There was a story in the NY Times recently that made me think about why tea has been such a popular beverage around the world for centuries. The article was titled “For Female Marines, Tea Comes With Bullets,” and it talked about a particular group of female Marines who were attached to a combat unit. Their duties were to go into Afghan villages and meet with the Afghan women (who weren’t allowed to talk to unfamiliar men), drinking tea with them and getting to know what was happening in the villages. You could call this, cynically, just another way of gathering intelligence, and although I know that must be a part of what they are doing, I prefer to look at it as a way of building bridges between cultures.
Even though our troops are involved in a very dangerous mission overseas, I am glad that they are able to look for other ways to reach the people of Afghanistan. I can see that the act of taking tea with someone you’re unfamiliar with could begin to build a connection, by allowing the familiar beverage to help create a bond. Greg Mortensen wrote about this effect in his book Three Cups of Tea, using tea as a vehicle to build bridges between cultures and promote peace through building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Tea has always been a drink of great civility – with elaborate ceremony involved in its preparation – and of quiet restraint. But somehow, beyond the civilized facade, it also seems to open doors that might otherwise not have been opened. It’s very hard to hold a grudge against someone – whether it’s your sister or a prime minister of another country – when you’re sitting with a tea pot between you, enjoying the comforting aromas and flavors of the tea. Somehow, as you sip the tea, you begin to relax and release whatever tensions you’re holding toward the other, and often you can reach an amicable accord.
I wonder if it’s just the calm that tea promotes that affects people this way, or if it’s something in the chemical make-up of the flavonoids and other antioxidants that allows people to release their anger and stress and get to a more healing place. I suspect the latter, but someone who is a much better scientist than I might be able to answer that!
In any case, I think that if we were to allow tea to play a bigger role in all of our efforts at diplomacy – be they personal, local, or worldwide – some of the problems we face might be easier to resolve.