A Teahouse For The Times

The song of summer’s cicadas reverberates from the tree outside my window as I find my seat in the sunlit tea room. Adjacent trees cast shadows across the ceiling, lapping leaf patterns back and forth. On my table stands a white porcelain gaiwan. Traditionally, the gaiwan is called “San Cai Wan” (Chinese: 三才碗 , translated: Three Talent Bowl) or “San Cai Bei” (Chinese: 三才杯 , translated: Three Talent Cup. It holds importance through the symbolic imagery of the Earth (saucer or foot), the People (bowl), and the Sky (lid) Between the earth and sky lies the people, the leaves; transforming, revealing truths, and developing under elemental variables. The best brew is a result of listening, honoring the life held within, and protecting its right to flourish and be.

Nearby the kettle murmurs, rolls into a boil, and fades into the background as I set tea leaves out onto a thin bamboo tray. The leaves are thinly shaped and have a faded antique wood quality to them. With silver buds and sea-green spots, the fine hairs on the tea leaves make them soft to the touch.

As the water finishes boiling, I take the lid off the bowl and pour, warming the gaiwan, energy radiating through the porcelain. Emptying it soon in the cup I would drink from, the transferred heat feels invigorating, and I place the dry tea leaves in the warm bowl. Aromas of white grapes, cornbread, and hot summer rain fill the room. I open my laptop, readying a Zoom call as I pour fresh hot water into the gaiwan full of leaves, swiftly expelling the liquid out after 5 seconds. The tea leaves are rinsed, awakened from their long slumber, as aromas of freshly sliced grapefruit and hot leather shoot into my nostrils and my memories.

As I once more pour hot water from the kettle and deliver the first infusion into my teacup, I have a moment to see the Tuscany yellow tea liquor before my friends join the Zoom call to begin a brainstorming session regarding the tea community. One by one Rie Tulali, Jessica Hernandez, and Jin Galvez appeared on screen.

We had all agreed that the act of preparing tea provides moments of escapism and meditation for many people. In the heat of summer’s protests and the fight for freedom, liberation, and justice for Black communities, we felt it impossible to idly stand by. And from our own fears and observations, witnessed many people retreat from uncomfortable yet necessary discussion topics. From understanding systemic racism and broadening a critical eye to all facets of society, to examining our own biases, we wanted to explore this through tea. Social media easily features and amplifies the culture of zen and light-hearted tea thoughts that make tea so comforting. Furthermore, tea groups online actively expressed disdain for discussing the honest truths, realities, and histories tea was a part of. We felt we could utilize tea to connect outside tea’s echo chambers and engage in greater discourse. One way to do so was to take from the tea houses of the past.

Tea drinking was a sophisticated ritual as early as the 2nd century BCE, observed by Chinese emperors and nobles. The tradition spread to the masses in the 9th century following the seminal monograph of the writer Lu Yu, The Classic of Tea, with small teahouses, chaliao, emerging throughout China. During the Song Dynasty (960–1279), the teahouse became an omnipresent feature of the community, a place where residents gathered to socialize, play games, and enjoy the entertainment on hand.

Fast-forwarding to the 20th century, old class divisions steadily dissolved as society became more egalitarian. Teahouses provided a theater for stimulating conversations, ranging from national issues to more local concerns, such as tax policy and government affairs. It was this capacity for teahouses to serve as centers of political discourse that later contributed to their forced closing during China’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76). Chairman Mao’s Red Guards condemned the tea-sipping community as both “vain” and “heretical”. The Teahouse would only emerge as a welcoming space for constructive dialogue after Mao’s death in 1976.

So when it came to agreeing on a name, with this knowledge in mind, I suggested Activist Teahouse. “Activist” provides a poignant signal that action is at the root of our work, and the use of “Teahouse” allows us to engage in its history through the prism of today’s social media. We commit to fostering an open-door space for stimulating and relevant conversations within and amongst local and international communities. This includes raising awareness for producers that face unjust economic terms, exploring tea’s present and historical ties to colonization, and providing vendors with solutions to how they represent tea. 

After agreeing on a name, we began to explore how to determine and organize initiatives to cover. We sought to create our pillars of activism general enough to remain inclusive and be flexible as to focus our efforts in real-time. Whether it was a crisis in Belarus or relevant news regarding tea plantations in Assam, India, we wanted the ability to adapt. We settled on our pillars: Social Responsibility, Environmental Awareness, Economic Equity, Community Calls-to-Action, and Tea Around the Globe. With these in place, we looked to other communities and resources for ideas. 

Per Jin’s recommendation, we turned our attention to the open-source project Justice In June by Bryanna Wallace and Autumn Gupta. The site aims to provide a starting place for individuals striving to become better and more active allies for the Black community. They provide resources, including podcasts, documentaries, and reading material to foster self-education and action. Also, they present time frames so anyone could invest in the material from as little as 10 minutes a day to 45 minutes.

We took the month of June to follow along with the site and held each other accountable through text messages and in our weekly Zoom sessions. If we could commit to this at even 10 minutes a day, we realized we could create something similar for the tea community. We stuck to it and found this format to provide consistent engagement and community.

Taking inspiration from the coffee community this year and their regional chapter meetings, we opted to host “town-halls” once a month, centered around a topic relevant to the tea community and beyond. Participants arrive with prior knowledge of the meeting’s agenda and theme after opting into our email list. Here, we can provide teahouse updates, ask for feedback, and discuss the month’s theme in greater detail and scope.  

Upon launching Activist Teahouse in September, we focused on Colonization and Decolonization. We hosted a live session on Instagram with special guest Mona Jhunjhnuwala, Founder Teawala. Here we explored her relationship to and experience of living through the 2019 and 2020 protests in Hong Kong as an Indian Hong Konger. We also hosted psychotherapist and first-generation Filipnx migrant, Gabes Torres, to discuss post-colonialism. In September’s town hall, we continued the discourse on tea’s history and how its current education connects to colonialism with recommendations on how to challenge the status quo. 

The month of activities sparked interest within the tea community, as we continued to shape our resource library and member list through our website. We continued with October’s theme, voting, and spent the month leading wellness activities virtually and safely in person in Autumn Fest, held by SteepingFilms. In November we spoke on Activism and Tea at the 2020 International Virtual Tea Festival. 

This being stated, we do not pretend to have all the answers. We learn just as much as we can with the community, from the community.

It was inspiring to see that not only was the content in social media feeds changing, but people showed up to discussions and invested in their learning. Many in the tea community felt gratitude for a space to discuss and explore such topics, and we were honored to grow closer through that. One individual from Indonesia participated in our town hall, despite the fact it was 2:00 a.m. for them. It is through Activist Teahouse and connecting outward that I find my definition of a “community” shift. Tea became less of the conversation and more the vehicle in which connection could flourish.

As a new year begins, I reflect on a community that has welcomed the mission of Activist Teahouse. Many within tea want to get involved and host their own reading clubs, meet-ups, and lead discussions that matter most to them, through affiliation with the teahouse. A sense of support and comradery fill me with hope, and those that share the intentions for change feel nearby.   

Tea is many things to many people. Whether it is experienced as a beverage to drink, or tasted in reverence, it continues to hold space for us. To me, tea is the space between the sips. It is the connection we share and the stories and truths we reveal through our community. 

If you’d like to get involved or view a few recommended resources that inform our actions, consider visiting us at activist-teahouse.com and by viewing: 

  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
  • Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
  • The True History of Tea by Mair, Victor H., and Erling Hoh

    *Originally published in the Winter 2021 release of Comfort Hive Magazine

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