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.

Thoughts On the 1st Week Of My Tea Journey

In my reading, I am coming to new realizations of the history of tea. Tea and Buddhism, began to be completely linked, so much so, that while Buddhism thrived, so did tea, but after rulers changed, or Buddhism fell out of favor, the consumption of tea also decreased. In Korea, it was so closely linked that tea houses often had stone Buddhist figures in their environment.

What’s interesting to me about this isn’t specifically in Buddhism, but in the context of the use of tea. It was used as a medicine, and in Tibet was used specifically as a nutritional supplement, combined with Yak milk and fortifying ingredients that were vital to the survival of the people. It was also, moreover, which is well known, used in meditation to increase alertness. And what really interests me is something I read about the experience of tea seen as a mirror of the harmony of the universe.

That sits in such contrast to my use of coffee in the recent past. I used coffee almost entirely as an aid to speed up my work ability and focus me on writing and design tasks. But having let go of it, I am finding that my focus is much more expansive, than in the single mindedness of the effect of coffee. The realization of the harmony of tea is something I am only realizing as I explore it with a sense of being open to new ideas. I was so fast with coffee. I am more thoughtful with tea.

There is a carefulness, an openness, in the way I am experiencing tea. After I read about the harmony of the universe in regard to tea, I slowed down and really relaxed as I moved about my daily activities. It may be the best mindfulness aid I have ever had. It increased mindful thought in all of my actions.

When I started drinking coffee, when I was a high school student, it was absolutely used in the context of art and poetry, but in a more frenetic way. Coffee was a way for me to make what I now see as unfocused art. My strategy was to drink a ton of coffee, and just start drawing or painting wild, yet derivative scenes that had no real intention, but were just expressionist and early attempts at making a color language.

I now have a more complex relationship with the quality of line and color theory, which I use often both in art and design. I have studied for years. It can be free and open, but it’s always intentional. I think the use of tea will amplify those considerations.

I also am finding that I can think in a way that is not single minded, but has a wider net of considerations and influences that impact both my art practice and design, and also in a more general sense, my perspectives. This is the beginning of a new process of growth that I did not expect. Tea can be used for any purpose, but this ability created by tea to create an alert, careful, and more holistic perspective is a beautiful experience, and I am so happy to discover tea, really for the first time.

First Thoughts on Matcha

Matcha is the taste of salt water, as if you are floating in the middle of the ocean, far from shore, yet safe in a warm water. All around is stillness. Matcha was reported to be used by Samurai before entering battle, and in our heightened, fast paced modern realities, the tea comes into close contact with some of the other things many people employ simply because of the energizing effect. Horrifying, acidic, candy flavored energy drinks symbolized by animal archetypes, who have no clue that their likeness is used to keep up an unusual pace of speed in exercise and work tasks. 

The entire thing I love most about tea, especially the tea shop, is how it makes us slow down for a moment. The energizing effect is only a side effect, but it’s not the purpose. It elevates your mood, but only for you to be in a more positive environment for just appreciating and acknowledging the life within us and around us. It’s a mindfulness tool, and it tastes amazing. 

That kind of subtlety seems to not be present in basic matcha, and at the tea shop it’s paired with another blend to balance it. But it really reminds me of coffee. I had it for the first time at the Allegro Coffee Roasters in Whole Foods off of Gilman in Berkeley, in the late afternoon, because it was mentioned on the blog page, and I wanted to give raw matcha a shot. I’ve had it at another store before, but after some research, I found that that it had 50% sugar added to it. I wanted to try this more raw blend, and as a first time, it was the salt water taste that caught my attention.

Pearl Jasmine

Few tea houses do not have a jasmine pearl option in their selections. It’s one of the most iconic teas of all green teas. Still, it is a bit more expensive than other more well-known teas. That is mostly from the process of making the pearls: the round, interwoven leaves that make up the texture and form of the tea. The rolls are handcrafted, one at a time. So if even not so dear a price, they are from human endeavor and love of craft, whether by choice or by necessity, or maybe both. It is a beautiful example of the handcrafted qualities of tea.

The tea shop’s Pearl Jasmine is considered one of the best, and it’s been one of my favorite selections from the shop for a while. The floral sensation of the tea is immediately recognizable. While at one time extremely exotic to me, it has acquired the familiarity of a really warm experience, still rich and mysterious in its invisible flower that it places before you, just beyond your senses, ready to be perceived at the slightest hint of it with each cup.

If I can continue with my attempts to describe tea flavors as a shape, this one is oval. There are not quite sharp, but more progressively narrow sensations that come from the floral qualities. It makes me think of unassuming gardens in the East Bay, particularly in the overgrown, seemingly unwavering grasslands of the front yards of West Berkeley, where the shop is located. It also recalls the Berkeley Botanical Garden, always a kind of pale green in parts, which is how I imagine the emotional color of the tea, mixed with light purple. The tea is harvested in early spring, and the jasmine flowers are picked early during the summer.

I immediately started searching my memories for memories of other gardens I have seen. Probably one in each city we’ve lived in, civic public gardens, Hawaiian preservations, ancient petrified gardens at historical sites, all the anonymous, humble gardens on city streets and suburban environments. I wonder how rare these types of gardens might be over time. Will future generations look at these as archeological sites as well?

A friend of mine wrote a song recently that comes to mind in which he says, “We are smoking flowers, we are seeing flowers, we are being flowers.” We can certainly drink flowers too, and that was what I did in the tea shop today. There was an ancient garden on the table. I drank from it, and a flower appeared in my mind.

There was no one else in the shop, and the tea ambassador (I don’t know what to call the tea shop workers) helped me do research when she didn’t have any answers to my questions. We had a really interesting discussion.

From her memory, she knew that the legend of where tea comes from is serendipitous. According to her, the first person who discovered tea was an emperor who was boiling water on an open fire. Suddenly, a gust of wind blew leaves into the boiling water, and when he poured the water into the cup, it became the first tea drink.

It’s probably an impossible story, but the sentiment is interesting. It imagines that tea came to us from a natural occurrence. The physical transformation of the environment through natural processes that created the event was mediated by the choices of an individual, in this case, an emperor, but she said that in other versions of the story it is a healer who discovers tea this way.

She thought for a minute and then said that we were more connected to nature in the past. I think that is true but I also think we could become more connected to the earth again. The uncontrollable gardens and wildflowers of West Berkeley give me hope that we will find a way.

Hakuro

Hakuro tea is one of the most strange experiences I have had with tea. The flavor is round, permeating the environment with a feeling of solidity. The tea shop told me that there is more to a tea than just its caffeine. Each has its own particular “energy.”. And that’s absolutely true. There are many experiences I have had with just herbal tea that have a definite energy to them.

The tea shop said it was really popular with people who know it well, but not everyone does. There is almost no information about it online, with the exception of a book about the Japanese Tea Ceremony, which looks like a guide for advanced practitioners.

Because of the caffeinated content, the tea shop suggested that I make the first two steepings and pour them out. Then I could have a much more diluted tea. Apparently, this is how almost all decaf tea is made. It was still a little too strong for me. Very quickly the feeling of solidity began to fade and I felt like I had just had four shots of espresso. But that wasn’t the only quality. It wasn’t like any other experience I have ever had. I think the experience would really vary between people, but there’s no other tea quite like it, but that goes without saying. No tea is like another. They are all infinitely complex.

When I was trying to do research, I couldn’t find much information. What I did find was inspiring though. Hakuro is a Japanese word that means ‘Mist.’ It is also one of thirty or so names for the month of August. This was beginning to make me explore language, culture, poetry and tea all at once. Tea is truly a gateway into cultures, experiences, and our own consciousness.

Reading that the name was literally the word for mist made me think of all of the times I have experienced mist or even light rain. While I wrote, through my headphones, I kept hearing what I thought were waves slowly passing along an empty shore. I thought I had accidentally left an ambient song playing on my computer. But when I checked my computer, I found nothing, so I took my headphones off. I then heard the direct sound, not muffled by my headphones. It was the sound of cars passing on the street, lightly flooded from rain, that made a soft sound as they passed by at a high speed. I listened for a little while.

The sky is gray again today, and everywhere I go in West Berkeley the streets are empty, except for the occasional view of solitary walking, head down with umbrella keeping them out of the light rain. There was a time when there was no rain in the bay area. It wasn’t so long ago. I remember. The California drought eventually ended, when after a week of contaminated air in the bay from fires in the north, finally cleared. After a few days of it in our contamination masks, we finally left the bay area for Texas and waited it out. It took me a few days to recover. My body felt heavy and weighed down. It was surreal. It felt like we were escaping a true environmental catastrophe, and in a way, we were.

Connecting through tea to a place of emotional realization of the reality of mist is strange. Through its round, circular presence, it encourages me to believe in the possibility of reversing climate change. I don’t know if that is even possible, but this tea will always mean that to me. The realities of the California fires, and the hope that the rains bring. A world completely made by mist could make things more cloudy and mysterious. Maybe there are people living on the planets we can’t see into. Living their days in peace and mystery, and only seeing things when they have a direct view.

Beginnings

I didn’t just love coffee. I had a complete physical and mental connection to it that was unbroken, except for a few attempts at letting it go, from teenage grunge perspectives, all the way through every path I have taken in my adult life. It was something to celebrate small achievements. It was there when I started making art.  It was there in moments of sadness. It permeated my body and created a warm glow in the early morning, and later on, into the early evening. It was a way to break up my day. I measured time around it. It was one of my favorite things, ever. That sounds like hyperbole, but it is not. Coffee was life.

But in recent years, I have been consistently asked to let it go. I always just ignored it. Coffee is, as everyone knows who has anxiety, just not good for you. It makes you really anxious, and even with its benefits, I just had to let it go. I accepted the fact that it would be a deep period of mourning. Maybe I should have a funeral for it. I could take a Starbucks cup (seriously, as much of it as I consumed, I never was a connoisseur.) and take it to a graveyard, invite some friends, and maybe read a poem. It might also serve as a way to remind me of the realities of all of the plastic I created by my addiction, all of the energy consumed by all of the coffee makers and espresso machines in unison. Hundreds of Baristas could come gather around, and solemnly watch as I laid the plastic cup into a small mausoleum, with a stone mermaid watching over it for the next thousand years. I could take one last double shot of espresso, then run around a little while, and then with boundless, temporary energy, run out of the cemetery and into the busy streets of everyday life. Letting go of the past, and moving into life, from death.

Mermaids are in interesting choice for a logo. What exactly does it mean? I don’t really care about what it’s supposed to do or its history. While I am a deep researcher, I am more interested in how I have just come to blindly accept its presence. But it’s always been there, offering a reality of unification of the earth and sea, trapped between the everyday and the sublime, the vastness of the ocean and the specificity of modern life. Half fish, half human, smiling calmly, like the indescribable benevolent smile of a buddha. It came in many forms. Green on white, backlit though electricity, remixed in designs in many different ways marking the seasons, cultural identifiers, and of course, shining through plastic saying calmly, everything is fine, there is no problem with waste, there is only you, and coffee.

And now that has passed. I found myself alone, but only for a moment. I have always wanted to leave coffee behind. And this time, I really meant it. Everything has its place in time, and it was just time for me to move on. It was time to listen to my doctors. It’s not like losing a loved one, but it is a feeling of loss. But that was for a small moment. I’ll always love the smell of coffee in the morning, but my plan was to switch to tea. And that’s where I am now.

There is a great tea shop, nestled in the emptiness of West Berkeley, that I went to off and on for years. It was a really cool place. But this time I’m looking closely, I want to really figure out what tea means to me, what it means to our culture, and how I can grow with it. It is from this small shop, that I will explore tea to its furthest extent, and write about on this site.