Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Lingering Tea Memoires

Tai Ping Hou Kui

Chulan has two native languages, Mongolian, and German. She grew up a diplomat's daughter in East Germany when Germany had two sides. We met when we were thrown together in the company apartment when I first arrived to Beijing. She was learning English, and we also had a Chinese teacher coming to the house, named Peter Wang. She and I quickly became kindred sisters, and made up jokes to occupy our idle and evil minds. Peter "trink-a-trip" Wang (don't ask why or how we settled on the name, we were in our mid 20s) came to the house on weekends to rouse us out of bed after our late night escapades to distant dance houses, of which she knew all. He slurped endlessly from a jar of tea.

Our colleagues were jealous of Chulan. She was brilliant. Gifted. Beautiful. Connected. Well, pretty much everyone was connected. I was pretty good at keeping a low profile. Chulan caused waves everywhere she went. She brought me caviar and cashmere from Russia. She also spoke Russian.

One fine day we lounged with our legs sticking to the puffy leather couch in the company apartment and talked about the herbs. Everyone in the office had these jars, you see, and they'd come in every day with a white paper packet, containing herbs. Herbs and sticks and various strange-shaped chips of fungus. A lady would seem to step through time into our pristine and contemporary office newly made of glass and wood. She'd putter around with hot water in cork topped glass thermoses covered with paintings of mums. She dispensed the water in an endless loop through 21 trading departments, and the people in our offices slurped from their replenished jars, recycling the twigs and leaves all day.

Chulan and I decided to bring something to slurp all day. Slimming tea became our mix of choice, the one with the picture of the girl in the orange swimming suit purchased from the second floor of the Friendship store. It worked too. We became more and more slim. So slim, in fact, that my suits no longer fit and I had to get a whole new wardrobe at Macy's the next time I went through New York. But now I don't think that product exists anymore. There are a lot of fakes out there. Almost as soon as a product that works is created, a legion of fakes producers is at work to make something that looks identical but costs much less.

When I went home with the rock star with the tattoo in the middle of his forehead for Chinese New Year, much to the further horrified chagrin of his family (not being Chinese and all), we squeezed onto an overcrowded train and wedged ourselves in for a long haul down to Shanghai. We would meet his brother who made Barbies in Hong Kong, the pinnacle of success. We headed in one group to his small home town in the province of Anhui by car. In an intermediary town that was like an enormous dust cloud, his friend arrived by dirt bike and met us, carrying a large plastic bag full of leaves. "What is it?" I asked, intrigued by the precious way they were handling the merchandise.

"Cha." They pronounced the word with a tender elongation of the vowel that lingered just above the wisdom teeth and was pretty and sweet, and kind of sexy. I loved the accent in that region. I learned about tea down there in Anhui.

I didn't look at the prices last week when I was at Cha Yuan, I just told the girl I wanted something from the Anhui region. I was hoping to rekindle some memories. She brought out my tea with a little tiny version of the old lady's thermos and asked me if I knew how to do it. I said no, because I wanted to hear her explanation.

"Use the top to your cup to sweep back the leaves like this" she said, in French. I sat and daintily sipped and occasionally slurped, and waited for the rain to stop. As soon as the raindrops stopped pelting down, I had to get right back out again, not knowing if it would start again. There were pictures to take. I wanted to stay and keep drinking tea there all day long. I decided to buy a packet, and raised my eyebrow at the price. I don't regret it, though.



Blogger Unknown said...

Love your pictures and memories.

It's too bad that tea doesn't exist anymore.

9:09 PM, January 15, 2008  
Blogger Jennifer said...

What a beautiful memory. I would love to hear more stories of your life in China.

10:39 PM, January 15, 2008  
Blogger Tace said...

Oh, I never saw a tea pot like that. Actually come to think of it I don't own an official tea pot. I just make it in my coffee maker or in a regular stove pot. Is that sacrilege? It's tasty all the same so I don't mind.
I hope your tea was delicious. The one in the photo looks like it's a delicate flavor, if the colour is anything to go by. :)

10:52 PM, January 15, 2008  
Blogger christine said...

Wow you have such facinating stories from that time in your life!

1:54 AM, January 16, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What stunning photos to go with a beautiful story. I have added a new perspective of tea today.

2:05 AM, January 16, 2008  
Blogger JACQ said...

So nice to hear abt your stories in China. I'm a non-China-born chinese and i would love to hear more! :)
Yup, those plastic containers with herbs are soooo China Chinese!
heh heh...

4:37 AM, January 16, 2008  
Blogger L Vanel said...

Dear Ava, I don't know if the tea exists anymore, although I can tell you now I would not be able to spot a fake box! It might have also helped that my metabolism was different then...

Dear Loulou, I'll put an effort into thinking about that time some more.

Tace dear, tea is fine anyway you like to drink it. Even in a coffee pot.

Dear Chris, nice to see you here! Are there any special teas in Mexico?

Dear Stephanie, glad to have got you thinking about tea.

Dear Jacq, There are so many completely beautiful and unique aspects to life in that country, they will stay in my mind.

Thanks for coming!

8:28 AM, January 16, 2008  
Blogger winedeb said...

Your tea stories brought back good memories from when I worked in a tea shop. The smell was heavenly! I start every single one of my mornings with a cup of tea! Very nice tea pot!

10:42 PM, January 16, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also love hearing about your experiences in China! There is something different about the way you relate them that is very engaging. I do enjoy all of your posts though, really!

6:04 AM, January 17, 2008  
Blogger Jann said...

What a great story and such an experience to have had in your young life~memories and stories to last a lifetime!

8:29 PM, January 22, 2008  
Blogger Lim said...

Thank you for sharing the wodnerful story with us.

7:31 AM, January 25, 2008  

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