The Tea Market

11 Jan

The Chinese have been boiling the leaves of the camellia sinensis for thousands of years. It’s understandable that they’ve figured out the tastiest variations by now. Personally, I love tea. It is so much more than “hot leaf juice”. A nice Earl Gray with milk and sugar? A green tea so sweet you don’t need any sugar? Yes please. You’d never imagine I spent three summers working at a tea shop.

this is basically exactly what I did at You, Me and Tea.

The tea situation in China is a little different. Yes, you have individual shops here and there, hawking tea and various accoutrements, but the majority of the sellers in Chengdu are located in a small neighborhood north of the train station. To get there, you can either take the no. 55 bus or the subway. Chengdu’s fledgling subway (only one north-south line is currently open) costs more than the bus, but the ride is much smoother. We took the subway, if only because driving in Chengdu is insanity in practice and kind of terrifying, in that “whaddya mean, road test? Rules? There are rules to driving??” *swerves into oncoming traffic*.

I went with Ann and two other kids from UW. (Go Huskies!) The subway dropped us off at the train station, which is a total shitshow these days due to the looming Spring Festival. (Chinese people go home for the Lunar New Year. This means public transportation is mobbed with millions of people who each want a ticket on that last train home and are willing to trample someone to get it.) We fought our way past the train station and headed off into the decaying industrialish neighborhood. Ann’s sense of direction did not fail us, so after fifteen minutes of walking, we made it to the small tea market.

a typical tea store

We spent a couple of hours wandering around, going from one favored shop to the next. We spent a lot of time at two place, just drinking tea and making small talk about the quality of the leaves and aromas and whatnot, which is customary, before actually purchasing anything. I went with a sweet osmanthius green tea, which is a flower that the Chinese have been cultivating forever. It tastes delicious. Next door, I looked at various dried flowers and whatnot, before asking for 20 kuai worth of what appeared to be chamomile. (You pay by the weight.) I should have remembered that chamomile is light.

Assorted interesting things: my purchases

You pour the discarded tea out onto these things. It’s lucky to keep the penny in the frog’s mouth.
(Other places had the ever-so-classy peeing-baby. Think “Pissing Calvin”. Potty humor is universal, I suppose.)

This is a far cry from the storage facilities at You, Me, and Tea.

Tea is a fundamental part of life here in Chengdu. In ancient times, the water here was unsafe to drink unless boiled. So, tea drinking was widely adopted by pretty much everyone who didn’t want to die of dysentary. (I don’t actually know if it was dysentary back then, but you get the point.) Even today, hot water for tea is seen as a basic right and not a privilege.


4 Responses to “The Tea Market”

  1. shardsofchina January 11, 2012 at 9:40 pm #

    Great post, I don’t like tea that much but there’s no doubt that it’s key to understanding China in the same way that coffee is key to understanding the West.

    • Jane January 11, 2012 at 10:06 pm #

      Thanks! Tea’s super important in a lot of places actually; the UK’s almost on par with China for being tea-obsessed. I mean, the Opium Wars were all about the trade deficit Britain ran up in China trying to buy their tea. The only way they could even the import-export imbalance was by getting a bunch of Chinese people addicted to opium, which was produced in the British Empire. #historynerd

      Anyways, I’m glad you liked it. If you don’t mind me asking, how the hell do you survive in China if you don’t like tea? I mean, good coffee is practically worth its’ weight in gold over here.

  2. cathi January 11, 2012 at 10:43 pm #

    Seems like I remember the drinking of a lot of ale (beer:) for that very same reason ( water was unsanitary). But of course, most of my knowledge comes from reading Shogun and Taipan and other such writers. Nice to hear about it from a different perspective:) Thanks Jane E.

  3. Karen January 12, 2012 at 1:08 am #

    Your visit to the tea shops sounds wonderful. You know I’m a plebeian when it comes to tea. I’m mostly satisfied with basic black tea with a little mild and sugar. It comes from my Russian grandfather. I have broadened my scope a bit since your stints in the tea shop. I now buy several Stash teas and a lovely green Japanese tea at Costco. I’m glad you’re having some fun.
    Take care,

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