Tea is that wonderful warm drink, the colour of a Caspian sunset, or my mother’s eyes. We sip tea to slow down or often, to start the day. There are many to choose from, and a surge of interest with the growth of cafes, particularly mass chains. While, "tea is drunk to forget the din of the world" poet Tien Yiheng shares, sometimes tea is not as satisfying when it becomes a self-indulgent, overpriced commodity. What do you take with your tea - milk, honey or sugar, appreciation or appropriation?
Coincidently tea doesn’t grow in most countries in the world. There is only one tea farm in Canada. Tea is mainly grown in Asia, Africa, South America, and around the Black and Caspian Seas. The four biggest tea-producing countries are China, India, Sri Lanka and Kenya, according to World Atlas. Farms in North America can be viewed here on an interactive map.
Tea, I’ve learned is another colonized commodity profited by imperialist countries. Historically, while condoning the colonized as different, savage and uncultured, tea formed the basis of a profitable trade so that the elite, namely British, could have a leisurely time drinking something nice – at the expense of laborers. Columbusing is “discovering” and popularizing a pre-existing cultural aspect, and becomes a form of cultural appropriation. The taking and profiting off a cultural practice and turning it into a trend, offers a perfect definition, columbusing essentially undermines the meaning behind the practice.
Tea drinking for many cultures is contemplative and rituals exist from all over the world. Tea can be a gift, an ancestral worship, tasseography (fortune telling of tea leaves), or medicinal. How do we practice tea drinking, if we do, or, if we should? Does that make us appropriators of an ancient art form? Possibly. Does it underscore how capitalistic tea culture has come to be, robbed of its heritage – yes. This also enforces our individualistic nature to be misled by a competitive market where companies profit off Chinese and Japanese teas, for example, and sell them at a premium. Everyone sort of wins, but is culture appreciated more or less because of this?
We benefit from taking what we like about cultures and enjoying them, yet we are not learning new ways about how two different cultures meet. Nor are we analyzing how we internalize and maintain capitalism as the status quo when we distance form from culture. We have not shed ethnocentric evaluations, we have not learned appropriate behaviours of the host culture – this is how tea (and other forms of culture) is made appropriative, and we just ignore it. Some of us don’t, folks have written about contemporary chai appropriation here, and historical tea thieves on NPR.
Take matcha for example, a growing craze, and in major cities around the world, you can find new matcha shops and cafes. Sydney wrote a piece, in Nylon, on matcha’s appropriation. There is also the great candor and acceptance in which a Japanese tea master in Toronto, expressed his thoughts on the popularity of matcha.
I recall a friend sharing a new startup touting a matcha product as individual flavored packets, shots of energy powder, to a specific demographic. The taste was watered down. While I do not know the founders or the story behind why they chose matcha, for me, taking a product to make it appear beneficial under another meaning reminds me of the redundant capitalistic narrative we have become accepting of. One that we have to acknowledge is not cultural appreciation. However, that is not to say that it is entirely inappropriate, because in reality that idea was congruent with the values of the founders. I choose to not put myself in such a position as to determine a person’s economic and imaginative need to create such a product, however I believe it is something worth dialoguing about.
When we relegate an ancient ceremonial act to buzzword health product of the day in flavored powder form, we are denying ourselves of the intelligence to learn and appreciate. We buy a sugared latte version to go and snap a photo for social media – we are not present in the process to be mindful, contemplative or appreciative from a cultural standpoint – it is purely for hedonistic enjoyment. This is also not to say that everyone has access to expensive teas such as Japanese Matcha, or Chinese Pu'er – or the tools to make them. This adds another layer to the art of tea – for the privileged it is enjoyment and self-indulgent.
Startups and the British are not purveyors of tea, though the latter had a strict monopoly over tea production in India prior to 1900s, but an Iranian, Kashef Al Saltaneh, stole some seeds and went back home to become the father of Iranian tea. Although tea houses, or chai-khaneh, existed since the Persian Empire by way of China’s Silk Road. Japan also learned of tea from the Chinese.
In Complications of the Commonplace: Tea, Sugar, and Imperialism, even the act of sugar placed in tea has imperialist roots in Asia, and plantation slavery in the West Indies, at that time. Appropriating a cultural practice today while it is not necessarily a bad one for the individuals from that culture; it does not negate its imperialistic journey that continues quietly today. However it is also not complete ideological control, it is infiltrating and dissolving the ritual of tea in westernized parts, this we cannot ignore.
Culture is about complete presence and appreciation for our ancestral way of life, not a quick fix to heighten our fast paced lifestyle, only to complain how busy we are and the tea too hot. Next time you drink tea, share gratitude to the ancestors, farmers and laborers that carried the tradition to us, their tired hands picking the leaves and processing them, earning little to no wages to serve them a purpose, so that we could enjoy a fragrant cup of tea. And perhaps in this manner, a cup of tea will allow us to forget, for a moment, all of the noise in our world with the hopes that others are experiencing the same.