Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Chinese Tea Snobs

Last Sunday was one of those very rare sunny days in Chengdu, so I decided to honor my eighth-grade language-arts teacher, who signed my yearbook "carpe diem--that's what comes to mind when I think of you" (or something to that effect) by seizing the day and taking photos.

When the sun's out, Chengdu is actually not a bad place to find interesting images. I've run through two-and-a-half rolls of 36-exposure film in the last few days, which is about as much as I've shot in my previous three years in China combined. Plus I've gotten over a lot of my initial self-consciousness holding up a camera to my face (in hopes of avoiding perpetuating the rich foreign tourist stereotype). The only question now is where I can develop and make prints of black-and-white film properly.

My goal was to get some shots of Tianfu Plaza, the downtown square which was just re-opened this past February after several years' closure. (These aren't my photos; just a representative sample from a random search.) When I moved to Chengdu two years ago, it was a giant dirt pit. That hole has now been replaced by a spectacular above-ground plaza that will be the site of the main subway station, the first line of which will open in a year or two.

Upon finishing, after detouring through the fish and flower market (of which I'd long heard but had never been) as well as a street where most of the houses are still brick and you can look between the rows into alleys where residents have strung their laundry on bamboo poles--to be disappearing shortly, I'm sure, I turned down the main road heading to my apartment. On the corner there's a tea shop where I once purchased some Chinese black tea, which, incidentally, is called red tea in Chinese.

When I bought the tea of course I was invited to have a seat and sample it, and I spent some time chatting with the two employees there. The woman is 24 and from a central/eastern province; the man is older. As they sit in the tea shop all day other than when they run errands, I'm guessing they don't have much to do other than to drink tea. So when I pass by I try to make sure to look in, and if they happen to be gazing out the window I'll wave. This time the girl didn't see me until I was almost already past, and when she realized I was waving at her, she jumped up and beckoned me to come inside a sit for a moment.

As it was a meandering Sunday, I agreed, and she immediately started preparing the tea. It's a fairly elaborate process: First she sets down a tiny tray in front of me; then, from a pot of boiling water fishes out a cup about the size of a single shot glass and sets it on the tray. Next, she pours hot water through a filter into a tiny teapot that's filled with tea leaves. This water is then poured into another tea pot, and finally poured all over the main tea tray, which has a drain in the bottom. She refills the original teapot, repeats the process, and finally my cup is filled, and I can drink this second steeping of the tea. While she goes through this I stare at the paper-wrapped bricks or cakes of tea leaves behind her head, most of which come from Yunnan province (just south of here and also China's largest coffee producer), some of which are discs about 10" in diameter and go for a few hundred RMB.

That day the other employee came back with a new supply of Oolong tea leaves, which were promptly dug into for sampling. This demanded my little tray hold two tiny cups, as we tried three different batches, each one progressively better, from what I could deduce. To me, they all tasted, to varying intensities, like artichoke. My limited knowledge of tea terminology in Chinese precluded me from catching all the details of the discussion, but there was much debate over not only the taste, but also the smell of the tea (which seems crucial), as well as the change in leaves from dry to wet and the change in the color of water over a series of steepings. The boss of the tea shop also stopped by and gave his expert opinion--I guess. At any rate, I drank so much tea I started feeling sick so eventually I excused myself because if I didn't I was going to have to keep on drinking ... .

In other news, I've got exactly 17 days until my visa expires, and no definite plan about what to do about that. Tomorrow afternoon I'll find out if I can avoid having to go to Hong Kong, which would be nice.

And I've recorded a Chinese-learning radio show with a CHENGDOO citylife editorial assistant, Annie. If you care to listen, it's on her blog here. I made one stupid and embarrassing mistake, but the rest is OK I guess.

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