In this world, as I see it, both visible and invisible history exists for every physical object. I’ve been thinking about what holds tea, and how that shapes its taste as well as how we drink it. There is a history behind each ceramic cup we hold, whether singularly handmade or molded in large quantities. There is also history behind every architectural place in which we drink tea. For instance, the tea houses in China differ from the ceremonial tea rooms in Japan, which differ from the tea houses of the Middle East, India, and America. These architectural differences make me think about the more invisible history of tea – through which channels it traveled, through which hands and when, and how it has been adapted to different places. I get such a different picture in my mind while reading about the crowded tea rooms in Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, or Istanbul (a space where so much charged political and personal conversation takes place) than I do working at a coffee shop in downtown Madison, Wisconsin. Or even recollecting hot Chai tea served in little paper cups at a stall in the streets of Gangtok, India, with just a small counter between myself and the merchant.
Sometimes when I drink tea, I think of these places, and feel connected to various tea-drinking pockets throughout the world, even the ones I only know through my imagination. Serving tea in gorgeous glass pots to students studying everything from physics to political science makes me wonder what kinds of invisible conversational threads are happening at that moment within the visible architecture of tea rooms around the world. One of my favorite things to do in Gangtok was take a walk on the street and stop at a tea house to absorb the language around me (Nepali), which I could not understand. It allowed me to listen in a completely different way—noting rhythms, pitches, and intonations as pure musicality, still having a physical impact on me, though my mind did not understand the “meaning.”
At the coffee shop I work at now, I think of how habitual every question and motion is, how quickly our hands and mumbled words move through each interaction. When someone steps in from a different place, whether from a different country or just a different city, where these particular questions and movements are not so learned, I feel more human, as, just for that moment, we create a completely genuine language unscripted. And so, when I drink tea, I think not only about the history behind that particular tea (how it was processed, where it traveled from, workers who picked it), but also about the more general history – how tea was introduced to different places, and how it changed those places. While noting differences can feel isolating, it can also make me feel part of a wider world community. What do people in various places think about as they drink tea? What do they daydream about? How do they hold their cups in their hands? At which times of day do they have tea, and for what purposes?