Tea with Constraints

I once commented that “The hipster in me wants a tea collection only rivaled by my wine collection.” Here is why.
October, 2013 Abuja, Nigeria

Sophisticated ignorance, write my curses in cursive Kanye West

Tea is weird. It’s one of those things that’s so insignificant and yet I’ve attached so much to it. My earliest memory with tea was living in Nigeria as a boy where we still take our tea with milk like the English. I was young though and my stomach could never settle with tea and milk together. I stopped drinking tea all together till I got to the United States. In Southern Maryland we had our teas without milk. Tea was just tea. I could take that.

Moving to Glasgow, Scotland for studies, the first thing I learned from one of my proudly Scottish flatmate who is an Americophile was that “Tea” also translated to dinner or supper. He couldn’t explain why.

That summer, getting my first desk job, every two hours it was “Do you want it milk? How many sugars? How strong do you want it? Should I leave the bag in the cup?” After a week you pretty much got the hang of who drinks what and how. I was adventurous though. I tried it all. My stomach had developed so I went through a period where I was drinking my tea with milk again. When in Rome. Then I went to China.

On my first trip to a fake market in Shanghai I found myself staring at a tea cup that was the exact replica of my lens. Even the cheap art student in me could not resist this. I snagged this and a black wrist watch for 100RMB, about $16. I’d successfully haggled for something again after 12 years. Back then I was haggling in Nigeria on the street market for family’s groceries. My task in Shanghai was completed.

Tea & Photography
Tea & Photography

Like many things the Chinese do, I quickly fell in love with how they take their tea. From the caramelized slices of lemon to Chrysanthemum tea we accidentally ordered on our trip to Beijing. By the second semester I was walking with a water bottle filled with green tea to the very few classes I attended.

It was around this time I went to visit my Lao Shi’s home. On his tablet, I’d seen his infatuation with tea pots as he had a friend that molded them. He told me he would like the two of us to work on a film showcasing the process. I hope one day I can make good on this. At his desk we had just one pot, our cups, and boiling water. We sat there for hours and he kept refilling the same cup with more hot water. I got the impression he kept the same leaves for days. It didn’t really matter.

I stayed at his house for several hours. Keep in mind this was a man whose language I did not speak. He understood a bit of English but couldn’t speak it. The only thing we had in common was that he was a photographer of 22 years, I was a boy of 22. We had the same camera body. Canon 5D MII. But man, we talked.

By the time his wife came home it was already quite late. They lived at the top floor and there were no elevators. The poor lady passed out by the time she opened the door. I had to help him carry her in. By the time I left she had recovered and gave me a tea jar with Ningbo City engraved in it. It was filled with green tea. That was her job I was told. Selling these crafted souvenirs of the city. I appreciated it too much though and passed it over to my uncle as a wedding gift. I’m as bad with giving gifts as I am receiving them. Now I very much want it back.

Tea continued to play its part. By the second semester the Russian girl had finally let me into her room, though not alone. I don’t remember the first time she asked if I wanted tea. She opened up the tea box and my eyes must have lit up. She saw I liked her tea collection, and she very much liked this fact. She took pride in telling me how her mother keeps sending her different types and she asked us to choose the one we wanted. The first time I went with her favorite. Thereafter I would simply say “Surprise me.” She hated it when I said that. That made me want to say it even more. I think I was in her room all of 10 times if that. Yet it all mattered so much.

China Tea ceremony
Stumbling into a tea ceremony in China

Our first and only date if I dear call it that, we went to a car exhibition in the city. Just the two of us and our cameras. She had a Nikon. There I saw the only two cars I’ve wanted since 2009 when they were both released. We had never been so close.

From there we stumbled into a Chinese tea ceremony. The two of us were welcomed like royalty. One of the men invited us to his home at our convenience, she said she would think about it. I knew what that meant.

Fast forward to Calcutta several months later. The first time I tried Chia tea was with a girl that’s asked me to take photographs of her because she saw the photographs I took of her friend. It was from a box. It wasn’t particularly special. By our second day in India though, our crew had very much fallen in love with original Chai tea and its aromatic favors. It was our last day in Calcutta and we were saying goodbye to the family that had made the trip possible. The mother had hosted us at their home a few nights earlier but other than helping us secure our visas and arranging transportation around the city, we didn’t see much of the father. I suppose he felt he needed to show us his side of India though. This was also the same man that stayed on the phone for an hour with airport security to let me into the country without a yellow fever immunization card. I hadn’t even heard of yellow fever since World History class freshman year at high school. I digress.

Chai Tea
Masala Chai Tea in clay cups

Our flight left in mid-morning, but still the man felt it essential to invite us to his club’s early morning tradition. It was a bunch of grown men sitting in short shorts and long socks together in a circle drinking tea from a clay cup which you threw on the ground afterwards. It was a strange tradition. Another guy no older than them would walk around carrying the tray of cups on his shoulders. We were welcomed into their circle with esteem. We didn’t understand what we saw then, I get the impression my crew still don’t, but it was beautiful. It wasn’t until I was in a mental hospital 12 months later where tea is served 6 times a day and I found myself drinking tea at a table with two war veterans that the world made some sense. Right then I understood why the English colonized India and built their tea plantations. I understood why the Indian elite now sat in a circle every morning to drink their tea. I understood why my father had a cupboard full of tea and he would take pride in telling us about each one if only we would listen. At the time though of course we couldn’t understand.

Morning Rituals
Morning Rituals

Now I’m back home and there is only two boxes of tea left. A 500g bag of Tetly my mom bought at Costco on her visit to London, and a box of iced tea from years years ago. Imagine that. There comes a point that when there’s no one around to listen, no one around to understand, the small things we once took pride in, these too fade away. I’m not sure if it’s the stroke or that we just grew older, but my father no longer drinks tea, at least not with the same gusto. Now he lays on the couch demanding you let him know precisely where you’re going, when, with whom, and when you’re coming back. This part hasn’t changed. I think he’s afraid of losing his sight. That seems to be all he has left. This is all too cannily like an overseer I told my mom. I don’t think she acknowledged where I’m coming from though. But I finally understood. I take it a bit too far at times, but can you blame me?

In another cupboard in the house we have tea cups piled on coffee cups on more tea cups. They used to be in order. Once when we first moved in to the house and there was enough room to separate the one type of cup from the other. I once wondered which types of cups he had more of, tea or coffee. But over the years he just acquired more cups. Never did it occur to him that as you acquired more so must you let go others, else there just won’t be enough space.

There’s a lot I’ve learned about tea. I learned from my father that you let the bag sit in freshly boiled water for exactly 6 minutes. He would even use a timer to get it precisely perfect. I overheard from my high school freshman art teacher that tea was best when you don’t wash the tea pot, that way the favors can simply meld together. I was told by my university advisor that the variety of tea we enjoy so much, however wonderful, doesn’t count as tea. I learned from one of the war veterans at the hospital that if the water is not hot enough the tea bag will sink to the bottom. So with good tea, the bag should float to the top. I learned from a Chinese girl that came over to my flat all of twice in Glasgow that the Chinese are not accustomed to taking tea out of its water. She had stopped drinking black tea because of this. To her, English tea would always be too bitter.

So where does that leave me? Well, the sage in me wants to carry a water bottle with green tea leaves and just fill it with hot water and drink that all day. The boy in me wants to tell girls to surprise me whenever they ask what type of tea I want. The youth in me wants to stack boxes of every flavor of tea and be able to recall them from their aroma alone. Yet somehow there’s still room for someone in me that wants to be able to sit at a table and appreciate a cup of freshly brewed Earl Grey with those that are old enough to appreciate it.


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