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Consumption 1: Tea

January 16, 2012

I described my still photos in the Prelude as creating a moving image of events. I did film video, too, of some of what I saw. The tea brewing in the glass was worth a movie.

Tony brought the glass of tea to me from the library cafe counter. The tea was as it must be when harvested, moist and vibrant green. Like koi jamming the surface of a garden pond when a visitor arrives with bread crumbs, the leaves massed on the surface but then broke rank in ones and twos. They pitched langidly downward where they formed a bed at the bottom of the glass.

I was mesmerized watching the slowly falling leaves. The image became an opening metaphor in a presentation I would later make of slowly discovering China piece by piece. The tea video as an opening paralleled nicely, too, with the Chinese tradition of greeting one another, “你吃饭了吗” (nǐ chīfàn le ma), “Have you eaten yet?” Always begin with a reference to food.

My hosts at the university were fond of pouring me tea whenever I arrived at the office. It seemed important to them that I should always have a full cup. Lei quizzed me at first as to whether I had brought my own mug, but seeing that I had not, dug into her supplies for a ribbed, disposable plastic cup. She did this every day until the day she arrived at the office after me, and she saw that I had already helped myself.

Preparing the tea at work was simple. Lei would pour hot water from a large, black thermos and then added a pinch of leaves. On the day I added my own leaves when offered, Lei exclaimed in surprise that I liked my tea strong. Used to having my tea portion controlled in a post-it-sized, permeable bag, cast stringed or stringless into a cup, I hastened to apologize for what might appear to be greediness with my host’s tea. Lei smiled and went ahead anyway, filling my cup with water.

I remembered to take a photograph of a plastic cup still with its leaves that I took back to my room one evening. The first shot is a bird’s eye view.

The second shot is from the side. You can see an electric tea kettle in the background through the plastic cup. The kettle was one third of the kitchen fixtures Liam and I used in the hotel room that was our international campus housing during our time in Shanghai. The rest of our kitchen was made up of a small refrigerator and a bathroom sink. We got adventurous one day and made noodles in our tea kettle. Food was so inexpensive, however, in any of the campus cafeterias that it was almost cheaper to buy prepared food than to cook our own ramen. But cooking ramen in an electric kettle is so right for college life. The college life of a 53 year old woman and her nine year old roomie, AKA her son.

At my office in New York I keep a mug or two for everyday use, as does Lei in her office at Shanghai Normal University, as does Ye Zhu, the foreign languages cataloger I visited one morning at the SHNU Xuhui campus.

Ye Zhu has worked at the Shanghai Normal University Library for about a year. She has a masters in Japanese and her desk reflects a Japanese orderliness. Of the few things on the desk other than her work, Ye Zhu had a calendar that I saw on any number of desks in the library offices I visited. The margarine-yellow photo of a bed, inexplicably featured for October in the vendor-supplied calendar is the same color as Ye Zhu’s eyeglass case. The Hummelesque figurine pencil cup, the small thermos decorated with an image from a popular Chinese children’s cartoon, Pleasant Goat and Big Bad Wolf and the ceramic tea cup with its philosophic message, “Wonderland Love has to be made, like bread, remade all the time, like new!” all evoke Japanese Harajuku Girl culture cast as Hallmark-worthy collectibles.

Lei’s black thermos, Ye Zhu’s Pleasant Goat thermos and the thermos filling stations on the campuses of the colleges I visited. Perhaps this storing of hot water so that it is not so hot after all allows for me to drink the tea from plastic cups and watch tea brew in ordinary drinking glasses. I learned somewhere that you can’t pour boiling water into glass and certainly not into thin plastic cups, but in China, from a thermos, the water is no longer boiling. I feel like I am in a culture of hot water wells, where the village women gather in a central spot to collect the water for their tea and then store as best they can to protect its precious warmth. When the hot water is gone, they will need to make another trip to the well.

My CUNY colleague told me that in her campus housing at Shanghai University residents were not allowed to boil water in their rooms. Like the students, she left her room with a large thermos and went down to the first floor of her dorm to draw from a central hot water tap. The village watering hole.

Tea is still central for the Shanghaiese I met. The assistant director of the library, Ms. Hu, came exhuberantly into Lei’s office one day with two boxes, a box of Lipton’s “red” tea (we would call it black) and a box of coffee packets. With much exclaiming and smiling all around, Ms. Hu presented the boxes as gifts to Lei, Ma and Xiao Xia, all the employees present. I understood the ritual, though the language escaped me, and wondered about the new place coffee was coming to occupy in the lives of the Chinese. And what was happening to tea. Tea bags? Ms. Hu’s Lipton might have come from an American supermarket. My hosts, so far, had always offered me loose tea.

Remember the opening video. I am the one admiring the falling tea leaves in the glass. My companion Tony, nee Tang, is stirring a cafe latte in an oversized cup.

Below pictured is a sign in Beijing, in plain English, inviting in the plentiful coffee drinkers. The store is named Serendipity Coffee which gives it even more western appeal, for me that is, being reminded there on the streets of China of the restaurant back in the Bloomingdale’s district of Manhattan where they serve frozen hot chocolate amid lacy long dresses hung for sale and display at the restaurant Serendipity 3.

In another shot, taken an hour’s drive from Beijing, a large cafe dominates the plaza leading up to the Mityanu Great Wall. Italian coffee supersedes tea. In the background we can see that plastic resin chairs displace any wrought iron, twisted wire or rattan garden benches that might grace a similar western cafe found in the charming countryside. Mutianyu did not need so much charm. It has the great wall instead. And coffee. Italian coffee.

With the next photo, our China excursion takes a u-turn for another cup of tea back at SHNU. The conference center, a fancy place, where the abundance of Chinese human capital is put to work graciously slipping umbrellas into slim plastic bags on the day we arrive in the rain.

I went to the conference center for a final presentation to the library staff. The teacup is capped, I opened it for my first sip and had trouble remembering to cover the cup each time I drank from it. Am I supposed to do that? I search for the answer and find the Etiquette Scholar. I decide that the cup is a hybrid of a Chinese cup called a gaiwan, 盖碗. The gaiwan dates back to the Ming Dynasty and typically is a lidded, handleless tea bowl. The Etiquette Scholar instructs us:

“To drink from the gaiwan, use the thumb and index finger of your left hand to hold the lid by its knob, and let the other three fingers follow the curve of the gaiwan, Tilt the lid slightly away from your lips so that it serves as a filter holding back the leaves as you drink the liquid. The cup is never removed from the saucer.”

I doubt I could have mastered the maneuver, having failed to replace the cover on my first try. And what would I have done with the cookie cutter, circuit board patterned coaster?

I loved the loose tea I drank so much while working in Shanghai, that I asked for the names of what I was drinking a couple of times. When Cai, the foreign language reading room librarian spent a day with me comparing cultures, politics and little bit of library practices, and her office mate Kai (point of information, Kai is pronounced with the hard “K” sound and Cai is pronounced “T-sigh” (sort of)) offered me tea, I enjoyed the mellow, vegetable-flavored tea enough to comment. Kai surprised me by showing up the next time I came by with a tin of the tea I liked.

I also liked the hot tea served at the restaurant we ate at across from the Yuyuan Gardens and asked for the name of that tea. The clerk seated behind the beverage display wrote out the characters I would need to find the tea again. So when my daughter Nell came to join us in Shanghai and we headed out to the shopping malls, I passed a mall tea shop and went in to see if I could find the tea.

The saleswomen in the store knew immediately what we wanted, Oolong, 乌龙, as it turned out, but it was not enough to simply sell us the tea. These diligent clerks needed to serve us the tea, and perform an extended ritual of brewing, pouring, re-brewing and pouring again. The tea was steeped in a small, round, brown pot and served in tiny companion Yixing stoneware cups. The costumed and well-rehearsed clerk who served us agreed reluctantly to be photographed at the scene. Her face shows some of her discomfort, which surprised me, given her role as a performer on what was beginning to look more and more like a stage set.

Retail is thriving in China. From cubby-hole variety stores on busy streets, stores that grown dark as the day ends and no interior lights are turned on to elegants stores named for a single international brand, shops abound in China. Not only did we pay big time for fancy packaging of Oolong tea, we didn’t leave the store until we had tried several types of tea snacks first and bought a half dozen boxes to weigh down our luggage on the trip home.

As I discovered back at home, the store, Ten Ren, is an international chain. I searched online to resupply the green tea candies we bought there, learned they were out-of-stock at the U. S. supplier Uncle Lee’s, was contacted by an Indian supplier that was insistent on selling me some other snack, and discovered a Ten Ren shop on Eighth Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn’s Chinatown. Tea tins available for upward to $120. Dozens of loose teas also for sale, arrayed behind the glass-topped counter in golden urns. Tea in colors, black, white, green, tea in shades, King’s 319 Dark 2nd Grade, King’s 919 Dark 3rd Grade, teas that lived their long lives to reach the shelves as Aged King’s Tea selling in a limited editon, for $108 for a half pound presented in a satin-lined box.

I knew even as I shopped for tea in the mall’s store that what I really should be doing was going to some open air market and finding sacks of tea where I could scoop our bagsful for a song. A market something like the one pictured below, only this place was selling a full color palate of rice.

I didn’t realize what a fine tea city Shanghai was until we left. In Lianyungang where we visited for three days we had the surprising experience at a restaurant of asking for the hot water pot on our table to be replaced with a pot of tea. The waiter looked at us peculiarly, as though we were in an German pub asking for milk, shrugged his shoulders and told our guide that the restaurant had no tea.

Lightening our load during the big pack up to get ready to leave after four weeks of souvenir shopping and working in Shanghai, we ditched about half a box of tea bags we had bought in the campus grocery. Wanting tea for the hot water we could boil in the electric tea kettle we had in our Beijing hotel, we missed those tea bags but found we could buy loosie, 4 yuan a piece tea bags (60 cents each) in a small fruit and vegetable store down the block. The price was still way cheaper than what we had to pay for the tea tempting us from the hotel room snack bar. Beware of the water. It was close to $10 a quart.

Regardless of whether we wanted to drink tea, hot water is always brewing in China. Our seat mate on the plane going over was Chinese and when offered hot drinks after a meal always asked for hot water. It reminded me of Duke Ellington, the first person I had ever heard of who drank hot water rather than coffee or tea. Reuse your leaves enough times and you will approximate this flavor. I do that.

Americans are considered odd in China for their preference for cold drinks. The Chinese picture Americans with water bottles in hand at all times, and they could be right. Nonetheless, it is not all always hot water or tea. Outside the Palace Museum, or the Forbidden City, we saw a cold drink vending machine which impressed me with its customized front.

Liam, Nell and I checked out of our visiting faculty and student campus hotel at the beginning of November. Xiao xia helped us with the final paper work. We were charged ten yuan, or about $1.50 for a tea cup we had broken. There was no charge for the time we jammed the sink stopper in the bathroom sink and locked the bathroom door so that we couldn’t get back into it once we left. I’ll have to describe the communication challenges those two incidences offered us. But some other time.

Next, food.

Ignore this:
(Parking here: still searching for something about a sign at a grocery store in bj, but I can’t find the picture now).


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