Wooden chopsticks and porcelain spoons clink against white bowls and white plates, intermittently cutting through the buzz of the restaurant crowd. I sit in my wooden chair draped in a light gold silk cloth and look down to see my Velcro sneakers dangling, too short to touch the ground. To my right, I see my mother, her dark curly hair swept neatly behind her ears and into a high, short ponytail that bobs as she talks to her friends animatedly in Mandarin. To my left, my more reserved father chuckles quietly as he hides behind his glinting glasses.
I’m already full—happy but full, as I always am after we get dim sum. But my parents aren’t ready to go yet. We come to China every year, but they can never get enough: every friend and relative must be met, every meal must be stretched, and every day must feel painfully long. Looking for a way to entertain myself, I look at the only thing left at my setting at the table. My bowl is empty save a few grains of stubborn rice that my clumsy chopsticks are not equipped to handle, and my plate only carries the bones of the chicken wings I devoured. Then my eyes wander to my little teacup, resting peacefully on the silk tablecloth, hugging that glistening amber liquid. I reach out my hand and envelop the warm porcelain. I lift it to my lips and take a sip—and spit it out. I forgot that this was my grandpa’s specially ordered tea. Special because it’s extra bitter and extra intense. I make a face and put my cup back down on the table, feeling betrayed and as bitter as the tea.
My grandpa never settles for restaurant tea. He brings around his own loose tea leaves and always orders the waiters and waitresses to brew his leaves at a particular temperature for a particular length of time. The rest of my family and I are then forced to suffer through this unpalatable flavor and trying experience as well, with my sister and I often opting out halfway through the meal and switching to drinking water instead. My parents manage to power through the pot, tiny teacup by tiny teacup. I wonder if, as I grow older, I will begin liking my tea stronger and stronger as well.
We walk through the bustling narrow streets, the heels of our boots tip-tapping against the grey cobblestones. It’s cold—cruelly cold.
Then I spot the warm, welcoming glow of the café storefront we have been looking for. I grab my mom’s gloved hand and pull her excitedly towards it. Excited to get out of the cold. Excited to reach our destination. Excited to share my mom’s favorite meal with her: afternoon tea! She loves all the different fruity and floral flavors of tea available as well as the finger sandwiches and miniature pastries that come in a glistening sugary tower platter.
We rush in, and a forceful gust of wind slams the door shut behind us with a final bang. Inside, safe from the creeping chill of the streets, the café is cramped but cozy. Wooden tables and chairs of every color and size clutter the space, and the friendly waitress with daisies in her hair gestures for us to pick whichever we want. It is surprisingly empty, so we have many options. We finally settle for a good-sized round table with tree trunk stumps for chairs. Flipping through the menu, we are overwhelmed by the number of options for types of tea, not to mention actual teas. I never knew there was more than just green or black; there are also red, gold, white, grey, and many more. Maybe this sense of freedom, of endless options and total autonomy over our tea selection this afternoon is what makes my mom love afternoon tea so much.
Providence, Rhode Island
As I walk down Thayer, I pass by a man walking with headphones in, holding a tall white Starbucks cup in one hand, and using his phone in the other. The Starbucks drink looks appealing, but that store is not my destination.
I cross the street and turn the corner to arrive at Kung Fu Tea, my second home. I come here often, usually as a spontaneous activity with my friends, and sometimes to meet a friend—as is the case today. She hasn’t arrived yet, so I sit at my usual black, metal waiting table in the corner and text her to tell her I just arrived.
A couple minutes later, she bursts through the door, and I stand up to greet and hug her. Then we get in line and wait our turn. It’s her first time here, which is always an exciting process for me to watch. As she decides what flavor to try, I already know exactly what I’m going to order: “medium taro milk green tea with bubbles, no sugar, and less ice.” The second time I came to KFT, my friend got that and shared a sip with me, and I have never looked back. The days of original milk tea, of trying new things, of anything other than this exact order are over.
It’s finally our turn, and my order rolls smoothly off my tongue. I’m pretty sure the employees recognize me by this point and already start clicking the corresponding buttons when I step up to the cash register. When it’s my friend’s turn, she is still mulling over all her options and finally goes with honey milk tea. I know I will offer a sip of mine, and I know she will like it better because that’s how much confidence I have in this drink.
When our drinks are ready with their sealed, plastic-wrapped tops, I teach her how to stab the thick black straw in—in one swift motion. As we sip, I wonder why the tapioca pearls are called bubbles since they are not full of air on the inside. I mentally shrug, accepting that it’s just another East Coast eccentricity, and resolve to continue calling it by its Chinese name: boba. Sitting and slurping away, we discuss our days, how finals are going, and how we have been. As the conversation continues, I realize why I come here so often: I love bonding over boba.
In my lifetime, I have had countless interactions involving tea, and I have come to discover a pattern. No matter what country, what time, and what culture, tea in all of its various forms never fails to bring people together. It is one of my favorite pastimes because it forces us to slow down, sit, sip, and talk. Whether I’m suffering through another pot of my grandpa’s especially bitter tea, eating finger sandwiches with my mom at afternoon tea, or sharing some boba tea with my friends, I enjoy tea not only as a beverage but also as a uniting practice. And of course, I look forward to having many more teaventures with many more people in the future.