“I’m sorry, dear, but no.” he says. “It’s too sudden.” Two young, local women approached them nearly an hour ago. His mannerism doesn’t dampen their enthusiasm. Until now, they’ve spoken but a few words to the husband. Their focus falling solely on his wife and their teenage daughter.
“Oh, please, Harold, this is a once in a lifetime chance!” He shakes his head firmly. The wife’s tongue clicks. She used to get her way like that when they were younger. It’s a trick that no longer works its magic on his stubbornness. “They just need a few more people for their group.” A small voice in the back of his head debates whether to sound the alarm bells. Meanwhile, the women are chatting cheerfully with each other in Mandarin. His daughter looks up from her phone to join her parents’ debate.
“They speak the language and know what to expect. Come on, don’t be a buzzkill, dad.” she says. Then she snaps a photo of a bamboo thicket by the road. He sighs, her camera roll is full of trees and buildings.
“It will be fun! Also, I hear it is a pleasant, calming experience.” The shortest woman, with a neat bob and neater attire, says. Willow, the wife, complemented her on it a moment ago. Just before the two strangers came up with the tea house idea and invited them out of nowhere.
“Come, come, I think it will begin soon. It is very close!” says the taller, fox-faced lady with longer hair and a white summer dress like Dee, their daughter’s. All four women watch him expectantly. Especially his daughter showing interest weighs heavy on him.
“Alright, fine.” he grunts. The family follow the two women, he forgot their names, through the winding streets. They end up in front of a cafe.
“It looks very,” Willow pauses. Harold takes in the squat, run-down building presented to them. “Antique.” He snorts and receives an elbow to his ribs. Studying the two women, they appear just as excited as his family. Happy smiles all around. Maybe the alarm bells are wrong.
“I like it!” Dee chimes in and puts her phone away after another shot. Finally.
“It is original!” the lady in white says and slides the door open. He must duck his head to enter the low doorway. The inside is as impressive as the exterior. Furniture with chips and missing legs, frayed rugs, and masking tape on the paper screens. An ancient granny watches silently behind the counter by the entrance. The two women bow to her, and his family follows their example. She nods. If she kept still, he would have thought she was a statue. A spindly hand points to one of the doors in the back. He jumps when the bob woman claps her hands.
“We are very lucky! A private room, only for us!” she says and knocks. A man with a buzz cut, wearing a suit much too shiny for such a dusty place let them in. He pictures the cramped box with brooms and mops, it’s barely a closet. A girl with ornate hair, white silken outfit, and a brilliant smile that beams at the customers from behind the low table. Six empty cups wait for them in front of her. She gestures to the floor.
He fears he won’t be able to get up from the pale green pillows on the floor if he sits with the rest of his group. A quick, stern glare from Willow convinces him to try. His joints pop and Dee giggles at her aging father. At least she pays attention now. The other women hide their smiles behind their hands. Subtle.
The door closes and a switch dims the lights. Suit-man disappears behind an ornate screen and there’s a faint click of a button. Music starts playing, dreamy notes that keep the suspicious thoughts at bay for the duration of the ceremony. It’s nearly enough to make him relax, but he can’t quite enjoy the ordeal.
Nearly an hour later, they’ve tried a total of three mouthfuls of lukewarm leaf water. His sinuses are closing from the dust, and he lost feeling in his legs. It will be a nightmare to leave the premises. Neither his wife nor daughter enjoy the tastes the way they had expected. In the end, he is certain it was nothing special. It is probably an event he’d forget in a few days. Grumbling, he follows the suit to hand the granny money for the ceremony. The young lady goes with to pay for the other two.
“How much?” He asks her. She flips through bills in her wallet and flashes him a tiny smile. “Why weren’t we told before it started?” A loud gong goes off in his mind as he realizes the fool he’s played.
“Oh, only one thousand two hundred yuan! A bargain, we were very lucky.” she says, and his eyes nearly burst out of their sockets. Then again, there was a whole ceremony.
“You don’t think that’s a little much? Two hundred dollars for a few sips of tea?” He pulls out the paper notes and slaps them on the counter. She chuckles, and the granny gestures at the money, and upwards motion. He looks to the white lady for confirmation.
“That is the price per person, mister.” she explains. He frowns. During the whole trip, no other place has been so unwelcoming or expensive. Up to this point, he rather enjoyed spending on what they did. However, this time is different. He should have listened to his gut, he knew it.
As a principle he never keeps more than five hundred dollars on him at any time. He tells the lady in white as much, and she translates for the store employees. The argument goes back and forth for as long as he can be bothered to fight. They finally agree that the teenager should be counted as a child. Thus, her fee halves. The lady in white begrudgingly adds in the final few bills. He rejoins his family outside, midday sun beating down on his sweaty face.
“Wasn’t that lovely. Proper culture!” Willow smiles from ear to ear, pleased beyond reason by the wasted hour. Dee agrees with her mother, of course, phone in hand already. He doesn’t tell them how much it cost. They wave goodbye to the two ladies. Immediately after, they head to the nearest ATM for a few yuan to get a bite at a chain restaurant. The whole family is starving, and Harold is desperate to get the bitter taste out of his mouth.