In Japan, my official title was Import Manager, but more often than not I was called the Office Lady or the Office Flower (there for decoration alone, not having any substance). I worked at a small import/export company that bought interior decorations and architectural supplies from the U.S. and Europe and sold them to boutiques and restaurants in Japan. It was a great company to work for, and a wonderful experience for someone just out of college, but I definitely had a lot to learn about cultural differences. While my male co-workers could stroll in every day at the normal start time, the female employees of my company came in early. We had to clean the office, vacuum, and, most importantly, make tea.
In Japan tea is more than just a drink, just like rice is more than just a food. Both have religious and cultural significances that can easily be lost on foreigners. I quickly learned I knew nothing about tea or tea preparation. I tried, but soon noticed that every time it was my turn to prepare and serve it, everyone would ask for coffee instead. It became a standard joke in my office, and the harder I tried, the worse it became. After a lot of practice, and the patient tutelage of our accountant, Mrs. Ando, I was able produce something my co-workers would accept. Maybe they didn’t actually enjoy it, but at least they attempted to drink it.
The tea I made those mornings was a loose-leaf ocha, the standard Japanese green tea that is the staple of their tea drinking culture. I was already familiar with kocha, the black European style tea. Most of this was served the way I’d seen tea served in the U.S., seeped in cup using bags. Later I learned to appreciate mugicha, or wheat tea. I drank this while hiking in the mountains, between the villages of Tsumagu and Magume. Our meal there of cold noodles served in an icy broth was perfect on a hot summer day, and the pale brown mugicha was the ideal accompaniment. Each was a sort of acquired taste, something that my palette first rebelled at and later learned to enjoy. The final tea, however, was the most complex and interesting, the most difficult to make, and the most exotic. Macha.
Macha is made from a green powder and used in tea ceremony. I learned to sit in seiza for unbearably long periods of time, and follow the complicated and beautiful ritual that is Japanese tea ceremony. Rinsing the delicate cups with warm water, frothing the tea with a bamboo whisk, and serving it with a bow.
Macha became a bit of an obsession. I learned to love the bitter bite of the drink, especially if it was served with small sweets made of bean paste called omangu. I discovered other things made with macha, including ice cream, which was the perfect treat on a hot summer day in Japan. There was a delicate complexity to macha that intrigued me. Something I’d never experienced before or since.
I understood tea, but I was a failure at other aspects of Japanese culture, including ikebana. My teacher, Mrs. Hana (which, ironically enough, means “flower”) knew I tried to capture the beauty of traditional Japanese flower arranging, but I couldn’t.
“Wende-san,” she would say. “Everything you make looks like a bush. A shrub. Try to see the nature in the flowers. Try to make it less artificial. Try to make it….better.”
I couldn’t. I was the official bush maker of my ikebana class. Whenever Mrs. Hana would look at my work, she’d make a little clucking sound and fix it for me herself. I guess I should have expected it. The same thing happened with every single thing I tried to sew in my high school Home Economics class. I was dyslexic at reading patterns and seeing patterns, or maybe I was just clueless. I’m not sure which one.
I tried Japanese calligraphy, too. Once. My home stay dad came from a family of Buddhist monks. He was an artist, and one of his brothers invited me to his temple for a day so that I could learn some basic calligraphy. I think I gave him a migraine. I know I made a Buddhist monk lose his inner Zen, which was not an easy thing to do. Those dudes are known for their patience. He gave up after about an hour and suggested we drink tea instead. That was fine with me. It took me a week to get the ink stains off my fingers. I don’t think he ever offered to teach a foreigner how to do calligraphy again. He may have even taken a vow.
I met my Turkish husband while I lived in Japan. After three years, we moved to Istanbul, and there I discovered the wonders of Turkish tea. Grown on the shores of the Black Sea, this tea is made using two teapots. The smaller pot on top holds the tea. The bottom pot is hot water. This allows the tea to be served to individual taste, as dark or as light as desired, and in small, delicate glasses. The whole world knows about Turkish coffee, but it’s the tea that is the daily constant in their culture. A pot of tea always seems to be boiling in every house.
When I worked in Turkey, I did not have to come in early to make tea. Our company had a tea man, who brought tea around in a cart. Usually served with cubes of sugar, some people preferred to put the sugar between their teeth and sip the tea through the sugar. After several near death experiences trying to pick up the hot glasses, I learned to lift it by the very top and sip it slowly. Honestly, I gave up on drinking it at the temperature most Turks enjoy. I don’t really have the hand-eye coordination necessary for it. I let it cool (although I have heard my husband teasingly call me “uncivilized” under his breath for doing this). Being uncivilized seems better than having third degree burns on my tongue.
My husband did an internship in England many years ago, and during that time he acquired an adopted family, a lovely couple named Ken and Jean. We visited them in Yorkshire shortly after we were married, and it was the first time I craved sugar and milk in my tea. There is something about being in the green, cool, rolling hills of Yorkshire that demands sweet, hot tea for breakfast. My favorite memories of England seem to involve teashops. The tea was fabulous, but it may have been the other things that made it memorable, too. Scones served with jam and fresh cream. Toasted teacake. Biscuits (aka cookies) in every shape and size.
We drank tea in outdoor cafés in York, on the Royal Mile in Scotland, and in hillside shops in Whitby. Some of the buildings were ultra modern and new. Others were ancient, with uneven floors and oddly shaped stone walls. Each place was unique. Each was an experience.
When Ken and Jean came to visit us in the States, however, I tried to make them tea. I even bought their favorite Yorkshire Black tea and had it waiting for them when they arrived. They just smiled, shook their heads and said (ever so kindly), “Coffee, please.”