(#12 in the Annie series)
Guangzhou was at the center of the massive tea trade that existed between China and Europe during the 19th century.
The thing about adoption in China is that you end up waiting. For days. After her medical appointment and initial paperwork in Guangzhou, Annie and her entourage had to wait for three days for their interview at the U.S. Consulate and, assuming all went well, to obtain Annie’s U.S. visa.
In the meantime, we took twice-daily walks around the Tianhe distric near our hotel, getting out to see what we could see. Nikki wanted to make sure I got to do some “fun stuff” in China, too, and, knowing how much I love tea, she took me to a tea shop on a side street not far from our hotel. “This city is all about tea,” she said, and later, when I looked it up, she was, of course, right. The largest wholesale tea market in the world with more than 1,000 tea vendors (some report 3,000 vendors) is in the Fang Cun district of Guangzhou. We didn’t make it there, but the tea shop Nikki knew provided a sweet experience.
Tea was the main economic reason the British commandeered the province they called Canton beginning in the 1700s. (They had to rename it? They couldn’t pronounce Guangdong, the province’s actual name?) There was a huge warehouse district in Guangzhou that for centuries was known for its tumultuous tea trading that resulted in nefarious dealings with shady characters. The phrase “all the tea in China” certainly applies here, though tea is grown in many parts of China. And, according to one book on tea, the Brits introduced tea production as well as consumption to India to compete with the Chinese monopoly. It’s been big business for centuries.
The tea shop where we sampled a half dozen different blends turned out to be owned by a young woman and her husband, who had their little three-year-old boy in the shop. “Shop” is a generous term, though it’s tidy and friendly—it’s one smallish room with three walls lined with shelves on which there are some nice ceramic teapots and cups. There’s a longish table set up with three small stools in front, which is where you sit to sample tea brewed and poured into tiny cups by the tea lady. If you like what you taste, you can buy some, but that’s not required.
The tea lady speaks some English, which was nice, though she and Nikki spoke quite a bit in Chinese, too. When she beckoned us to sit opposite her at the low table, she presented a list of a dozen different kinds of tea, from which we could choose and sample.
We started with tie guan yin, one of the great classes of tea, which is known, according to the list, “for its cancer preventative and intelligence stimulating properties.” It’s a very mild tea, very pale at first. I learned that Chinese tea is properly prepared by pouring more water over the tea, which darkens with each pour. The tea lady also used a specific pot for a specific tea and began the procedure by pouring hot water over the pot, which apparently, if I correctly understood the tea lady’s pantomime, makes the pot smooth and lovely over time. She used very little tea to scoop into the pot and strained it with a ceramic strainer before pouring it into a clear glass container. The colors of the different teas ranged from flaxen to the color of a coconut husk. One was the palest green. From there, she poured it into our cups and hers.
All the tea was wonderful and, like noodles and dumplings, has set a new standard for those things for me. We tried da hung pao, also an oolong, which is supposed be an anti cancer tea, help with reduction of cholesterol and blood fat, memory enhancement and lowering blood pressure. Nikki says oolong tea works so well for removing bacteria and oil that she’s used it in place of dish soap. She also says that you never know which of these attributes might be true and which are hooey. But I don’t care. I love this tea.
Especially the pu’er (or pu-erh) tea, which is a variety of aged and fermented dark tea from the province of Yunnan that gets darker with each pour but has no caffeine, and is, according to the sheet (and I’m quoting exactly as it was written in English):
- modest nature, warming stomach
- conducive to lose weight, nourish and beautify the face
- serving as an aid to sleeping
But my favorite was the delicate rose tea, which I’ve had before, which stays very pale, getting a bit more green with each pour but doesn’t take on a rose color. In fact, the tea lady said, if it does get pink, it’s been artificially colored. You can see the benefits of rose tea in the photo above.
Also we learned that, ideally, rose tea, green tea and tie guan yin are best kept in the fridge; pu’er, white and English teas can be kept at room temperature.
Nikki loves white tea, and so do I, and we learned that the most expensive white tea has only the newest, whitest leaves. Other white teas are blends of white teas have green leaves in it, too. White tea is of “benefit for the stomach, dispelling damp, abating fever, brining down a deficiency fire and eliminating pathogens. Colder and young people are strongly recommended to have a regular drinking of pekoe tea to protect the eyes and strengthen the body.”
I bought a pretty big bag of white tea, which we will share, and Nikki bought a small plastic container of chrysanthemum tea (which turns a lovely yellow using only one blossom) and is good for dispelling wind and stimulating saliva and reducing thirst. That last one amused Nikki. “Well, yeah,” she said, “you’re drinking it.” My favorite note about the chrysanthemum tea says, “Computer fanatics are recommended to have a regular drinking of green tea and chrysanthemum tea.” I have no idea why.
I also bought three lovely ceramic tea containers. In all, I spent 800RMB, which surprised Nikki when I told her (she’d gone down the street to get us lunch to take back to the room). That’s about $119, not inexpensive, but lovely tea from a kind tea lady who asked polite questions about Annie and told me about their 6-year-old daughter, who was at school that day. Summer vacation is about to start—it’s two months long here—and I imagine she’ll have both kids with her in the shop, their daughter and their energetic boy who wants to ride his scooter, and whose father played with him as we sampled tea.
The word for “family” is ohana in Hawaiian, and that feeling of ohana is very present in China. The sense of family (which typically includes friends, too) feels very Chinese to me—indeed, is universal—and it’s been lovely to see parents who clearly cherish their children, like the Tea Lady and her husband, who are no longer limited by law to having only one. We have felt that everywhere there we’ve encountered children, including the orphanages. “Family means not being left behind or forgotten,” as they say in the movie “Lilo and Stitch” (also set in Hawaii). I was happy to help support a young family obviously working hard to earn their living.
And I’m going home with not all, but some of the tea in China, which will remind me of this place every time I sip it with my ohana in my very far away home in California.