Gender & Identity, Life

Brewing tea connected me back to my roots

My relationship to tea is beautiful but complicated.

Tea time is a ritual for me. Boiling the kettle, spooning tea leaves into a strainer and watching them unfurl in the water is soothing. Maybe it’s because I worked for several years in an Asian-inspired tea house that beckoned people in from the busy road with its warm exterior, the comfortable seats along a low wooden bar, the booths that circled a heavy stone table, and the canisters of tea that lined the shelves. It was there that I learned tea is like wine, different seasons influence the taste and each is unique with its own complex flavor, like Russian Caravan, which imbibed smoke from campfires during the journey on the caravan that carried it.  Maybe it’s natural that I began working there, as I have roots in tea. Maybe all of these forces combined to bring me there. I’m a big believer in the idea that everything happens for a reason.

A tea shop with wooden cabinets, bookshelves and bar. Metal tea canisters, jars, and hot water heaters sit on the shelves. On the left is a round stone countertop.
[Image description: A tea shop with wooden cabinets, bookshelves and bar. Metal tea canisters, jars, and hot water heaters sit on the shelves. On the left is a round stone countertop.] Via Nicole Basso
My grandfather was British but lived in Darjeeling, India where he worked as a manager of a tea plantation. It was there that he met my Tibetan grandmother, whose family managed a hotel in the area. In time, my grandparents married and had a child. My mother grew up in India but went to boarding school in England. I’ve since visited Darjeeling and seen the bustling town where my grandmother grew up. It’s a long journey! First, you fly to Kolkata or Mumbai – a journey that can take from 14 to 15 hours – then you fly on a tiny plane to Bagdogra. After that, a car takes you on a two-hour hairpin turn journey, with drivers honking as they swerve around curves to avoid accidents until you arrive at Darjeeling. The first time I ever visited, as we passed the many tea gardens, I stared, slightly disbelieving that tea could come from these low, small bright green bushes.

A field of tea bushes with several people picking their leaves.
[Image description: A field of tea bushes with several people picking their leaves.] Via India Kushner
It was later on during a tea tasting (not unlike a wine tasting) that I learned there are three different flushes of tea which gave tea its value and taste. The tea is then plucked, dried, and roasted before being sold off. Though no one in my family works on tea plantations anymore, my family still runs a hotel in Darjeeling, welcoming locals and tourists alike. India is a whirlwind of culture shock, from the speeding traffic to the cows wandering in the street, and the extreme poverty right in front of you with people living on the side of the road. It’s difficult for me to imagine growing up there, but it feels special to have this bond with a world so different from my own.

Six ceramic cups sit on a counter with the tea leaves sitting on the cups upturned lids. In front are cups of tea and paper signs with their names on them.
[Image description: Six ceramic cups sit on a counter with the tea leaves sitting on the cups upturned lids. In front are cups of tea and paper signs with their names on them.] Via India Kushner
The ritual of creating tea is one that is overlooked amid our craze of coffee in my opinion. I have always enjoyed looseleaf tea, but when this tea house first opened in my small, mundane suburban town, I was delighted to find such a special place that cared so much about tea. It seems only natural now that I would work there, looking back on it. I loved learning the secrets to each tea and discovering the new flavors. During the holidays, each of the employees was allowed to make their own herbal blend. It was like creating your own recipe and I immensely enjoyed this in a way I hadn’t experienced before. I imagine now how satisfying it must be to see a plant plucked and then eventually be able to taste the tea in its final state.

I do often think about British colonialism and its role in India, especially when it came to tea. The British first “discovered” tea growing in Northern India in 1823, but they only began cultivating until 1834. Obviously, tea had already been growing there and it was a large part of India’s culture long before the British encountered it. Like most colonialists, Britain co-opted India’s resources and profited off of it.

During my tea tasting, I visited one tea plantation that was owned by a local, so with this in mind and the fact that India has changed many of its cities and states’ names back to better reflect their linguistics, I like to think that India is taking control over its culture again. However, there is no doubt that the influence of colonialism has left many damaging effects on India’s politics. On the other hand, without colonists, I wouldn’t be here in the first place to tell this story. It’s a complicated narrative that I’m still working through as I learn more about my family history. I look forward to facing uncomfortable truths and embracing new traditions.