Friday, January 21, 2011

The Tea Master vs The Tea Disaster

In Melaka we had the privilege of couchsurfing with a Chinese tea master. 'Yee Tea' was his couchsurfing profile name. His current mission: to meet every person in the world. Not wanting to stand in the way of such an ambitious mission, we immediately messaged him to assist in his quest. Free accommodation and the chance of hanging out with a 'master' would just happen to be side benefits. Considering Yee Tea had three-hundred-sixty-five positive references from fellow couchsurfers, it became apparent that Tea was already well on his way to achieving his goal. Yee Tea, fittingly, owns a tea shop on the main street of the old town of UNESCO World Heritage protected area of Melaka. 'Tea talk is free' his profile read. Perfect. We found Tea's shop pretty easily. 'You want a tri-shaw ride?' asked one of the thirty-eight tri-shaw drivers standing proudly beside his contribution to the 'tackiest tri-shaw in the world' competition. Its their thing in Melaka, apparently. They deck out their tri-shaw with fake flowers, flashing Christmas lights, heart-shaped pillows and Happy Meal toys and then tourists find the idea so entertaining that they can't possibly turn down a ride. 'No Thanks, we don't need a ride. Our friend lives right down the street.' 'You have a friend in Melaka?' the driver asked curiously. 'Yes, he owns a tea shop.' Jonathan told him. 'Ohhhhhh,' said the tri-shaw driver, nodding, 'Yes, he has many friends.' I guess you can't host five-hundred couchsurfers without your townsfolk taking note.

Yea Tea's shop was cluttered in a charming sort of way. The walls were lined with shelves that were stock full of ceramic tea pots in various shapes, sizes and colours as well as knick-knacks of the hand carvd variety, large silver canisters full of loose leaf tea and a couple beautiful tables that looked like they were sliced from the middle of a very large, very irregularly shaped tree. Yee Tea was asleep in a chair in the back. His wife jolted him awake when we came in and Tea immediately set about boiling the water for a cup of tea. We sat at one of the tables and Tea poured us fresh, strong, oolong tea from a tiny teapot where the tea steeped into miniature tea cups. Tiny cup after tiny cup of tea we drank, while getting to know each other a tad over 'tea talk.' When we could drink no more, Tea suggested we go explore the old town a bit and come back around 8pm, when he closed the shop. So that's what we did. The old town itself, particularily Chinatown, is a fantastic jumble of narrow streets lined with shops and restaurants offering eyefuls of window-hanging meat, huge bags of meat-crackers, and colourful sarongs and paintings combined with nosefuls of smelly dried fish, barrels of mushrooms and sweet pineapple cookies.

When we arrived back at the shop Tea suggested we head out into Little India for some 'cheap noodle soup.' We weaved our way down the streets and behind an outdoor kitchen to a parking lot full of tables and chairs and a big screen playing an Indian movie via projector. The tables were full of locals slurping down bowls of soup accompanied with large bottles of beer. If a tourist was even able to find this place, ordering would have been an even bigger challenge. Tea said something in Chinese to the lady stirring a massive caldron of boiling oil and then motioned for us to follow him through the maze of tables. Not long after followed two bowls of tasty noodle soup and a couple over-sized 'Tiger' beers. The two bowls of soup cost barely a dollar in total! We could get used to this dining with a local thing. Just as Tea was delving into Malaysia's multi-cultural society which is comprised mainly of the Malay, Chinese and Indian communities he jumped up from the table and returned with a couple of so-fresh-they-were-too-hot-to-touch chinese doughnuts (dough stretched out into long sticks and fried). 'To soak up the bottom of your soup with,' he explained. Chinese doughnuts to soak up our Indian soup. Multiculturalism at it's tastiest.

Tea drove us to his house on the out-skirts of the city. He and his wife live above the shop, but keep this house for couchsurfers, to sublet and for somewhere for their kids to stay when they come to visit. One of the rooms was currently subleted to a retired Dutchman who was rumored to speak English and be very nice. He came storming out of the bedroom when we arrived and jumped onto Yee Tea yelling, 'I KILL YOU' in very clear English. Tea laughed and graciously returned the sentiment, so we assumed this was a common greeting of sorts. These were to be the only words 'Fred' spoke in English that we understood over the next forty-eight hours. Fred, we think, was maybe a little crazy; quirky, at the least. He got very worked up about something and continued on ranting in 'English' for quite some time trying to get his point across. Judging from his hand gestures his anger had something to do with chopsticks. Then, from what we gathered, his dissatisfaction turned to something sushi related and before we knew it Fred had run into the kitchen and grabbed a large, extremely well cared for chef knife to show us how to properly cut air sushi. We think. The knife made me very uncomfortable and I quickly offered to return it to the kitchen for him. Then I hid it underneath all the dish towels at the very bottom of the very furthest drawer: this just in case Fred decided he wanted to demonstrate cutting something else in the middle of the night. When we woke up in the morning with all of our digits in tact we came to the conclusion that maybe Fred really was a nice guy who was just very passionate about chopsticks and sushi. 'What are you doing today, Fred?' I asked him on his way out the door. 'Coffee bean,' was his reply.

We spent some time in Chinatown that day, wandering relatively aimlessly and stopping often for goodies. One of the 'Don't leave Melaka without Trying' items in our Lonely Planet guide was the local drink: cendol. It was supposed to be sweet - so obviously it made it to the top of my list as well. Cendol is a odd combination of shaved ice, coconut milk, green tapioca drops and local liquid palm sugar. I don't know why the tapioca needs to be green- but it is. The tapioca itself, in case you are having trouble picturing it, is like the pearls or bubbles in bubble-tea. So chewy and not super flavourful, but obviously there. The drink came out in a large icecream dish that was piled high with shaved ice and topped with sugar. In my books, anything topped with sugar and containing coconut is a-ok, but it certainly was unlike anything I had tasted before.

We had a personal date with our very own tea master that afternoon to learn the secret behind steeping that perfect mug... or tiny thimble in this case. Yee Tea had trained in China and Malaysia to become a Tea Master. Little did I know, that there is apparently a lot more to drinking tea than plugging in your electric kettle, plopping in a choice tea bag and then piling in a hefty scoop of milk and sugar. There are different tea families, different temperatures to drink the teas at, things to think about and meditate on while preparing the tea, serving the tea, and finally a special way to drink the tea.

It all starts by preparing the table. On a tray, Tea had a variety of objects with which to set the table. A small, thick table cloth, coasters, a tea pot, teacups, loose tea, a bowl for the tea leaves, a holding jar, a scoop... Then there was a certain order in which these items were to be set on the table, and a specifc place for each of them. The whole event seemed like one big photo-op for me. I probably would have payed a bit closer attention had I known we were going to have to mimic all of Tea's movements. 'Your turn!' he declared. I made Jonathan go first and desperately tried to remember everything he did. You know Jonathan. He is so calm and serene and slow... 'Very Good! 95%!' Tee said to Jonathan after he had finished. Jerk. By the time I was through picking up an item, looking at Tea, him shaking his head, me randomly picking another item, plunking it onto the cloth, and then Tea moving it to it's proper place, Tea looked like he really needed, well, a cup of tea. 'Umm. Ok? 75%' he told me, most certainly only to not dash my dreams of becoming the next Tea Master extraordinaire. I'm not even going to get into how perfectly Jonathan poured the tea. Not a drop went a rye. Myself, on the other hand, poured almost the entire pot pretty much everywhere besides into the tea cups while posing for a picture. So, really, the mess was Jonathan' fault, because he should have known better than to distract me while I was pouring. 'Tea Disaster' I was declared. Which is really unfortunate, because I thought I was capable of making quite a tasty 'cuppa' before all this.

In addition to learning about tea, Tea explained a few thought processes that were common among his fellow Tea Masters. One idea that I thought was particularly interesting was that of the 'Eight Senses.' In addition to your five senses, Tea believes that a sixth sense of experience, seventh of thinking and eighth of memory are equally as relevant in how you interpret your everyday life. It seems obvious, when you think about it, that our past experiences would shape how we perceive our new experiences. That our way thinking, which may be significantly different than those around us, would create a framework through which we would interpret what we are experiencing. And that the knowledge we have, both formal and life would have a direct impact on how we live day to day and how we internalize and make sense of new circumstances.

Jonathan and I feel very lucky to be travelling right now. We think and talk a lot about what we see, who we meet and how this experience is shaping our lives and opinions as well as broadening our knowledge. Life is very different here than what we are used to at home in Canada. Often it is a lot to take in. We meet tons of other travellers from all over the world as well as a good number of local people. We love talking to other people about life and travel, exchanging tips and learning from each other's experiences. What is so obviously apparent is that every person is different. It's such an obvious statement that we often don't even think about it. Of course every person is different. Everyone has their own thoughts and opinions and a unique set of experiences and education to use as references. What we hadn't spent as much time thinking about before this trip, however, was how people come to be so different. Again, it's so obvious that we had just taken our differences as fact and moved on.

What we have found important to realize is that every person experiences the events of their life differently because the events are interpreted by each person through a personal set of senses. This is where the extra three senses became interesting to us. We come to Asia and look around. What we see, smell, hear etc is internalized by us through our personal lenses. Our lens takes in all these new things we are seeing, smelling, feeling and filters them through our past experiences and knowledge. Through this process, that we don't even realize is happening, we are able to understand this new experience. Each person is only capable of understanding a new experience through what they already know. It is impossible to use knowledge that we don't have or systems of approaching difference and change that we haven't nurtured (or even discovered yet) to interpret a situation. It is unreasonable and unfair for anyone to expect us, being Western and only having a limited experience in the Asian culture to be able to understand fully what we are experiencing, or even know for sure the way someone will interpret things we do or say. This is partly why we are travelling: to widen, and mature our personal lens and, over time, become able to understand and communicate with clarity, not only our experiences, but how others might be experiencing us. Of coure this doesn't mean that we intentionally go into situations ignorantly. We do our best to read, to talk to other travellers and locals and to learn from how we see the world happening around us. But its impossible to be prepared for every single situation and know how to react perfectly to every person. People are just as varied within a culture or country as the culture is itself from the culture we know. Therefore, the more experiences we have, the more days we spend immersed in this foreign culture, the more capable (we hope) we are of understanding other people's influence on us, and ours on them. Of course we also learn and grow through talking to other travellers, who, if from the west as well, would have experiences and thought processes at least similar to our own, and therefore easier for us to understand. Lessons that can be bundled up and easily delivered to us via other travellers are usually of the easier of lessons, however. Harder to digest cultural differences seem to be more often learned through personal experience. The idea of learning from others, or through fellow travellers' mistakes brings up yet another issue, however. Sometimes what people are saying isn't really getting the point across that they intend to, whether because of a language barrier or just their way of explaining. And then, even if your fellow travellers do manage to successfully communicate their point, it's not necessarily the case that you will interpret the information the way it is intended. Although, I suppose these are general issues with communication and not necessarily specific to travel. Nonetheless, that doesn't lessen the value of the experiences and systems of thought foreign to us either. Nor should it be an avenue deemed to offer no or even limited opportunities for growth and maturation. Quite the contrary, in fact. Still, though, tips, advice, stories and tall tales are internalized through that lens of ours. No matter how open one is to seeing the 'real' world it is impossible to see anything any other way than through what they already know or hold as true. One of the reasons we love travel so much is it's unabashed opportunity to learn. We've said before, and strongly believe that engaging with real life and real experiences are the best way to learn about the people, places and cultures. We have noticed significant changes in ourselves over the last three and a half months. Our experiences and knowledge have widen our horizons considerably and, no doubt, how we are experiencing Thailand today (we are posting this from Thailand) is through an enlarged and not-quite-the-same framework than we would have been able to experience it two months ago. Still, we are new, and, clearly, have a lot to learn.

After our tea ceremony, Yee Tea and his wife invited us to join them in making dinner. Tea and Jonathan set about making a pineapple curry while Tea's wife and I rolled sushi. (Maybe we should have invited Fred to join, considering his obvious passion for cutting sushi and using chop sticks). We had an absolute feast. Tea even plucked his leafy vegetable tree dry and fried the leaves up into the most perfect veggie serving I could imagine. The food was so tasty and it seemed so easy to prepare.. although it probably won't be once we are at home and trying to recreate the perfect combination of flavours. Our conversation outlasted even the last drops of scrumptious curry. We are very grateful to Tea and his wife for hosting us in Melaka. We would have loved to stay longer, but alas, we had to go off to Kuala Lumpar to pick up a Thai visa.


Parentals said...

We look forward to our own 'tea lesson' upon your return. Love all your stories and also your 'insights' with your many new and varied experiences.

karly said...

I agree with mom. I can't wait to try these teas. I would also like to try this pineapple curry sounds delicious. I love the stories. I always get excited when I receive a email or see a blog post! Miss you!
Luv u

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the postcard, Frank and I were so excited to get it!!!

It is front and centre on the fridge!!

miss you <3

Emily said...

heya folks, i've been thinking the same thing about communication - particularly through emails. i can think i'm being clear, but then it may be interpreted as rude - it kind of depends on how the other person interprets it. i'm also starting to believe that there is a canadian identity. i didn't think we were that different, but turns out we really are 'nice' or at least very polite. german friend snaps fingers at waiter, and shouts for our water. i was of course horrified. french waiter brings water and business carries on as normal. i got angry with german, but was told this is just the way it's done. is it rude or just cultural? it was so obviously rude to me at the time, but now i'm beginning to think i was the one out. our server was never gonna bring the water, but then the canadian in me wanted to wait to get eye contact. well i've been to several cafes before and after and forgetting water is a common thing, and i either loose interest trying to get the waiters attention or i'm too polite to ask for it the way the german did.

nancyandduncan said...

We were happy to get your postcard; sounds like a delicious trip so far.
Miss you at Bella.

Bron Simpson said...

Loving your blog, especially this post and your photo of roti and teh tarik- quite jealous! That was my daily breakfast in Malaysia.