catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 12 :: 2012.06.08 — 2012.06.21


An autobiography, with tea

I’m about five years old. We’re in the formal living room of the house we lived in then. No brothers are in evidence. Just my mom and I sit across from one another at some sort of table with fancy tea things on it. The sun streams through the sheer curtains on the tall windows. My mom dilutes my tea to a light beige color with milk and a lot of sugar. I know this is because I’m a kid — hers is served black, which in this case means an amber color, since my mom doesn’t like strong tea. The tea is whatever they were selling on the grocery shelves then in small-town Iowa — likely Lipton — but for me, this is a rare, grown-up treat, something that leaves a bitterness on my palate, even with the milk and sugar, but a sign of time alone with my mom engaging in seemingly feminine rituals. These rituals signify elegance and royalty as well as adulthood.

I’m about ten years old. My grandparents and my mom and I are gathering around the kitchen table in their retirement house in Michigan for afternoon teatime. My grandparents, retired Dutch-American farmers who worked the land in Minnesota, have laden the table with bread and butter and jam and some sweets along with the tea. I eat the bread and butter and jam and sweets, ignoring the tea, which has lost some of its allure for me now that I’m so much more grown up — my age is double digits, after all.

I’m 21 years old. The other American students and I are milling awkwardly around the margins of the regular afternoon teatime at the Anglican seminary in North London at which we are spending four months of a semester-abroad program. Having been warned to try not to cluster among ourselves so as to seem clique-ish, we forgo the comfort of our own classmates, trying instead to strike up conversations with these reserved seminarians with the British accents. This task is made more difficult by the fact that they’re trying so hard not to laugh at us for trying to sip the strong tea black or only with sugar — no milk — and we’re trying so hard not to choke on our cups of thick, dark brown tea, which we later discover has been brewing for twenty minutes since the seminary’s kitchen staff doesn’t remove the teabags from the serviceable metal pots. We learn that milk in tea is a survival measure in this environment and quickly pick up the practice.

I’m in my middle 20s, in my apartment’s long, straight kitchen in Michigan. In the process of quitting soda for healthier caffeinated beverages, I’ve been experimenting with tea again, both in my office cubicle and here at home. Today I discover the Anglican seminary’s tea brand by accident. Having plucked this strange brand with the pyramid-style bag off the international store’s shelves on a whim, I leave it to brew in the recently-purchased teapot too long and instantly recognize the taste from my semester abroad and nostalgia kicks in. I start brewing PG Tips to replace my morning Diet Dr. Pepper, though I don’t let it stew for twenty minutes as the seminary did, and therefore I don’t add milk. I’m not my mother either, though, and so I take sugar with it rather than taking it black.

It’s a few years later and I’m working on an MA in English in the country to the north.  I’m in a large box store in western Canada, shopping for the first time with the man who will later become my husband. We’re in the beverage aisle in front of the array of teas. I’m reading through the increasingly wine-sounding descriptions on the boxes with fascination, trying to decide whether to buy something more like “a robust Earl Grey with subtle citrus notes” or “a darker, more full-bodied cup with a fragrance reminiscent of Muscat.” Meanwhile, my new boyfriend, a Kenyan native who I later find out grew up on a tea farm, zones in on the large red Twinings English Breakfast box and plucks it off the shelf. “It’s the only one that says it has leaves from Kenya on the box,” he explains. “By drinking it, I support my home and my people.”

It’s a few years later, shortly after my Kenyan and I married. I’m in my kitchen in Indiana. I remove the red Twinings box from the cupboard and peer, almost for the first time it seems, through the semi-opaque teabag at the dark leaves inside. Since my new husband’s gone from home, I’m about to brew it in my personal fusion of Kenyan and American ways: steeping the tea bag in a pot, then pouring it over warm frothed milk infused with sugar in the cup. Through the nearly-white lining that surrounds the tea leaves, I imagine I can see the Google Earth image of the red earth in the village where my husband was raised. I see the images we looked up on the Internet of tea farms in his family’s region. I see the indented scars on my husband’s dark legs — mischances, he said, during a hard but enjoyable childhood of picking tea early in the morning on the family farm. I also envision some of the political conditions that make things harder for the small-scale farms like my in-laws’ than for the larger British-run Twinings plantation just down the road. I’m tempted for a moment to tear open the bag to see the leaves better, but instead I dive the bag into the pot and pour hot water over it before heating the milk in the microwave.

It’s a year later. I’ve been reading all about tea and the tea industry when I get a chance, and buying a variety of teas in an effort to taste the varietal differences I’ve read about. I’ve grown tired of looking through grocery shelves and online ordering without seeing provenance (where the tea comes from) on packages boasting “excellent blends,” even from fancy loose leaf tea distributors, who only seem to care about mentioning areas in China, India and Sri Lanka, dissing Africa unless it’s South African red tea. So I’ve finally splurged on Amazon, buying two Kenyan varieties from the same tea-growing area of Kenya as my husband’s farm. My husband points to the box holding the tea variety I like less, the one that had the leaves broken down into smaller bits. “That’s the one the ordinary Kenyans drink.” Then he brews a saucepan of the other kind, the Kenyan way, with the bigger loose leaf floating in a mixture of half milk, half water. He simmers it for about ten minutes and takes a taste. His face lights up. “I recognize this tea.” This is apparently the kind sold to white people at fancy hotels in Kenya, although it’s also available from the factories, he thinks.

It’s another year later. My husband’s just returned from a trip to Kenya and is brewing me a saucepan containing milk, Brita-filtered water, and my first true taste of his farm — or, at least, loose leaf from the factory nearest his farm, which ensures that some of his family’s leaves have made it into the blend. “It’s the same as the rest of the usual everyday Kenyan tea, anyway,” he says as he delivers the cup to me, but I can already tell it’s different psychologically, if nothing else. I drink the dark-beige, raw-sugar-sweetened liquid slowly, enjoying the aroma and taste of the infused plant that has so permeated my husband’s early life, and continues to pervade his family’s life. As it wends its way down to warm my belly, it becomes a part of me, this tea, gradually transforming me as surely as my relationship with this now-familiar Kenyan native has transformed my relationship to these leaves and their resulting infusion.

It’s a great mystery, how these leaves I once saw as both fancy and bitter have come to mean something so down-to-earth as my in-laws’ business to me, as well as something so much larger as a yearning for social justice in trade practices and a desire to raise awareness of the people behind the leaves. But then it’s no greater of a mystery than how God created liquids to absorb into my system or how he created husband and wife to become one while remaining two. We will continue to infuse one another and to learn from each other’s perspectives over the years. I’m thankful that God has provided me a rich, complex, malty Kenyan blend to mix with my European-American one, and that he’s given me the grace through my relationship with my husband to see, not just inside the tea bag, but beyond the leaves to the rain that waters them and the hands that pick them and the heads that bear the burden of carrying them to the factory. Most of all, I’m thankful for the infusion of my husband into my life. Without him, I would have missed out on so many riches, not the least of which is the ability to see further into this world behind the tea bag.

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