On my second morning out, I ventured to the free Shanghai Museum, where participants can gawk at 5000BC bronze wine urns (beer was more prized during that time, and only given to Generals and Emperors…thus, the bigger the beer belly, the more clout you had) and 2000 beautiful carved Buddha relics.
Right away, I was “picked up” by three students in their early 20s, eager to talk to me (and most likely take advantage of my naïveté) and they ended up inviting me to join them for a traditional tea ceremony.
Included in the tea ceremony were priceless lessons: they provided a translation of my name:
They shared that each truly wanted to find a suitable marriage partner, and that arranged marriages were still common, but not successful because they wanted “is your love like that in your movies? That is what I want to feel.” Funny question about “do you have a boyfriend that loves you like Edward?” [Gosh! I had to think that they referred to Twilight, as my pop culture 411 is pretty dismal right now] they talked about their interest only to travel around China, rather than explore the world. Their studies. Their rent.
And then, of course, Chinese numerology 101.
We chose to have 6 teas, as 6 are the number of harmony, balance and wellbeing. The traditional teacup has three components: 1) a base, representing the earth, 2) a lid, representing heaven and 3) a cup, representing the people, which the tea is meant to warm and enlighten.
My teacher explains the history of tea in China…the blending of Buddhism (inner peacefulness) Confucius (inner knowledge) and Taoism (compassion). Having tea is meant to only be savored when you are happy in order to breed more peace and happiness.
Choosing the number 6, meaning harmony, good luck and balance, the tea ceremony began. The woman first poured the tea, from about shoulder length, splashing in the cup, mirroring the moves of a phoenix, gracious eternal strength, warming our cups, and also, as the tea master, ensuring that the tea contained no “poison”. Each tea signifies some health benefit as well:
Tea 1: Ginseng Oolong, for long life and mental clarity…a little bitter and a bit nutty
Tea 2: Jasmine Green: regeneration and “good skin”….slightly sweet and light
Tea 3: First Flower: for digestion…Fruity and tart
Tea 4: Chrysanthemum Flower for breathing and relaxation…. complex and a touch sour
Tea 5: Buddha Tea: for high blood pressure…. my note says “airy” and now, I can’t remember the taste!
Tea 6: “Big” Black Tea: anti-cellular growth (for cancer), woody
Look at those brightly colored dishes. They were 4 different dusted flavors of pumpkin seeds. I LOVED the red ones, but couldn’t find them anywhere after (although I scored some green ones).
As far as taste went, the First Flower spoke to me, which is odd as I am not partial to sweet fruit teas. As for the memory, I eagerly purchased 12 flowers as the moment won me forever. I did feel wondrous and lucky and full in this moment.
I paid the bill. With my tea, it was around $75. Yes, I was startled, but maybe the tea rubbed off on me? I had paid 30 cents for a subway ride, and had a large free breakfast and leftovers for lunch. And I could afford the priceless memory.
The young man gave me two traditional talismans, blue for “your romance man” and red “for energy and luck”. Feeling lonely, the boy placed the blue one on my bag, to protect me throughout the trip. Little jingles throughout the trip reminded me that there were people “back home” that loved me, and that something good protected me.
I must confess, that I was a bit deflated feeling “screwed” over by these new friends a few days later when other Westerners warned, “you shouldn’t have gone with them.” But, now, looking back…it truly was one of the best experiences on the trip.
And yet, that sense, of something appearing “authentic” and “traditional” and yet, somehow modernly false and twisted, then permeated the trip. And it was hard to “relax” and TRUST my surroundings.
Even now, though…. the tea ceremony sticks with me in a positive place, warm and happy and ready for another cup.