We set out this afternoon to visit the Urban Planning Museum. A taxi to the metro and 15 minutes later we were trying to figure out which of the 12 different exits from People’s Square station would get us closest to the museum. Exit number two looked like the best bet, but we couldn’t figure out where it was so we took number six instead. Emerging from the air conditioned station and into daylight and humidity we did the tourist turnabout that screams “where the hell am I”, guessed a direction and started off across the plaza.
A few steps later and we were hailed down in English by a young Chinese couple sitting in the shade. Getting attention as a foreigner is nothing new. Around our apartment we get smiles and a ni hao (hello). Out and about we are often followed with blank, unapologetic stares. Near the metro stations we are often approached to buy watches or other contraband being hawked in the local markets or by street vendors – though such instances less frequent than say Cusco, Peru where one might be trailed across the Plaza de Armas by a half dozen small children imploring you to buy their post cards.
But these two seemed different. For one, their English was much better than the average street vendor who learns the few phrases needed to make a sale, but ask him what time it is and you would be out of luck. They had clearly had many years of English and learned from native speakers. As with many Chinese studying English, they had taken on English names. Yesterday it was James (after LeBron James) and Elephant (I didn’t get a chance to ask about that one). Today it was Cathy and Stephen.
Both were chatty and interested in our activities and background. They claimed to be taking a break from sight seeing but on their way to a see a traditional tea ceremony near the square. That sounded more interesting to me than the museum so I was quick to accept their invitation to join them.
Cathy took Stacy under her sun umbrella exhorting us for not having one of our own to keep Stacy's skin white and beautiful. Stephen seemed to know more about NBA basketball than me. He knew all of Houston Rocket players (Yao Ming's teammates) and how Kobe will likely be traded from the Lakers. Supposedly in China, LeBron James is called the little emperor because he is small but powerful.
Shortly we arrived at the tea ceremony...or... restaurant. Like most Chinese restaurants there were a gaggle of servers near the entrance, but few patrons. We were guided to a small room with six chairs around three sides of a table. Stacy and I sat across from the hostess serving the tea. Cathy and Stephen sat on the end and translated for us. Six different teas were lined up in front of us in small glass jars. We sampled the first four.
The first was a ginseng tea. The dry tea leaves were wonderfully fragrant. The hostess brewed a small batch, filled five tiny cups – not much taller or wider than a quarter – and proceeded to empty the cups over a small frog like statue on the tray. The first batch of every tea sample was sacrificed to the tea god for luck. Upon closer inspection the tea god was not a frog but a three legged beast – two in the front and one protruding from the back like a tail – with a coin in its mouth and two rows of coins on its back. The second round was for us. Each of us had a small wooden tray on the table in front of us. Once the tea was poured the hostess used tongs to place a cup on each of our trays.
Together the five of us savored our first cup. We were given specific instructions on how to hold the cup. Thumb and index finger grip the cup, and the middle finger supports the bottom of the cup. Women straighten their ring finger and pinky in a display of elegance. Men clinch the same fingers in a partial fist as a show of strength. The tea is first smelled, like a glass of wine and then consumed in three sips.
The ginseng tea had a smooth full flavor with a subtle sweet aftertaste that lingered beneath the sides of my tongue. We were given a second cup before moving on to tea number two.
This time the tea was served with two cups. One similar to the first round and the other a taller and narrower version. The teas was first poured into the tall cup with the shorter cup placed on top. The hostess indicated that one represented heaven and the other earth. She turned heaven and earth upside down a few times and then placed the tea in front of us with the tall cup upside down in the short cup. We were then instructed to hold the empty tall cup up to our eyes and roll it along out temple. The tea warmed cup, among other things, is supposed to help alleviate wrinkles around the eyes.
The second tea, jasmine, had a more delicate flavor than the ginseng, but was equally delightful.
The third round was served in clear cups to showcase the rich color of a fruit infused tea. I did not catch the nature of the tea leaves used, but it appeared that there were small chunks of fruit amongst the leaves. No need to add sugar to this tea – it is a treat by itself.
Finally the hostess served us green tea. I must admit, green tea has never been my favorite. Once again, I was pleasantly surprised. While there was still the subtle bitterness that is distinctive of green teas, that aspect did not linger beyond the swallow. The gentle flavor made me look forward to the second cup and gave me new faith in the merit of green teas.
Not surprisingly, the tasting ceremony ended with an offer to purchase more the teas we had sampled. Stacy and I came away with two canisters, as did Cathy and Stephen. The bill was not pretty, but the experience felt the most authentically Chinese of any of my adventures so far.
Cathy and Stephen walked us back to People’s Square. They had been to the Urban Planning Museum earlier in the day and were not interested in a return trip. We swapped email addresses and I snapped a picture. Then we went our separate ways.