As a barista at a very busy café in downtown Madison, Wisconsin, I’ve been pondering the behind-the-scenes dynamics of serving tea and how different environments affect the ways in which tea is served.  When serving tea to customers (mostly University of Wisconsin students) at the café, we use gorgeous glass tea pots that magnify the color and volume of each tea (Jamaican Red Bush looks particularly beautiful in all its scarlet glory).  While we hurriedly add hot water to these lovely tea pots, I sometimes find it difficult to sustain kindness and attentiveness toward each customer I’m serving.  In the hustle-bustle business of many customers and many tasks lingering inside the mind, it can be a challenge to stay present.  As taxing as any extra effort might seem in such a busy environment, returning to the present when interacting with a customer actually helps calm my energy rather than further fracture it.  To bear in mind that each person is full of stories – and a whole life full of history – calms my energy completely and makes encounters something to learn from rather than rush through.

While I do try to cultivate compassionate and attentive service while working at the café, I have found that in some tea-serving environments, it simply comes more naturally.  Take the Dobra Tea House, which specializes in tea – their entire voluminous menu is comprised of dozens of tea varieties and descriptions.  When you sit down by yourself or with friends, the server brings you a menu and a bell.  In this way, you may take as long as you want to survey their long list and poetic descriptions of teas from around the world, and ring the bell when you’re ready to order.  In my experience, the servers at the Dobra Tea House are able to sustain genuine warmth and presence with their customers.  They seem to enjoy the looks on people’s faces when they palm trays bearing gorgeous tea ironware, tea cups, milk pitchers, and a flame to keep the pot of water hot.  There is a quietness about it, a delicacy, a kind of subtle, but pleasant, performance.  At the café downtown, I’m rushing so much that I’m lucky if I don’t break a tea pot, much less present the tea itself with such attention and effect.

I am curious as to your own experience in different tea-serving settings.  Do some workers seem rushed and abrasive to you, while others seem genuinely present?  Does it affect your experience of the tea?  Have you ever had a meaningful interaction – or witnessed one – at a tea house?  I try to learn from the Dobra Tea House and find feelings of warmth while serving tea – even at a fast pace.  It helps to ease my own stress to look at the gorgeous color of each infusion inside the glass tea pot.

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