I think the thing that I was most excited to do when I got to the United Kingdom was having tea. The thought of being in the land of a proper English tea party was tantalizing, I couldn’t sleep the night before! It conjures imagery of me playing 1700’s tea party as a kid and dressing my sister Patricia and cousin Danielle up in yards of fabric, corsets, and bonnets to complete the look, then we would sit and have tea and crumpets. To make it historically accurate, we would speak with British accents.
Tea was always a dainty genteel occasion when I was growing up, my great-grandmother, my grandmother, and my mom all had tea sets. Occasionally they would take out the fancy tea set and a tea party would ensue, replete with conversation, laughter, and fun. My great-grandmother who we called “Bloom” made the best tea cakes in Detroit. Although my family, like most Americans, are coffee drinkers. I was always a tea person. I didn’t drink coffee until I was in college and even then it was only for drastic situations like pulling an all-nighter writing a paper or doing research. So thank you Caramel Macchiato for my award-winning paper, “China the Rising Hegemon?“. However, I will always prefer tea over coffee.
As I got older tea was still an important part of my life it could calm you down, perk you up and serve as a bonding experience. I forged some of my best friendships over tea. Tea is also a cultural exchange and a way of discovery for me. I say all this because I recently missed a flight back to the US after going to London for the Royal Wedding, because of tea. When I told a girl I met who had also missed her flight the reason for missing said flight. She asked if it was “that necessary” to have tea? Honestly, it was stupid and irresponsible and I pray that I learn a lesson about priorities from this experience. But I look back on all my experience of things that connect me to my love of cultural exchange and tea was a constant in that equation that forged a strong bond to a place person or experience. It wasn’t necessary, but it was an essential part of that trip. Some of the bravest things I have ever done involved a love of tea in some way. Perhaps I am assigning too much power to tea but to me, it concurs fears and fosters love.
First Love, Indian Masala Chai
In 2005, I saw a segment on the television program 20/20 that profiled the growth of the Indian film industry called Bollywood. I had heard of Bollywood when I was younger, but I had never seen any Bollywood movies. The segment showed colorful scenes from dazzling musical numbers with beautiful starlets and rakishly handsome leading men. I was in love from that moment with all things Bollywood and by proxy, India. I took Indian dance classes, tried Indian food for the first time. It became imperative to make friends who belonged to this culture and above all go to India. My sister, cousins and I watched Bollywood movies religiously. But one of the best parts of discovering India (although I’ve never been, something id like to rectify in the next 10 months) was Masala Chai. Chai in Hindi just means tea. It’s uncanny how the word “tea” is the same in so many languages, due to its influence in trade. Perhaps tea really is powerful?
The ingredients for the first authentic cups of Chai I ever had were simple, yet bold. You could smell the warm ginger, the inviting cinnamon and cardamom wafting in the air as they boiled together with milk and the key ingredient: loose tea leaves. In 2006, I met Dhanya Kumar she became my first friend of Indian heritage and she was my dance teacher. Inspired by that 20/20 special I had decided to learn a classical Indian temple dance called Bharatnatyam. Dhanya offered me the spiced tea at her home and I excitedly drank the hot delight. That same year, I worked for Priya a lawyer whose daughter was a dance student of Dhanya’s. She and her family invited me to their home. Priya’s husband made the best Chai tea I have ever had in my life. Eventually, I would bring my mom and sister and cousins to her home. We would talk for hours. A black family and an Indian family. Over tea, we forged new cultural bonds we wouldn’t normally have made. Although I have stopped taking dance lessons I still try to make that same tea I first had so long ago as a token of cultural exchange.
Tea in South Africa
Ten years ago, I discovered an old friend while I was discovering myself. It was my first trip out of the US and I was going to “the Motherland”. I had all sorts of uniquely South African cuisine, everything was served, in most places, with a red tea. It didn’t taste like black, green or herbal tea. It had a smooth, light, almost nutty flavor. It was called Rooibos or red bush tea. Sometimes it is just referred to as red tea. It made starting a conversation with complete strangers that much smoother. I met friends in South Africa who would become lifelong bonds. We still share a bond of travel and seeking knowledge and cultivating good in others. Rooibos tea is still a staple in my tea arsenal. I may not see the friends I made in South Africa as much but when we do get together its like we never left each other, we laugh, talk philosophy, politics and make fun of each other. But there is never any love lost.
Tea in China
Tea originated in China and so it is treated as an art form. Even the boiled water that one would think was just a part of the process, is sacred. Drinking hot water is “dui ni shenti hao” 对你身体好, or good for your health. What started out as going to the Confucius café every week for Oolong, chrysanthemum or lapsang souchong morphed into a quest to find a tea that would dexot the body, restore health and heal. My mom and I went to a shop in Sterling Heights called Far East Ginseng. It was owned by a guy from my Chinese class’s mom. His name was Jonny Lee, or Hot Jonny Lee as I called him (because he was fine!) So at Hot Jonny Lee Momma’s as I began to call Far East Ginseng, I discovered 1001 awesome teas. When I traveled to China for the first time, I had to have tea. The Shanghai tea shops had so much more variety that Hot Jonny Lee Momma’s could even imagine. I savored it, bought traditional tea sets and tried to take everything home. Some teas were amazing and somewhere the worst I’ve ever had. But my perspective on the importance of tea in daily life in China was changed. When it is warm tea brings on an instant cool, together with relaxation as it seems that it dispels the heat. Essential decisions are made over tea, life revolves around it all times of the day feature a different tea.
In 2011, I was awarded a Confucius Institute scholarship to study in China for an entire year! I met a group of fellow sinologists, many I would come to dislike others were kindred souls on the same path of self-actualization as me. It was here I was introduced to Pu’er tea, adding goji berries to my jasmine tea and bubble milk tea. Coacoa 奶茶 (nai cha, milk tea) was my favorite. One of my closest friends established a tradition then that we still continue today. Tea time, venting and seeking deeper truths. She stepped into her truest self after that trip and I was proud of her for finding her way. I like to think tea had something to do with it. I was surrounded by people from the furthest corners of the world in China, I not only enjoyed the art of tea with my native Chinese friends who waxed poetic about the merits of various regional teas. They swore up and down that Jiangsu Provence had better tea than the tea in Shanxi province. Or that green tea and wolfberry were the best to drink for health. All I know is that I hate green tea (with the exception of Matcha green tea) but I drank it every day in China because it was good for your health. Pu’er was another that didn’t taste great but I drank it every day. I was given it as a gift often by friends and colleges in Wuhan, I always thought it was cigarettes. Mostly because of the smell and the brick-like shape due to the tea being fermented. When I got back to the states I would have a chocolate pu’er cha that made me think fondly of my China memories every time I drank it. Sometimes my friend Laura and I would skip our Mandarin classes and sit and vent, journal out our dreams or gossip over “crack tea” packets of herbal and flower tea packaged together in “dime bags” with rock sugar. It legit looked like drugs, and we were hooked on this tea. Real rebels indeed. Mind-altering conversations over tea.
When one obsession led to another, stating out on a mission to learn Chinese and becoming enamored with Russian. I started learning the Russian language when I had to spend one extra year in college due to a pesky math class. I took that opportunity to impress a Russian guy I had fallen in love with while I was living in China. I was determined to speak his language, I went to a weekly “Russian Tea” that was hosted by the Slavic department on my campus. We had Tea from a traditional Samovar (a beautiful and distinctive huge teapot) and had Kozinak, a Russian sunflower sweet that went perfectly with my “черный чай”. In Russian culture tea is served with either lemon, milk or plain. Due in part to Russia’s cold northern climate, it is today considered the de facto national beverage and one of the most popular beverages in Russia. After a while I was good at the Russian language and that Russian boy I liked could no longer say that I was “Raping his language” (I know harsh, right?). So next I had to travel to Russia to keep the progress going and see if the tea was as exciting in Moscow and St. Petersburg as it was in Detroit. To read more about my adventures in Russia check out my being black in Russia blog post.
Tea in Russia was about finding the courage to venture into something new, to speak up and take a leap. Have a conversation over tea with one new person, take adventures. Walk alone down dark alleys at 1am (Okay that was really scary and I don’t recommend it.) But doing things that are outside of your comfort zone. And speaking even when your voice shakes. I bravely tried to impress my Russian speaking friends I had met in China only to realize, I had a ton left to learn about a very complex language. But I was not going to be afraid to try. There is a Russian Orthodox Monastery down the street from my house that has Russian Tea, it reminds me of the number two best cup of tea I’ve had in my life in Moscow. The teas I collect from my travels tie me to the memories of the places as I grow into an eccentric person shaped by a hodgepodge of expereices.
Tea for me has always been about opening up and pouring out, as we open up our teapots and we discuss our fears, dreams, and vulnerabilities. We pour our hearts out and become that much closer and connected to each other. One of my favorite ways to learn about a new culture and get better at its language is to have a great tea dialogue prepared. I loved learning about different styles of tea from places like Syria, Yemen, and Morocco. the wonders of a Yemeni chai is something that should be experienced by all. the sweet milky creamy delight goes best with something savory as opposed to the sweet decadent treats that the tea is normally paired with. if you have an entire pot of it, you won’t be able to sleep for days. So for me, this is a treat best shared with my friends as we discuss, romance novels, makeup, and politics. This type of tea is almost ruddy in color, like a copper colored cup of bliss.
Then there is Thai iced tea, it helps combat the sweltering tropical steam. but like the idyllic beaches, there is a sweetness beneath the beauty of the drink. I could go on and on about types but the point is that tea, to me has a uniqueness that is at the same time universal and ubiquitous. It’s refreshing and relaxing in ways that a cup of Joe isn’t. Unwinding with a cup of chamomile tea or mint tea on a warm summer day can be all the meditation one needs. There are tons of teas on the market for stress relief, how many coffees can boast that? Unsweetened iced tea was a recent addition to the variety as I picked up an appetite for this in an effort to stay healthy and avoid sugar. It is crisp and refreshing and my sister Patricia and I remarked that it seemed that it was a favorite of very thin very wealthy women. Perhaps the tea would bring us similar wealth and health if we consumed it? Who knows but it has become a favorite and it’s worth mentioning as a favorite tea journey.
A couple of days after I finished this post, my boyfriend gave me an anniversary gift. A book about tea called The Art and Craft of Tea by Joseph Wesley Uhl. It’s funny that the author is from Detroit and although I haven’t read it yet I would recommend it to any Detroit based tea lovers. I took it as a sign that tea is indeed an act of community and communication. To me, this is the greatest way I learned to be a citizen of the world. While visiting a small village in England I hastily had a cup of tea with a new friend from Texas. I’d rank it number three behind that Chai at Priya’s house and the Moscow tea. I didn’t have time to savor it but perhaps it wasn’t even that good. I think it was all the good feelings I was associating with it. I feel pure bliss when I drink tea. It’s warm and comforting like a security blanket. It is aromatic and soothing. It sets all wrongs right in the world because we all have it in common. Again I could be giving wayyy too much power to tea. But it empowers me. When I discovered a new tea through my global journeys or my cultural exchanges, I was always excited to replicate it at home and share it with my family and close friends. I want to give them, comfort, health, courage and a refreshing perspective. Yes, I finally stopped playing tea party and realized how to be diplomatic with tea. My proper English tea party quest took me some distances, all the while learning the power of conquering fears and pouring out love.