Listen, don’t talk, Part II

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.

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Listen, Don’t Talk: Part I

When I was a little girl my mother kept a half-acre of flowers growing from March to October. I asked her once, unfamiliar with the processes of plants, why she didn’t keep it going year-round. She said for one thing, it was too damn cold to work outside all day. For another, the earth needed a rest as badly as she did. It hibernated during those months, fermenting everything brought to it by the summer before–the things that crawled in between the roots and the stems to lay eggs and eat and die, the desiccated blossoms, the seeds I shallowly deposited in the only bare patch of the garden (mine). It took those wintery months to mull these things and break them down and repurpose them. In March when we began turning the soil over again, it was as dark and wet as coffee grounds (the coffee grounds went into my dad’s vegetable garden, which for some reason produced red soil).

Because I proved myself adept only at pulling up every non-weed in the garden, my job was to water. I would drag the hose coils around the yard, smashing up the grass, creating great muddy patches that frothed as I overwatered the poor flowers. In retrospect my mother may not have liked any of the flowers she planted for anything other than their ability to withstand a careless seven year old.

My favorite part of watering was the part when it was over, though I was not a shirker. I would drag the hose into the cement driveway and drop it there so it didn’t make the yard slippery. Then, I was supposed to let it run while I went back to its source and turned the water off. Instead, one day, I watched the water spread along the cement, filling in cracks I hadn’t known were there. The hose had a kink in it so the water came out in smooth spurts. I stayed at the edges of the puddle I was creating, putting my face closer and closer to it, examining the bubbles and inhaling the smell of wet metal that our groundwater produced (we used a filter for drinking water–don’t worry). I could hear emanating from the water a high, multi-voiced whistling, as though it were singing.

The water has been a special concern of mine when I make tea. I admire it for its own properties and occasionally taste my water without any tea, just to see how it’s doing. The water in Tacoma is a little peppery and sometimes comes out brown, so I usually filtered it. Other than trying to light it on fire, I haven’t done much else with it, mainly because I’ve found that the minerals in it override the tea flavor, and this isn’t a water blog. But I’d never discount water purely for being tap water. You must remember that brewing tea is a communion between the leaves and the water. Tea does not become tea by sitting dried in its bags, but by interacting with the water. During the next brew you make I would implore you to taste your water first, with all the respect you bestow upon the tea. And experiment with the water, to learn and to improve your tasting and brewing skill. Experiment with all the variables of tea brewing, but especially, listen to your water.

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The autumnal colors of shuixian and persimmons


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A forest!


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The Morning Announcements

When I was doing drama in high school and working for a costume shop in college, my favorite part about the whole thing was the small props. This actor has a newspaper, this actor carries a pipe. I happen to know that the back of a prop shop is a right mess, and if you can find a thing in it, chances are you’ll find a collection of that thing in incarnation infinite. Next time you go to see a play, know that some poor schmuck spent hours finding it, going through boxes with the moths and the spiders in either an attic or a basement, alone, while the lights flickered and buzzed and what was possibly a ghost wandered by.

I am not kidding, you guys, I saw a ghost in the costume storage at the University of Puget Sound. Never go up there unless you want to be both fascinated by all the vintage blouses and terrified that a high-collared wedding dress will fly around the corner and grab you up and take you to hell.

Okay, but what’s the point?

Where was I going with this? Yes, yes, objects, especially the small ones. They don’t define characters, per se, but they sharpen them. Why this pipe, why this robe, why this tablecloth. And what is really important is what they do with them. The connection in theater between action and intention is–how do we say it–pretty damn important. So when you see a play and the actor snaps his newspaper open, know that the actor, if he is any good, thought for a long while about why he snaps his newspaper open instead of casually folding it or spreading it out on the table (also carefully chosen). The actor is doing this in his ultrasubtle theater manner so that you know what kind of person he wants you to think he is. Furthermore, he acts a certain way because he knows that everyone in the audience will see an action and make roughly the same conclusion about his character’s personality. It’s a pretense and like any good lie it’s based on what the pretense’s audience will find plausible.

Look, if you didn’t want to blog about tea, you shouldn’t have started a tea blog.

I’m getting there. I do tea once a day, twice if I’m home. In the mornings around five am, I do some gongfu cha. I consider that wake-up time, read the news time, watch the sun come up time (well, not in October). This is the first time that I’ve had such a regular tea routine, and it is actually sort of helping my caffeine addiction since my body knows when the fix is coming. I’ll probably end up like Mrs. Dubose, BUT NOT WITH THE RACISM, OBVIOUSLY. I may have blogged about this, maybe not, but last spring I quit using measuring implements or timers in my tea. I thought I would learn a lot more by making mistakes, and I have! But it failed to internalize until I was practicing every day. Now, I brew a more excellent cup of tea every morning. Better all the time.

When I first learned about practicing gongfu, the thing that delighted me the most was the communal aspect. English tea parties had that, but they were too social. Same with using samovars. The Japanese tea ceremony wasn’t social enough. I know there are plenty of other tea rituals out there, but this one was perfect for me. Every step in gongfu is traditional, but it keeps with the tradition of making good tea. I need rituals, but I don’t want a superfluous step. The other thing about it is that you can talk! About anything! But especially about the tea! Gongfu is flexible–I feel just as reasonable doing it while reading the news or making small talk as I do pouring an extra cup for the dead and drinking in silent ponderance.

I was drawn to it because of its social aspect. It might be ironic that I mastered it alone (I say might because I am truly no longer sure whether or not something is ironic). In fact, recently my favorite tea companion has been taking pictures for this blog (you can recognize them by the fact that they are good pictures, and they are on this blog). Despite my affection for the social posturing and interaction that tea time compels, I’m not used to it. A lot of the pictures have to be scrapped because I don’t think about the camera and my hands are blocking the action (finally, I understand the reason for a delicate hold on teaware during the brewing process). I love to make tea for other people, don’t get me wrong! As a supremely awkward person, sometimes making tea is the only way I can express my affection. What I haven’t grasped yet is the performance aspect. My intentions correspond only superficially to my actions. I’m not representing anything here–I’m not thinking about an audience at all.

Should Gongfu Cha even need an audience though? You just said it was flexible.

I remember, thank you. And yes, it’s flexible, I’m not taking that back, but it’s still a ritual, no matter how adaptable it is. My mindset during it doesn’t change the basic steps, just the reason I do them, and so far, I have yet to master the performance of gongfu, as opposed to the process. Although I like to talk about tea and do give off the impression of knowing my shit, none of my actions during teatime are performed with the caution, grace, or reverence of a ritual or tradition. A ritual is supposed to have significance to its audience. As long as I’m practicing gongfu without considering the audience, whether it’s me or someone else or a whole bunch of someone elses, I might as well just be waving my hands around and yelling gibberish. Although that wouldn’t be great for my caffeine addiction.

I want to say that now that I’ve gotten the timing and scooping and candle-lighting down, this is the next thing to tackle, but I don’t know if I could say that is is a thing one can tackle. A better approach might just be to keep doing it, and doing it with purpose. The more consideration I can attach to my actions, the more I convey about how important tea is to me to people drinking tea with me, and more my love for tea solidifies when I drink it alone. The people and the tea and the process defines the tea ceremony, but the manner in which the tea is drunk is what sharpens it and turns it into a worthwhile experience.

So, I kind of lost my train there, not that I was following one. But, food or trains for thought! This kind of thing, whatever it is, never wraps itself up neatly.

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I got ahold of some moon cakes after going to the Moon Festival festival in the International District this weekend. Since I can’t wait until the actual holiday (and why should I?) I tore off a hunk of one and had it with tea today.

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A tea marathon!

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Good news! The drought has ended. On Friday I took a bus down to Tacoma and bought a bunch of tea from Mad Hat Tea, which used to be my favorite tea shop. The local socialist group met there and … Continue reading

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