Gongfu Theater

Taking a break from the tea shop writing to focus on writing about my experiences traveling as well as art and design. This has been a really amazing experience writing about tea, and I have to say my tea fascination has blossomed into what seems like a lifelong appreciation of gongfu tea.

When I first started writing about tea in the teashop, one of the tea masters was insistent about calling the tea shop experience “kung fu tea”. It was a really good gateway into understanding Chinese culture from a common international gateway from a normative cultural experience we understand in the west: Kung Fu Theater, like the ones that came on TV in the late 80s. Kung Fu Theater was a series of really weird english dubs of what seemed like a bottomless well of 70s kung fu movies that fascinated me. I even kept a white Buddha from a chain Chinese food restaurant, and sometimes in the sweltering Texas summer would dress up as a ninja in a costume made by my Grandma. It was definitely a first entry into a minor goth influence.

So when I asked for a black tea, for one of the last times to write about it, I talked with the tea shop buyer about the experience for some time. I’ve always been really interested in being an evangelist for tea. It’s been a life changing experience, no doubt, and I always am looking for ways to add to the collective conversation about simple ideas that could really make the world more peaceful. Tea is one of those things. If everyone cared about tea and prepared it slowly once a day, it truly might change the world.

So I was really interested to talk to the head of the tea shop and get her views into the history of the shop. I had a lot of ideas about how to help the tea shop. As it turns out, they had tried it all out. Which honestly for me is fine. I absolutely love the tea shop and want it to never change. I love West Berkeley. It is quiet and unassuming, and has some of the best food, coffee and tea, the central life forces for my experience.

She had some interesting observations. She first said that most people come in and ask for Earl Grey. I was shocked. I really think this tea shop has fantastic prices that help you really explore a variety of complex teas at minimal cost. I thought that the majority of the customers would be super opinionated and advanced tea drinkers. Apparently this was not the case. She told me that most Americans want American tea.

Additionally, we talked about tea culture between China, Taiwan and the US. It was her view that it was almost a class issue. She said that most people in China only make traditional tea when they retire, because most of the culture is too competitive to really allow young people an entrance to the practice. This was shocking to me. I realized I had imagined the culture as this incredibly tea soaked environment that revolved around traditional culture. Apparently I was living in Kung Fu Theater.

I never tried to get into tea as a class thing. It was more a fascination with the lure of exoticism created by living in a suburban culture in Texas in the first twenty or so years of my life. I’ve almost been away from that for so long that it doesn’t really register with me any more. Instead I am most interested in the mindfulness component, and also because it just tastes so good, it’s good for you, it’s as endless as a collection of Pokemon, and it’s so much fun.

It was great studying and learning the ropes of creative writing while writing about tea here. I may return to it some other time, but for now, I think it’s a good place to stop.

The tea that was suggested to me today came from a one hundred year old tree in China. It is not cultivated. It grows wild in the mountains. It lasts for up to two days. It changes over time with each steeping into a new world of sensations. The pot sits in the center of a large bowl. There is a poem on the side. I asked what it meant because it was in Chinese, which I can’t read, so I asked the head Tea Master. She replied that it’s something about energy existing and concentrated in the tea pot.

I’m enjoying it today as I move on to writing in my other blog about my experiences with art, design, and world culture. The tea shop was an incredible introduction to personal cultivation, analysis and peace.

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Pu’er Tea

If I wasn’t prepared for the lightness, yet electrical energy transference of White Tea, I certainly wasn’t prepared for Pu’er. It is a thick, dark substance, and despite what I knew before, was the only fermented tea in the shop. It ages over time in thick cakes, which are then distributed for infusion. It is absolutely the most earthy of all of the teas. It resembles dark, muddy water, yet a water that is infused with the energy of a cup of coffee. It almost has the taste of a stout beer like Guiness. It’s a surprising taste, and one that opens up to a completely different world of tea.

The thick cakes that pu’er makes for the tea are divided into Shou, or cooked, ripe, dark, a modern accelerated fermentation, and Shen, raw uncooked green – original natural extended fermentation. The tea I had in the teahouse was Shou. But I was shown the original cakes for the tea of both Shou and Shen, to get a feel for it. The shop knows I am writing about tea, and go to great lengths to share their observations, and show every step of the way. Pu’er is no exception.

There are apparently tea houses that entirely focus on Pu’er. I always thought of it as special and rare. It was almost as jarring as a first taste of Turkish coffee, and just as thick and creamy. This made sense to be the last variety of tea I tasted at the shop. Summer school starts this week, and I won’t have time to write any more entries for the next few months. It’s been an incredible journey, and tea is something that always changes, making us more mindful of our experiences, and connecting to our environment in mind and body.

White Peony

I had never even approached a white tea until White Peony. It was incredible. It was a new dimension of tea that I absolutely did not expect. While some of the notes the shop wrote down were “purity”, “restorative life”, “leaf like”, this tea was what I had begun to sense in Green Tea: a direct connection to nature, in a completely expansive context. White Peony is noted by the shop as having “thyme, honeysuckle, fennel” tastes. Especially apparent are the tones of grass and honey, and this immediately became one of my favorite teas I have experienced through writing. There is such a sweetness to it, but not one that is like sweetness we expect in our culture. It was so light and effortless. This is the first tea in the teahouse I could describe as subtle and elegant.

It’s something that is difficult to describe without the context of the tea. In fact, something I’m finding in a lot of in my writing is that tea really has to be experienced to be understood. While it’s an excellent source of inspiration, the sensation, and experience of the tea itself is in it’s own way a form of communication. It’s a language of experiences. I can begin to talk about my personal feelings and thoughts about tea, but it really has to be experienced. Nature can speak to us through tea, yet that experience of nature is complex.

At the Art Institute of Chicago, I took a Chinese painting class. It wasn’t a studio class, but we actively studied the context, history, and social implications of periods of Chinese society, and how they informed their art, as an extension of culture. One thing that always stuck with me is something the professor said, which is that in landscape painting in Chinese antiquity, there is a concept that Nature is created in human consciousness and not something external. Our entire visual perception is a mediated form of external observation. It’s an emotional and physical reaction.

In the same way, white tea is in an interesting philosophical position. It stands as the absolute beginning of tea. It almost tastes exactly like what would be a “pure” form of tea. I think that calling anything “pure” is problematic, since all tea experiences are in relationship to another sensory perception. It’s less poetic, but it might make more sense to call White Tea something different. But this direct sensation absolutely reminds me of my most direct feelings of nature. The smell of suburban backyards at my parent’s house. The first times I went on a hike. All of the experiences I have had as an adult, hiking in nature in so many different places. All of these things had a particular sensory and physical experience, and it is primarily fields of tall grasses, which I have never experienced outside of my imagination, that are opened up by White Tea.

Assam and Keemun

I decided, that as a brief point of conclusion for the next few months, I would take a look at one of the black teas, to get a better gauge of the difference between the oolongs, the greens, and the blacks. I was corrected very quickly this morning. None of these are fermented. The difference is in oxidation. The black teas are the most oxidized, the oolongs still, though noticeably less, and the greens almost not at all. It goes from raw and green to black and broken, and the blacks can feel so strong at times that it can almost appear like emotional shattered glass. It’s not quite like the green and oolong experience. That was my first thought on my second cup of black, but as I let it slowly edge into its own experience, I felt more focused and extremely calm, with the same evenness of experience present in all of the teas. It was direct, powerful, yet still smooth and inspiring stillness, energy, and contemplation. I don’t know if I could meditate after drinking a cup of black tea, but I can certainly write better from using it.

The teahouse suggested that, since I was new to black tea, that I do a small test of two of them for comparison. In my study and research this morning I was reading Josef Albers Interaction of Color, which in the outset of the book, states that color only exists in relationship to another color. The same could be said of tea. The teahouse chose Assam Tea and Keemun for me to experience, and hopefully come to realizations of during my brief visit. The two, from a flavor perspective, carried the same notes that the shop wrote down. Keemun had a Cacao, Malt, Muscat flavor, while Assam had Marigold, Caramel, Malt sensations. Also, in the notes, the word “Breakfast” was used for the first time. I learned from the teashop that their breakfast tea was their own blend that combined both of these teas. And they definitely did feel related. Yet the overall flavor of the malt really combined them and masked any differences, while they were definitely still there. Assam feels more direct. Keemun feels more even toned. Both can wake you up. The main thing I thought I was missing in my tea explorations was a morning tea that could jolt me awake. Assam might be that tea.

In fact, when I first tasted the Assam tea, I was immediately pulled into a series of memories from when I first had it. I remembered that I had purchased a tin of it from the teahouse five years previously, and there was no mistake that it was that particular tea which was the only tea I had ever had in the teahouse. I had completely forgotten about it. The memories were of nothing in particular, just having the tea, morning, late afternoon, likely studying and working on projects. I immediately grabbed a tin and went home. The second memory I had with both teas came from the sensation of the tonality of the water that was almost like hardwood. It immediately brought me back to being alone in the wood supply of hardwoods when I was developing some of my first designs in art school. I think it’s really amazing that it was this specific experiential reminder that was brought out from the tea as I was finishing pulling together 15 years of art and design for my final portfolio of my work from school.

Breakfast is a deep cultural need that I face in my working and student life. As I stated in the beginning of the blog, I really was at a loss when I decided to stop drinking coffee. I turned to Green Tea, but it was never enough. I need to gauge what’s important to me in the morning. Zen stillness, or shining, golden breaks of dawn, met with the resolve to make it the best I can. Black tea just might be that critical moment for me in the morning.

Tieguanyin

I asked if the only teahouse worker in the shop could translate the giant two glyphs of Chinese writing on the wall behind me. He walked from the counter and looked at it, and then said,” You know I can’t read Chinese.” I knew from conversations before that he was from Japan. He said, “I don’t know Japanese either.” “Really”, I asked. He replied “Yes, in fact almost none of the American Japanese in my generation can speak Japanese. It wasn’t taught to us by our parents.” “Why?” I asked. He said that they “wanted to fully assimilate to American culture after all of the anti-Japanese sentiment in World War Two. There was so much fear of the Japanese after Pearl Harbor and the war. In fact, it’s a lot like now, where so many Americans think Asians are going to take their jobs.” “But here it seems like we’re almost becoming more Asian”, I said. “Yes, in California, that’s true.” I agreed.  I replied, “My ancestors came from Ireland and Scotland, and look where I am. I’m in an Asian import teahouse, listening to you describing how oolong is fermented, and how to enjoy the tea.”

Oolong is fermented by damaging the leaves to bring out the sap. its rolled to damage the leaves, and then it unfurls in the steeping process. When he placed the pot on the table, with a small towel separating the pot from the wood surface, I could see steam rising from it. I was told that this was to open the tea before the first steeping, which was interesting to me. Many of the teas I experienced had a similar situation, where the first steep is not as impactful as the second and third, but this was the first that really emphasized that process. Seeing the vapor rise from the clay pot reminded me of the firing that the pot would have had in its creation, from raw clay into a solid form, and the entire process from the elements of the earth into a single experience. Earth combined with life, passed to our spirits.

Tieguanyin comes from an ancient recipe, and the notes from the teahouse said that it would lead to confidence and grace. This is a quality I was beginning to sense in all of the oolongs. There is a unified quality in all that reminds me of a bird that floats on water, with an ability to fly, but a lightness that allows them to sit solidly on the surface, maybe dipping below, but always returning to the sky. It is a perfect balance of air and water. This tea definitely revealed itself as it slowly went through steeping. The teahouse noted that the flavor was like Charcoal, Oak, and Burnt sugar. I didn’t detect the taste of Burnt Sugar until the third steeping, and then it was present for the rest of my time in the teahouse. It was a very complex tea.

Tieguanyin is the first tea I have had at the teahouse that is specifically named after an Asian goddess. Guanyin is a Bodhisattva of compassion and mercy, in many ways like the Western Mary. In some beliefs that connection is specifically stated in an aspect of syncretism. My experience with these forms of Buddhism are extremely limited, and my study almost always rested on earlier forms of Buddhism with few if any Bodhisattvas. The tradition is fascinating. The tea, however, did impart this sense of compassion. The tea watched over our conversation with echos of the Japanese internment camps in California. The experience of otherness within another culture, and how Asian traditions were lost to an entire generation of Japanese Americans. But were they truly lost? In retirement, the gentleman who worked at the teahouse surely was finding a connection to Asian culture and his ancestors in the teahouse. Yet he was the only person who ever played disco in it. That’s extremely American: a traditional exploration being relearned against the backdrop of nostalgia, memory, and, well, boogie.

Wenshan Baozhong

It’s been really hard for me to write about Wenshan Baozhong. It’s one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had. It’s subtle, and even small changes in temperature and steeping times really transform it. It starts out as a round edge that passes into sweetness, with the grassy flavor making a sunlit bed beneath them. Halfway between an oolong and a green tea, it is neither, situating itself perfectly between the two in the spectrum.

The tea was recommended to me by the teahouse as an entry point into oolong. I was told it’s a perfect introduction, since it makes you think about the extremes of both an oolong and a green. It’s absolutely true. As the flavor reaches your senses, you can isolate specific wholeness of oolong at times, if you focus, and at other times it is light and airy, like a delicate green tea. 

The subtleness of the tea, and how much it changes reminded me of a rapid passing of time, from the morning of green tea to the late afternoon sun of an oolong. I learned so much from this tea.

I came across a moment in a painting I made that I had forgotten. It was a careful color shift between two kinds of red, and when I really looked the difference was striking. In the same way, Wenshan Baozhong allows me to perceive all other aspects of tea with greater care.

The teashop said that they actually focus on different teas at different times of the year, for their personal enjoyment. The greens were explored in Spring, the Oolongs in Fall, and the Black Teas in winter. Can I become more aware of the spaces in-between the seasons, just as I am becoming aware of the movement of these two kinds of tea. 

I will try to remind myself to look at these changes as a delicate shift, and less of a solid marking of the passage of the earth around the sun. The earth is always moving, no matter what I say it is doing or not.  

Herbal Chai

It’s amazing how objects, no matter how small, can trigger such strong emotions within us. In one of my classes a student lamented over what he thought was an unsuccessful assignment. The assignment was about creating experiences for a group of people. He said that because his team’s work was outside, it wasn’t as impactful as the other teams work, because the various factors that would be used to create an experience couldn’t be controlled or modified. It was interesting, because in this particular project, his team made small hexagon forms that were located all around a park in a kind of scavenger hunt. I was alerted to the compassion this student was not giving to the project, so I offered an observation. Even though the team’s objects were small, and in an uncontrolled environment it still was immersive. I do the same thing with the few crystals I have on my meditation altar.

Sometimes, before meditation, I will just pick up a crystal, and just look at it for awhile. It can completely change my mood. In the crystal, I see the harmonic forms of nature, and the beauty of geologic algorithms and patterns. In fact, in some Buddhist traditions it is said that advanced spiritual practitioners are reborn as crystals. That is an incredible encapsulation of the complete totality of experience that comes from just holding something, and really experiencing the form.

In the same way, my experience with Herbal Chai was a totality of experiences and memories. The tea was too powdery to use in my typical tea kettle, so I used another kettle, one that we have had for over ten years, maybe more. It has been a couple of years since I got the kettle out. It was a heartwarming vision, imagining all of the times of refuge and beauty that I have had with friends, my partner, and in consideration on my own. If meditation regularly can create a more solidity and beauty to all of our lived experiences, tea can act the same way. It was a ceaseless continuum between past and present, all contained within the form of the kettle itself. It was a white kettle, nothing truly special, but as I gave the tea to the kettle, it became a more intense memory with every action.

And the specific tea I was making, Herbal Chai, was also a complete doorway into my memory. The memories were not of anything specific. No singular events outside of the experience of the tea could be recalled. But the memory of moments of quietness and peace, over a long period of time, pulled me into a relaxed state, like a reminder that it’s always been here, like quiet, like peace. It is a cinnamon, spicy flavor, inseparable from the Hindu traditions that were isolated in specific experiences where I grew up, and in the experience of the Ali Akbar College of music performances in San Rafael. It is so heartwarming, and created an entire environment in the room in our apartment. Grounding, expansive, this delicious tea was a perfect experience that I think anyone could use to deeply relax in the later evening, and might be something I go to every few months or even years, to tie in the reality of passed moments, unified in the space they hold in my mind, of total warmth and peace.