Wednesday March 22, 2017 | 5 comments
The Chinese have many words for people who, like myself, have Chinese ancestry but are not from China. They range from the common and innocuous hua ren 华人 or “culture person”, to my personal favorite, the colorful 混血儿 hun xue er meaning “mixed blood son”. Somewhere in between is a fascinating epithet hua qiao 华侨 or “culture bridge”. I like this word, not so much to identify myself with as a Chinese-American person, but as a way to describe a powerful and emergent role that tea culture is playing around the world.
As China comes into its own as a player on the global stage, mutual goodwill and understanding are absolutely essential to harmonious coexistence. The spread of Chinese tea culture means an increase in the number of people who are familiar with and appreciate an aspect of Chinese culture. This goes a long way towards humanizing a people who have historically been thought of as “inscrutable” by those around them. Meanwhile, when a Chinese person encounters a “foreigner” (that’s what non-Chinese are called, even when you’re not in China) who knows how to pour tea, they are generally thrilled, if somewhat baffled. Participating in someone else’s culture is the best way to relate to them – speaking their language, eating their local food, drinking their local beverages. Not everyone is down to learn Mandarin or eat chicken feet, but the simple act of sharing tea with a Chinese person tells them that you think that their culture is valid and worthwhile, and that, far from being an uncultured barbarian, you are capable of enjoying refined and subtle things. In an age of epidemic xenophobia, tea is a powerful medicine.
This effect is of course not just limited to Chinese and non-Chinese. The practice of gong fu cha and enjoyment of Chinese tea is worldwide and growing, but still obscure enough to form an instant bond between people who have it as a mutual interest. Not only does it provide a point of connection and discussion, but the very act of appreciating tea involves drinking it with people, providing an opportunity to share time, conversation, and to show off one’s tea and teaware collection to someone who can appreciate it. The power of sharing tea to form a bond, even beyond language and social barriers, cannot be underestimated – it’s like sharing a drink, having a picnic, and doing something really nerdy like having a Pokemon duel, all at once. And it works just as well even if one serves tea to someone who is completely uninitiated. I first experienced the power of tea while living in Japan more than a decade ago, when my housemate was hosting a couch surfer, an American surfer-type dude. He was passing through the kitchen as I was getting my tea set out to serve myself tea. I offered him some and he declined almost automatically as he looked through the cupboards. Upon turning around, he saw my Yixing clay tea set and immediately said “Oh! Well I’ll have THAT kind of tea”. He had never seen anything like it and we sat and drank tea for nearly 3 hours. When we were done I thanked him for having tea with me and reached out to shake his hand. He took my hand with both of his and looked me square in the eyes and said – this is a direct quote – “No man, thank you, it was like a gift”. To sit down and take the time to prepare tea for someone, to serve it to them, is so much more like giving a gift than just handing someone a can or a bottle, especially if you are giving them a totally new experience.
At the end of the day, the tea itself is just a catalyst – something to do, something to share, something to drink, something to talk about, more often than not for hours on end. It’s what happens during those hours, between those sips of tea, that really creates the bond. It’s so rare in the modern world to sit down face to face with someone and just have a conversation – without watching anything, without getting intoxicated, without staring at a phone. When we share tea we build a bridge, spanning culture, class, gender, race, and religion, and we find that what we have in common with each other is greater than our differences.