I have never been a tea drinker, but when I lived in China, I had to learn. In China, tea is more than a bunch of dried leaves in a pot filled with hot water; it’s hospitality, medicine, regional pride, history, legend — and now it is, for me, tangled with nostalgia.
A month or so ago I had a tea party with my two neighbors. I used the teapot I brought back from China to hold the hot water. We used tea bags so that everyone had a choice. I have not seriously bought tea in decades and didn’t really do a great job of buying it for that event, but we did OK. The tea party and this disease brought tea back into my life because hot drinks opened my bronchitis ridden chest.
If you look for tea at the grocery store, you’ll see several brands of the same flavors. This is American for “choice.” My favorite tea is Lapsong Souchong, a smoked black tea from Fujian, China. It has a strange flavor that (obviously) Americans don’t like much. Back in the 70s, before I’d even been to China, I was introduced to it by a couple of tea-drinking friends in Boulder. Back then, I could find it in the supermarket, but no more. While I was still fighting the crud, I ordered some from Amazon and I’m drinking it now.
The tea I drank most often in China was Jasmine tea. Mostly green tea with jasmine petals mixed in, it smells wonderfu. When I smell it now I have one of those intense moments of tear inducing nostalgia. I was living in South China, on the Tropic of Cancer, and I came to understand that Jasmine Tea is “cooling.” I learned this when my ex and I decided to ride our bikes to the top of Bai Yun Mountain. We underestimated the experience, thinking it would be a cakewalk to ride the 1000 feet uphill to the hotel/restaurant at the top.
It was no cakewalk. 90% humidity and 85 degrees? We got to the top just in time NOT to get heat stroke. The people in the hotel (of course) knew we were coming thanks to the gossip system which made sure that every foreigner working in China would be looked after. We wanted cold water or, even better, the very rare Coca Cola (we were/are Americans after all!) and were politely told that would be bad for us. Instead we were given cup after cup of Jasmine tea. Someone explained that the hot tea in our stomachs sent a message to our bodies to cool us down and we would cool down faster with less risk by drinking something hot.
They were right. After several cups of Jasmine tea, we were fine. We stayed a little while longer to be polite and then headed down the mountain, finding ourselves on a military installation where we were not supposed to be. We were gently escorted off the base by young Peoples Liberation Army soldiers on bicycles. We decided to spent the night in a hotel — the Bai Yun Hotel — and, of course, they knew we were coming.
Another wonderful and nostalgic tea from China is Dragon Well Tea which grows in Zhejiang Province, near the beautiful city of Hangzhou. I first drank this tea when we checked into the Hangzhou Hotel. Dragon Well Tea is green tea with a distinctive flavor and aroma.
That was an interesting experience. In those days any technology was extremely precious and the televisions in our rooms were covered with ruffled, velvet slipcovers.
I will never be a tea connoisseur or even really like it very much, but I love these three teas. Most people don’t know that a really great type of coffee is also grown in China and I would give a lot to have a chance to drink some again.
The first time I tried it is tangled with a wonderful story. The Dean of the Foreign Language Department at our college was a wonderful, inscrutable bear of a man. I know he had a history that was complex and colorful; I know things had happened to him in the Cultural Revolution — he spoke foreign languages and had lived abroad; rumor said San Francisco. One afternoon I was leaving the office and he motioned to me to come into his office. I went. I was afraid I was in trouble, but no. He smiled and said, “I have been saving something for you.” He opened the cabinet that was filled with papers and books and the acretion of time and work. WAY in the back he found a packet wrapped in paper and tied with pink string (everything was tied with pink string in China then). “It’s coffee from Hainan Island. I hope you will like it.”
I didn’t like it. I loved it. When I went to thank him, it became clear that the coffee was a secret between us.
We brewed our coffee in an aluminum tea pot that had a tea-infuser built in the top. The holes in the infuser were too large for coffee, so every morning we lined it with single-ply toilet paper, filled it with coffee, and poured in boiling water. Our Hainan coffee only lasted a month, then we were back to whatever we could find in the Foreigner’s store next to the Bai Yun Hotel. A couple more times during the year I was there, I got Hainan Coffee.
I spent two weeks on Hainan Island. Our boat went down the Pearl River, out the “mouth” into the South China Sea and crossed to Hai Kou “Sea Mouth.” From there we got a bus to Wen Chang but at that point there was — then — no public transportation so we relied on the “Brother-in-Law-Gossip” system and cartons of cigarettes to continue our journey to the village of All Beauty (not on this map) which was my friends’ home town. Hainan is now considered a resort area and is – apparently – a popular destination for Russians seeking a south-sea holiday. When I was there, it was one of China’s poorest and most remote places, a land of fishermen, coconuts, rice fields, pigs, goats and very friendly people — and coffee. ❤