The Asian Studies program at Puget Sound did a lot of tea-related events. The last one I attended was a tasting of Taiwanese tea hosted by Shiuwen of Floating Leaves Tea in Ballard. We had a green oolong, a black oolong, and everyone’s favorite roasted oolong, Tie Guan Yin. We also only had forty five minutes, and so questions and comments from the group were limited.
The girl next to me at the tea tasting was a freshman in my Chinese class. It’s embarrassing to admit but her eagerness to be simultaneously liked and respected reminded me of myself when I first entered high school, which made me like her.She’ll settle down this fall when she discovers who her real friends are and sees the class of 2016 come in. They’ll treat her with the same reverence she treats us. It will make her feel like she belongs here. She does belong here, of course. But nobody can make her believe it yet.
So this is the person I drank tea with. She said she loves the tea ceremony. We had a bit of an awkward moment when I invited her to one of my own and we realized she meant the Japanese tea ceremony. In any case, she was there, drinking Chinese tea, telling Shiuwen how much she loves tea!
“An overbrewed pot of tea is a tragedy,” she said.
I hadn’t said anything yet. For the record, I am incredibly passive-aggressive, like all Seattleites, and never would say anything. Furthermore, I’m not an idiot, but I’m not very quick-witted either, and I needed to time to figure out what was wrong with what she said.
Although I usually drink my tea gongfu style, I do overbrew it on a regular basis. When I first began drinking Chinese tea, I would drop two tuochas of puerh into a bone china teapot and let it sit while I worked, or pretended to work while actually rambling about Chinese art. This meant about ten hours of steep time. The puerh tasted like a barn no matter how long I steeped it for, but the habits I formed have lingered when I brew pots rather than cups of tea. Consequently I’ve experienced a few overbrewed pots of tea. It comes out of the spout a forbidding mustardy yellow when it should have been light green. Uh-oh, you think. The cup smells fine, but the taste is like sour grass. It stings when you slurp it up.
I’m not even going to introduce it as a question; straight up denial is called for here. An overbrewed pot of tea is not only not a tragedy, it’s a more enlightening and humbling experience than any perfect execution ever achieved. It’s a lesson, and it’s the only way to get better. It’s a reminder that no matter how much you know about your tea, there is probably someone that knows more. It’s a notification that the tea you are brewing will not be treated with disdain. It’s a challenge and occasionally a puzzle to discover the variables that must align to produce the perfect cup. Moreover, it’s what keeps this hobby interesting and not merely a distraction. Actually, I recently stopped using all thermometers, timers, and measurements in my tea brewing. I eyeball it, hoping to make a mistake, hoping to learn something.
When I was a pianist, I had no patience. I did not test myself. I did not practice because I thought if I couldn’t learn it the first time I played it, I was doomed to mediocrity. Frustrated, I left for art history. My instructor said he was sorry to see me go, but that it was my decision. I took his easy relinquishment of my time as a testament to my poor skill. It was not until I began seriously drinking tea that I realized that he had not, in fact, lacked confidence in me. Every lesson we had spent untangling the harmonies and voices was a lesson in musicality, not Shostakovich’s Prelude no. 19. I had failed, in music, to see the larger context. I had not been able to see every mistake as an opportunity to improve myself. Rather, I had cast my opportunities out as soon as they did not materialize instantly. I had seen myself as a tragedy, rather than a work in progress.
The tragedy comes when we make these mistakes and think that they reflect on us. I think people like whatshername (I don’t know the English name of anybody in my Chinese class) and music major Em imagine a scoreboard somewhere, with every black mark against them piling up, permanent and unforgiving. As though someone will hold an overbrewed pot of tea against them. As though each clunker of a note does not disappear as soon as the strings stop vibrating.
There is no scoreboard, no tally. We know that now. But I mean it. Nobody will taste your tea and tell you what you did wrong, unless they are a total asshole (it is advised to avoid total assholes). When it comes out bitter, throw it out and try again. It is just plants in water, you guys. It’s okay. Don’t give up.