Parents' Weekend, Part 1. All the tea in China

When I was a visitor to San Francisco, I’d always end up hitting the Tourist Triptych: North Beach, Union Square and Chinatown. I would marvel at how close all these things were to one another, get confused with the labyrinthine streets, drift from one trapping to another. I’d end up walking to the point where I started shopping for new shoes to give my feet some relief, meandering hungry and pained until I finally gave in to a steamed pork bao at any random dim sum place or a scoop of gelato at a corner café. As a resident, I’ve moved beyond that experience of the city. If I want dim sum, I head to clement. If I want Italian, I’ll head to any one of the pasta joints around the city. I’ll drop by Union Square a couple times a month for a shopping trip, but I do it cursing and quickly passing all the tourists eating up the sidewalk and mindlessly ogling at the streetcars.

When my mother and brother came to town for marathon weekend, I hoped that we’d be able to avoid the Triptych. Cumulatively, my family has put in a lot of time to the city, and I didn’t think they’d want to be such tourists in the town. Besides, it was race weekend, and I was supposed to be hydrating, carbo-loading and resting. So climbing the steepest streets in the city in pursuit of a souvenir wasn’t on my list of pre-training good things to do. I wasn’t the happiest camper to hear that after I picked up my race packet, we’d be meeting up in some tea shop in Chinatown.

When I walked in, I still had quite a skeptical look on my face. My mom, cousin and brother seemed really into it. Sucked in by the animated young host behind the counter. He brewed and poured tea after tea, going through his shtick and sure, why fight it, I had him set me up with a cup. Tea was water and I did have to hydrate, after all.

And then it happened. Maybe around the third cup, where I was comparing the subtle tannins of the jasmine tea with the first black tea he poured, or when I discovered I knew a little more about white tea than I thought, I found myself actually having a good time. I was learning, I was tasting, I was laughing. I wanted to find a green tea I really liked, and before I knew it, I was exchanging restaurant recommendations with the guy behind the counter and chatting up the family next to us.

We tasted over a dozen teas, learned how to brew them for flavor, had our friend behind the counter mete out small packages of us to take home and recommend the best teapots, strainers and cups. Before long, each of us had a full set-up to take home and continue the tea-stravaganza any time.

Where usually a tourist experience is spent wandering and observing, and not really understanding, we had the opportunity to dig deep, to drill down into one central aspect of the culture. To take a daily ritual and take it home with us. Instead of postcards and pagodas, we got to have a real, genuine experience. I was surprised, I really was. Sometimes, you don’t know what you’ll wander into when you’re a tourist in your own town.


morgan said...

I had a great time and really enjoyed the tea. A few weeks have passed and I have made the tea at home, just like the tea guy. The process is rather zen and much better then a tea-bag. I have found it fast and easy to make and I like that I do not need to include sugar or milk.

Now do not get me wrong, I am not a coffee drinker, so when I wake up in the morning I go straight to the Earl Grey with milk and Splenda...and nothing can compare....old habits die hard.

So next time you are at my house ask and I will brew you a cup of lovely tea!!!!

lavendersoda said...

Note: this writer does not condone the use of Splenda at any time. Unless you have diabetes. Which my brother doesn't have. Sigh.

Nancy said...

I'm so honored that not only was I mentioned, but an image of me appeared too! Every time I enter the kitchen I see the black lacquer tray holding the various tea making items....the tiny white tea cups, the green porceline upturned hand clutching conical tea leaf strainer, the tea brewing pot,the glass jars holding teas with odd names....Brown Rice Green,Yunnan Puerh, Supreme Ginseng Oolong. Seeing this elaborate setup reminds me that memorable family time can happen anywhere,even a couple of hours spent at a tea shop in Chinatown.