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.  

Charcoal Fired Oolong

I went to the teahouse today and I was so humbled that one of the teahouse staff introduced me to a customer as “one of the tea nerds that sit in the back.” I’ve only been seriously into tea for about a month but hearing a staff tea nerd refer to me as another tea nerd solidified an aspect of an emerging aspect of identity. Often when I am in the teahouse, first thing when they open and no one is really in the shop, I will just say every now and then, loudly, “Tea is amazing.” and I often hear a reply, “Yes, tea is amazing.” It’s like the most insecure password that tea nerds can use to identify each other. If I was on the street, and just started saying loudly, “Tea is amazing,” it might really annoy people, and honestly, I would be a little shocked if someone replied to me, unannounced, “Yes, tea is amazing.” But I want to live in that world, where random proclamations about how amazing something is that you’re into are common. Random thoughts about the joy of experiences should be shared. And for a good cause, because tea, as I have mentioned, is amazing.

The staff of the teahouse are, like tea, amazing. They are all so passionate and knowledgeable about tea, and their excitement has definitely passed on to me. I am amazed when I am in the teahouse and someone comes in for the first time and doesn’t shout, “Oh My God.” I should state it one last time in this blog: “Tea is amazing.” Knowing this, I listened intently to their advice this morning. I had planned on getting one of the green teas to help me wake up. I got up really early for meditation this morning, and I was completely exhausted. I almost fell asleep during meditation, I know I needed something a little bit more strong than my regular green tea.

The teahouse asked why I was only drinking green tea. I told them that it was because I was starting to work on a book about the green tea experiences, but I told them how much I was enjoying a black tea I had recently. They asked me why I didn’t just move to Oolong instead of Black tea, because it’s a transitional tea, between the raw green tea experience and the rich, complete other tones of black tea.

The space in between planetary bodies in the universe is known as dark matter. It is a theoretically maintained concept, yet almost undeniably real. Scientists are realizing that gravity behaves in strange ways that could only be described because of the existence of dark matter. It is invisible, yet it is conjectured that 85% of matter in the universe is dark matter. Black tea is my undiscovered dark matter. In a world transformed by raw sencha: the earthy transparency of light and energy through nature, the existence of black tea presents a harrowing problem. I knew that if I began to journey through it, I might not be able to get back for a long period of time. My satellite of experiences, stranded in deep space, might be, at any moment, pulled completely into a black hole, unable to escape.

But what is in the other side of the event horizon of a black hole? Perhaps a new discovery, a broader world, another mirrored universe? Probably only experimental physics and comic books would know, and with them, I would add the teahouse. They know that on the opposite side of the shelf in the middle of the room, separated by the support of metal and wood, sits black tea, in an equal distance from the side that has the green tea. It might change everything for me, but the Oolong suggested an opportunity. What if we could move away from the dialectic of green and black, from idealism to experience, that is the foundation of the two extremes of tea. In perfect balance, Oolong suggests to us that possibility. The tea that was suggested to me was Charcoal Fired Oolong, and as I gazed into the tea leaves, it was in tightly packed round forms, which could be brewed without a strainer. I made my first infusion and tried to see what I could notice.

This was a swan on a calm pond, with clouds overhead, which was probably an influence from the current weather in West Berkeley. Slightly in a haze, from the first sensations of taste, and as I went through subsequent infusions it became sweeter. It was poetic, natural, and had a definite direction of energy. It was so focusing that I left the teahouse early to work on a project. It was one of the first teas I tried with the same ability to micro focus in its effects, but still maintained the expansive qualities that come from green tea. In fact, in my reading, all of the qualities lauded by supporters of green tea are also found in all the other kinds of tea; Black, White, Oolong, Green, so when I discussed this with the teahouse, they said that what tea ends up being is a difference in energy. Not just taste, but in the complete energy of the tea itself. There is no real dialectic of green and black. All teas are simply teas in a complete tea universe and are an impossibly varied system of energies and experiences.