If there’s anything that could get between tea and me, it is my inherent klutziness. I’m constantly knocking into chairs and tables. I’ve even managed to break a shatter-resistant Corelle bowl. As such, you can imagine what a nightmare I am with teaware. On good days, I rattle teacups about and leave a few tea puddles on the table. On bad days, I topple teapots and scatter tea leaves all over the table.
Given that tea drinking is supposed to be a graceful and demure affair, I’ve always felt I could never really be a “true tea person” because of my lack of dexterity and daintiness. Last year, however, I decided that things had to change. I enrolled in proper tea ceremony lessons with a certain Miss B, who runs a little tea shop in Chinatown. She’s gained quite a reputation in Singapore’s tea community for her “puritan ways.” As such, I thought she’d be the perfect person to whip me into shape.
The first time Miss B observed me pouring tea from a clay teapot, she groaned and covered her eyes. “Why didn’t your mother teach you anything about being a lady?” she said exasperatedly in Mandarin. (For the record, my mother tried, but nothing got through.)
She then explained to me that the water spluttering about from my teapot was indicative of my anxiety and told me to take slow, deep breaths through my nose. “The way the water flows out from a pot represents the rate of your heartbeat. You’re scared of failing, so your heart is beating very fast.” she explained.
Although Miss B is exacting in her teaching methods, she never wants me to be bogged down memorizing the steps. “Don’t rush to get everything correct all at once,” she told me as I was trying to take notes. “If you do this enough times, the steps will come naturally. Stop thinking everything through.” By highlighting the root causes of my clumsiness, Miss B made me more aware of the distinct connection between my emotions and my actions. And as I’ve become more familiar with the tea ceremony, I’m beginning to enjoy these tea lessons as a refreshing time of self-reflection and clearing of the mind.
But it isn’t all serious stuff. Miss B loves to regale me with accounts of students who were transformed from tomboys to sweet, genteel ladies after learning the tea ceremony for a few years. “When you learn how to prepare tea the proper way, you are not just getting the best out of the tea, you are bringing out the best in yourself too,” she said.
The image above shows me serving tea at a friend’s house after a few lessons with Miss B. Initially, I was terrified. Usually, I would prepare tea in the confines of a kitchen (where I could make mistakes) rather than in front of people. But after a while, I began to enjoy the flow of stillness that comes with what is now one of my favorite rituals. As you might be able to tell from the picture, I was feeling pretty contented that afternoon.
The other day, a few customers walked into Miss B’s tea shop while I was having lessons. After observing me for a while, one of them remarked to her, “Is that your student? She looks so serene.”
Miss B replied, “Of course – that’s what tea is for!”