“What are you doing? Drinking tea from a bowl? That’s … unbelievable.” “What are you doing? You eat your ice cream with hot tea?”
This was many years ago when I was a graduate student. I had two roommates. Since I can’t give away too many details, let’s just say one is from South Asia and one is from Eastern Europe. The two girls grew up in their respective table-manner conscious cultures and were shocked when they encountered me in New Jersey. By the way, I was not in anyway distressed by their casual criticism. I liked to hang out with them more than they liked to hang out with me. I always knew that I am too bookish and too much of an introvert to be an interesting object to these two extrovert girls.
Long before they zeroed in on my tea manners, they’ve asked me why I used chopsticks for soup and ice cream, why I peel the skin off a grape before eating it, why I pan fry my bread rather than toast it. I actually have no answer for their questions, but I tried to defend myself by saying that as long as the food get ingested, the task is accomplished. Does it matter how it is ingested? Also I am not a diplomat and I am not attending a state dinner. What’s the point of being aware of all those polite details? They were abhorred, although they expressed their abhorrence in the kind of carefree way that only young people can manage without trying. I had to subsequently mend my ways, just to make the two girls happy. And to all those who sacrifice for other people’s pleasure, we should all get a medal.
Here are some facts about tea:
- Although globally there are far more people drinking tea than coffee, coffee dominates in the U.S. And many immigrants I know, even if being tea drinkers before, are converted to coffee drinkers. Some even drink coffee one cup after another throughout the day. That’s a lot of caffeine intake since coffee is in many ways stronger than tea.
- People went to war for tea. For example the Independence War. It started by people in Boston dumping 340 chests of tea into the ocean. That’s a lot of tea leaves and millions cups of tea. My heart aches for the tea, even though I cheer for the good cause. But can’t people drink tea and fight a revolutionary war at the same time? I mean tea can make people more alert and better fighters, right?
- Tea is just a symbol for the Independence War, but tea is the real cause for the Opium War. The British had been buying tea leaves from Qing dynasty (which was controlled by Manchurians) so much that there’s a big drain on the treasury silvers, but the Manchurians were extremely conservative and refused to buy anything from Britain in exchange. They were the ostriches burying their head in the sand, regardless of how much the world had changed. Without the silvers to buy tea leaves, those merchants came up with the idea of growing opium and selling opium in exchange for tea, and it worked. The Machurians did everything to stop people from smoking opium, but all to no avail. Finally they burned the opium at the Guangdong harbor in the spring of 1839, which immediately precipitated the Opium War. Actually for all the colonial wars fought in Asia, the number of participating British soldiers were very limited, only about 10%, and more often less than that. Most of the soldiers were hired natives from surrounding colonies.
- The tea leaves we drink are usually the top part of tea plants, but other parts of the tea plants are drinkable too. My mother had a high school friend who worked in an agricultural university. She said that many other parts of the tea plants are drinkable too, except that you have to pour the boiling water into the mixture of leaves and stems first, let it steep for two minutes, then throw it away since it is bitter. You can drink the second round. And I tasted it and it is wonderful, stronger than the regular tea we drink.