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.