion of being immune to the rest of the world via one's First World birthright. I did not think these people—or my people, or whatever—would go through what they did for my money. In short: I simply did not think.
Short of a roaming data plan, I stood outside the metro looking at a guidebook. Two attractive girls approached me and asked if I would take a picture of them. They posed in front of a random high-rise whose promise in elevation was diminished by the thick ass smog. Saying “cheese” evolved into cheesey chatter, a quick soft hand on my shoulder, then to questions about what I was doing later on. Was this how people got laid? I unabashedly said I was doing nothing, which could have also applied to my autobiography.
They invited me to tea. I envisioned my penis ensconced, like a cold newborn, into their dark wet folds. These were my people. I would move here and be happy.
Between our respective broken versions of the other's language, we talked about where I lived, and what I did for a living. I told them stories of my life in the States (Měiguó, or "Beautiful Country") and they giggled in the misguided fantasy that life is better there.
What did my parents do? How much money did we have? Was I married? Amicable curiosity became awkward—faux pas one could attribute to cultural differences—then finally glib and intrusive questions.
Did I know something was up? Probably. Did I respect myself enough to care? No.
The prettier lead negotiator sat closer, while the more modest-looking one lowered her gaze. Economics begins with the face, the global commodity of self-worth. The menu said 45¥ ($7.44) for what appeared as a flight of teas. We drank shot-size cups of tea—from floral whites, to light greens, to murky reds, then finally gritty blacks—while my companions told ancient tales of the moon, of dragons and princesses, of tigers and ghosts, moving their arms in long graceful arcs. I had a stiffy. Leaves tied in a ball bloomed at the bottom of scalding water. Steam rose into an apparition of a scam.
Turns out it was 45¥ for each tea, so multiply our nine-tea flight by the three of us, then add a $40 dollar can of tea I bought for the pretty one, who pouted into her empty wallet. I'll spare you the currency rate conversion: it came to about $240 USD. I meekly handed the hostess the crisp bills my mother had given me for the week. I felt like a sucker. The girls could see something in my face, a look that had a warm reservoir behind it.
At dinner, the fish we were about to eat rested its face on the side of the pot and stared back at me. "All that trouble for some tea," I told my mother. She looked at me and shook her head. "Those girls work for the tea shop," she said, her disbelief paramount. "Their commission was probably 30 percent." My grandmother laughed. The maid laughed. The fish's mouth seemed to form a smile.
After saying goodbye to the girls with platonic pats on the back, my face immersed in, almost protected by, the homogeneity on the train, I knew I had been conned, but just for the tea, not the commission. Part of me was oddly enlivened that these girls were willing to go through such a hairy scam just to have premium tea with me. Sure, I paid for it, as I should have. I was the man. I may have even been flattered.
That night in bed I searched “Shanghai scams” on Wikipedia, which confirmed that the girls worked for—or at least received a flat rate from—the teahouses for each dupe they brought in. I was just a guy on the street who looked stupid enough. To them: a white guy, a tourist, a dumbshit.
Other Shanghai scams involve unwitting men ordering rounds of drinks at bars—their discretion softened by alcohol and loneliness—while cute girls drink apple juice veiled as whisky, water as gin. Incapacitate your victim. Similar transactions happen at fancy restaurants or the opera. Worse are the art receptions and auctions. As the urban legend goes, some have woken up without a kidney, or worse, dead. I quickly checked my back for a scar that perhaps I hadn't noticed at first. It was smooth, untouched. They did not lay a hand on my body, for which I felt lucky. Sure, it would have been nice to have "gotten lucky," but I didn't want to use up all my complaints just yet. After all, I was coming back home.
Jimmy Chen is 70 percent water and 30 percent internet.