Thursday, September 15, 2011

Tea Time Pt. 1

Many rainy afternoons spent drinking tea and studying Chinese.
Two hours after I could have left work and I'm finally gone.  I find myself at risk of repeating one of my most embarrassing moments since moving to Taiwan:

Three weeks after moving here and into my second apartment (the first with my own room), I quietly entered a tea shop just down the street, curious as I had heard many good things about Taiwanese tea.  Beyond numbers, some basic foods and the word for tea (c), I knew not a lick of Chinese, and it became very apparent as soon as the woman inside the shop began talking to me.  I use the term "talking" loosely as I feel it implies conversation and comprehension, neither of which was present.  I tried acting out that I was curious and just wanted to look, pointing to my eyes, saying "no buy," but she continued picking up different packages of tea and offering to put them in a bag for me to buy.  She called in a young girl off the street who spoke some broken English.  "Do you need my help?"  I tried to explain to her that I just wanted to see what she had, to no avail.  At this point I panicked and  felt my best option was to retreat.  I backpedaled slowly towards the door, bowed and said "Xièxiè" as I exited, leaving the scene quickly.  Not exactly graceful, but I wasn't sure what else to do and it seemed alright at the time.  I sure hope she was not offended.

And now, it is my first night in the new apartment, and I am on a high from escaping the negative energy of the old apartment, so I decided to ride around town after leaving work.  I need to buy a few things from the local Carrefour so I am thrust into that familiar scene: walking through the ultra modern first floor filled with cosmetics vendors, all dressed to impress, though noticeably lacking smiles, and pungent like the bedroom of a teenager who just hit puberty has not yet learned that when it comes to perfume, "less is more".  I am a stark contrast to the scene in gym shorts and a plain white t-shirt that I wear when I know I will be sweating, sneakers, and my messenger bag slung over my shoulder.  As usual, I garner plenty of stares, just as I do anytime I leave the comfort of my apartment, only this time I wonder if it's the way I'm dressed, because I'm not Taiwanese, or perhaps both.

A quick trip to the bathroom on the second floor, and I head downstairs two floors for Carrefour.  Note to self:  There is a restroom directly in front of the escalator exit in the basement, no need to go to the second floor.  As I round the corner, I remember that there is a tea shop on the right and I have been wanting to buy some tea to send to my mother for her birthday.  Cue flashbacks.

Approaching the small shop, which is more of a stand, cut out of the wall with three walls of shelves and a serving station in the center, I offer a smile, a slight bow of the head, and  "Nǐ hǎo".  Two ladies are sitting just inside the shop where the outer wall creates a bit of an alcove.   They smile and reply "Nǐ hǎo", as well as some other phrases that I can only assume to be a greeting.  So far, so good.  I try to explain that I am looking for tea to send to my mother for her birthday, and one of them seems to understand as she explains to the other in Chinese and they both smile and motion with an extended arm and upward facing open palm as if to present their tea selection to me.

Inspecting a bag with attractive packaging, one of the ladies smiles, gives me a thumbs up and a "bery good!"  Phew, this is much better than the first time.  Feeling a bit braver, I ask "Oolong?"  She nods, "duì, d", and I ask "Ālǐ shān?".  Of course, in English when you ask a question, the inflection in your voice lets the other person know, but in Chinese if you do the same it changes the meaning, so I probably said something completely different, but amazingly she understood me!  "Ālǐ sān" she says with the typical Yilan accent that makes ten (Shí) sound like four (sì) and mountain (shān) sound like three (sān) as she points to another bag of tea.  She makes a gesture with her hand rounded as if holding a broom stick, and moves it to her chin and tilts it.  It is different from the way I would motion to drink something, but I understand what she means.  I nod, "duì, d".  

She quickly gets to work preparing tea, spooning out the curled little nuggets of dried leaves that vaguely resemble marijuana with little colored hairs and dried stems, or better yet green granola clusters, not measuring precisely but rather from experience.  I scan the different tea options, looking desperately for any of the very few Chinese characters I can recognize, none of which are very useful in determining what type of tea I'm looking at. I pick up a random bag and she looks over, "Good!" she says with a thumbs up, smile and a nod.

Once the water is heated I take a seat to watch as the real show begins, her hands dancing with confidence, her instruments seemingly an extension of her hands, the way I feel connected to my bike.  Delicately she pours hot water over the leaves, caps the small ceramic vessel and swirls the water to "awaken" the dried leaves.  Just as quickly and delicately, she empties the water onto the serving tray, gurgling softly as the water disappears down the built in drain.  Another pour of hot water, capped, and this time we wait.  We avoid each other's glances as we know we have very limited means of communication, yet I do not feel uncomfortable in the situation.  I can feel the stare of each passerby but I am used to it and feel quite absorbed in the moment.

She opens a steam cabinet of sorts, hidden from my view, and removes a small white porcelain tea cup, shaking it to remove any condensation, and I have a heated cup, ready for my first taste.  For the other lady present at the table, she removes a small bowl, much wider at its mouth than its base, and decorated inside, very different from the plain white cup with straight walls that sits before me.  After a few minutes of waiting, the tea is ready.  As she removes the lid I can see that, now reconstituted, the tea leaves have swelled to fill the entire container, a change of great proportions from their modest beginnings.  My hostess pours the tea from the brewing container, holding the lid to keep the leaves in the vessel, through a metal strainer nested atop a miniature glass pitcher to remove the finest of tea leaves.  The tea gently curls into the pitcher below, swirling and glowing with a golden hue.  

From the glass pitcher, she pours my first cup and one for her co-worker and motions to be careful because it is hot, but to waft it under my nose to appreciate the aroma of the fresh tea.  I can only assume that what she is saying in Chinese matches her motions, but for all I know she could be talking politics with the other lady at the table and disguising it with a smile.  

The nose of the tea is delicate but pungent.  A hint of green is present, like freshly steamed vegetables, and smells similar to yet distinctly different from the oolong I have made a habit of drinking non-stop at work.  I look up at my new friends and smile "very good".  After several deep inhalations of the tea's aroma, followed by exhaling by blowing on the tea to cool it down, I take my first sip.  It is smooth and light with the slight yet distinctive bite of oolong.  Very pleasant.  She motions to me that oolong is good for your throat, her petite arms revealing her veins through her fair skin.  Her complexion is nearly flawless, and very pale as is the preference among women in Taiwan.  She wears minimal make-up, always a plus in my book, and her hair is pulled back into a simple pony tail with her bangs swept neatly across her forehead.  From her looks, I wouldn't place her age at much over thirty but based on her demeanor I feel I would be erroneous in doing so.  Her smile is kind and feels genuine, though sometimes I wonder if feigned authenticity is something that Taiwanese women learn growing up.  Nevertheless, her smile is warming like the tea, and she has an upper tooth that sticks out as if it were an extra, growing over her regular teeth like the layers of teeth in a shark's mouth.  I have heard that this is a common sight in this part of the world, and even considered attractive in some cultures.  I certainly don't have a problem with it.

I feel fairly certain that if there were not a language chasm between us, we would have something to talk about, but that will likely remain one of life's great unanswered questions.  Instead, I look around at the shelves of tea, looking for familiar characters.  I spot some: 山 (Shān, mountain), 美 (Měi, beautiful or American in the case of 美國 - Měiguó ), 道 (Dào, road), 中 (Zhōng, middle), 茶 (Chá, tea), 一 (Yī, one), 〇 (líng, zero), 二 (Èr, two), and I think that one is 林 (Lín, forest or a common last name).

She continues pouring hot water over the tea leaves that have completely filled the space within the porcelain vessel which once dwarfed them in their dried state and then straining off the tea into the small glass pitcher, refilling my cup as soon as it is even close to empty.  

I am about to grab a bag, ask her  多少錢 (Duōshǎo qián, how much money) and be on my way when she gets up to refill the hot water pot and whose me one of the other teas I had looked at, making the same unfamiliar gesture as before to see if I would like to try it.  It's a monday evening and I have nowhere else to be, so I can't refuse.