Out of the Fog Blog

ah, the tea of humankindness

1 August 2009. A trip to a Chinatown tea store leaves me minus forty dollars and a backbone.

by Robert Perry

A recent glowing article in The Chronicle featured the shopowner of my story, and I've been feeling compelled to write about my experience at Uncle Gee's tea shop. I haven't told too many people this story, because I'm not absolutely sure what happened. I just think I know what happened (about 75 percent sure). It happened three years ago, and my friend who was with me at the time still makes fun of me about it.

So, I'm out with Mark, a relatively new friend at the time (that's when you are still getting to know someone and it's still important to you to make a good impression), and we decide to walk through San Francisco's Chinatown one Sunday. He sees a tea shop that looks like fun, so we go in and sit at the counter where we meet him. Uncle Gee is very nice and spends ten to fifteen minutes talking with us and pouring tea samples for us to try. Mark tells Gee that I have heartburn a lot and asks if he has a tea for that. Of course Uncle Gee has a tea for that! We sample it and it tastes like what dirty gym socks would taste like in liquid form. But, I'm polite, and I think that if it has medicinal value, it might be good to have. The attentiveness and experience of Uncle Gee's presentation made me feel like I should buy some tea to compensate, so I ask how much it would cost for a pound... and this is where things go wrong.

I am verbally given the price with a very quick and phonetically confusing Chinese accent: “figh-dollah” is what I hear, “Figh-dollah pound.” I respond nodding, smiling, “Five dollars, I can do that.” So, an assistant to Uncle Gee spends five minutes preparing an elaborate package for me filling a bright red bag that he seals and places into a pretty, bright green handle bag.

The register is rung, and for the first time I actually see the price of my tea: $40.00. I think to myself, Forty dollars! I heard five dollars. I guess in a Chinese accent spoken quickly, ‘forty’ can sound like ‘five.’ What do I do now? I only brought $45 for my outing today, and we haven't had lunch yet. Would it seem racist to say that I misunderstood Uncle Gee's accent? What would Mark think if I protested? Maybe I didn't misunderstand. Maybe they do this all the time to the tourists... arrrrrgh... Not wanting to cause a scene in a calm but crowded store, I pay for the damn tea. And, I leave the shop feeling duped. And angry. I was angry at either Uncle Gee or myself—I wasn't sure which. I had to explain to Mark what happened right in front of him, and he laughed. Then I told him he was going to have to pay for lunch.

That tea of resentment is still sealed up and sitting in my kitchen cupboard. Every time I look at it, it reminds me that I can't always be so polite—and gullible.

©2009 Chromozoa

Chinatown, San Francisco

Photo source: ivanastar, iStockphoto.com

The beautiful, contrasting colors of San Francisco's Chinatown.

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© 2009 Chromozoa, Robert J. Perry