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Trouble Brewing by C. Noah Pelletier
"Trouble Brewing With the Tea Party"
by C. Noah Pelletier
“Would you like to join us for tea?” The girl asked. “We’re headed there now.”
I glanced over to a hanging banner: POTTERY EXHIBIT NOW SHOWING.
“Sure,” I said. “That sounds fun.”
Lulu and Mark were studying English at Shanghai University. They asked what brought me to China.
“My wife and I live in Suzhou,” I said. “You two been dating long?”
Lulu giggled. “We are not boyfriend and girlfriend,” she said, “just friends.” Mark nodded like he’d heard this story before.
Twenty minutes later, we entered a quiet, windowless plaza that looked like business offices. We walked up to a door on the third floor. Lulu pushed the buzzer. A woman in a red robe answered. It was dark inside, but we walked in anyway.
Lulu said, “Tea is served in the traditional manner for the Emperor.”
All I wanted was a casual cup of tea. What I found was a ritual. Our server handled the teapot like a magician. She spoke in poems, and Lulu translated the meaning. The experience was unique, but after two hours, the magic of this imperial tea party had worn off.
After the ceremony, a woman dropped off a tea list with the bill. The total, I noticed, was a few Yuan shy of a rainy day fund, but Lulu and Mark were too distracted to notice.
“I want the oolong!”
“No, I want the oolong!”
“Which one will YOU buy?”
“Gee,” I said. “I don’t know.”
“Here’s the fruit tea. Your wife will love it!”
I dug into my pockets. After paying my portion of the bill, I had just enough left for a taxi. It hardly seemed worth it for six cups of tea, but I didn’t want to offend my hosts.
“Thank you,” I said, “but I’ll have to pass.”
The carefree mood in the room shifted suddenly.
Lulu set down the menu. “Did you not like the tea?”
“No, no. It was very nice.”
“Then why not take some home,” said Mark.
“I’d love to, it’s just…I don’t have that much money.”
This was true, but they continued to hector me, and I was feeling cornered.
“Well,” I said, standing up, “it‘s been fun, but I’ve got a train to catch.”
Lulu and Mark exchanged a glance, and then stood up. Outside, the vibes between us were tense. Without speaking, we filed down the stairs and out to the street.
“Here’s a taxi,” said Lulu, throwing her hand into the air. “I’ll tell your driver where to go.”
I thanked them again, but our farewell did not feel like new friends parting ways - it felt more like tenants hustling off a broke couch surfer. They were already walking when I climbed into the taxi.
It should have taken ten minutes. At every intersection, I looked for signs to the train station. The buildings didn’t look right, but I was reassured by the poise of my driver. He kept going, and eventually a sketchy outline of the city appeared behind us in the smog.
When I showed my train ticket to the driver, he stared at the thing as if it were a moon rock. Finally, he shrugged his shoulders, and turned the car around. Getting to the station on time and under budget was going to be close. What was more unsettling, then, was how badly I misjudged Lulu. Had the whole thing been a scam? Was I really that bad at judging people's character? Lulu didn’t seem like the sort of person that shanghaied tourists to the boonies. Oh, sure, I'd hire a street-savvy guide next time...but right now, that ship, as they say, had already sailed.
Noah Pelletier is a contemporary vagabond, author and illustrator of The Flying Pork Knuckle - his mission is to keep readers from twiddling their thumbs. www.theflyingporkknuckle.blogspot.com
Travel Info from Noah:
Shanghai Museum in People's Square http://www.shanghaimuseum.net/en/index.jsp