Tempests in a Teapot

A proper cup of tea — like family — deserves the right amount of respect and attention

By May-lee Chai

“While there is tea, there is hope”
– Arthur Wing Panero

I took my father to a local Wilmington restaurant once where the hot tea was not hot enough. He was appalled. Tepid tea was no tea at all. It was an abomination in his eyes, and he quietly poured his cup into the soup bowl when the waiter wasn’t looking. It was too unfortunate to even keep the lukewarm liquid in his cup lest he forget and accidentally try to drink it.

The Japanese may have perfected the tea ceremony and elevated it into a semi-religious ritual, but the Chinese do not take their tea any less seriously.

Once in Taiwan, I was being chauffeured from Taipei to Keelung by a wealthy businesswoman who was checking on an apartment that she was having renovated. While she went in to talk to the foreman and investigate the progress, she left me with her driver. While waiting for her, I walked along the boardwalk and took pictures of the picturesque fishing boats along the docks. But after she still had not returned for a long while, her driver suggested we go for tea.

He suggested a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant that he assured me had the best tea in Keelung. As a native of Taiwan, he took his tea very seriously. There, he explained to me the correct manner of drinking the local tea. The small clay pot was filled with hot water, which was then discarded onto the dirt outside. This was to prime the clay pot, he said. Then the hot water was added with a measure of dried black leaves. The leaves were loose. Tea bags were an American invention that no self-respecting tea drinker would think of using, he said. The tea was poured into tiny clay cups, enough only for a few swallows. The tea was so hot each swallow had to be accompanied by a rapid inhalation of air.

As an American and a coffee drinker, I found it hard to drink and inhale air at the same time, and I started choking. Thank goodness my father was not present. My father’s family has always taken their tea very seriously, and I would not have wanted him to witness my public outing as an inept tea drinker.

I remember when I was a very little girl hearing about the tea strike that my paternal grandmother led at her senior center in New York City, where Ye-ye and Nai-nai had immigrated from Taiwan in the 1950s. It was the 1970s, the era of stagflation, and my grandparents’ senior center had decided to raise the price of tea by 5 cents to a full dime. Perhaps the center administrators thought it was a small way to recover the cost of the Styrofoam cups. Perhaps they thought no one would mind.

However, Nai-nai was outraged. Tea was now more expensive than coffee! What was the world coming to! She called my father at night just to complain: Everyone knew seniors didn’t like coffee because it stained dentures and burned the stomach. It was a conspiracy to gouge the elderly, she was certain.

Nai-nai and Ye-ye were the only Chinese members of the senior center. Everyone else was white and Jewish. Nai-nai knew that many were immigrants, too, who had suffered like she and Ye-ye throughout World War II. But, as Holocaust survivors, they didn’t have family members in America. Nai-nai considered herself fortunate, so she thought of a plan to help her friends fight this tea outrage.

While visiting our house in the suburbs over winter break, Nai-nai took all our teabags. She and Ye-ye preferred Chinese-style tea that was still loose and floated in the water, but she knew her friends at the senior center weren’t used to drinking tea leaves that you had to spit out. So, she went through our cupboards while we were at the grocery store. After my grandparents had gone home, my mother went to fix tea one night and discovered every box was empty.

Nai-nai brought the teabags to the senior center. She instructed everyone what to do. “Order a cup of hot water,” she said. Hot water was free. Then she pulled the teabags out of her voluminous purse, always perched on the crook of her arm. “Hold your hands up, like this,” she gestured, a hand in front of the cup, so that the young people who volunteered at the cafeteria line wouldn’t see, and she dipped the teabag in and out, in and out. “When they ask what we’re drinking,” she reminded everyone, “just smile.”

She kept up the tea strike for a month. Finally, the senior center relented, dropping the price back down to a nickel.

Nai-nai recounted the details of her victory to us at our weekly family dinner. She smiled for the first time that summer.

Over the years, my father and his brothers would share the story again and again at our get-togethers every holiday. They would shake their heads and laugh. They would click their tongues against their teeth. But even though they laughed, I understood that they respected their mother’s willingness to fight for her tea.

In Wilmington this winter, when my snowbird father flies in from Wyoming to wait out the months of bitter cold and ice and snow at home, I will take him to Café Zola, where the water is always piping hot and the tea leaves are always loose. Proprietor Manol Georgieff provides a selection of teas from around the world, and the leaves’ flavors are well preserved in tightly capped glass jars. I know my father will approve of their attention to the details of a proper cup of tea.

Tea, like family, deserves our most careful attention.

May-lee Chai is the author of eight books, including three novels (My Lucky Face, Dragon Chica and Tiger Girl) and two memoirs (The Girl from Purple Mountain, Hapa Girl). She is an assistant professor of creative writing at UNCW and still a coffee drinker.

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