The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

LESSONS FROM TWO SMALL ISLANDS — 5) Keep calm and pour some tea

Teatime CollageDecember greetings, everyone! Can you see us twinkling? The Displaced Nation wants to be part of your Festival of Lights this December — a source of brightness and enLIGHTenment during the dark days of winter. (Unless, of course, you reside in the Southern Hemisphere, in which case, you should be helping all of us to feel brighter!)

But before we get to that — Kate Allison will be delivering some tips tomorrow on generating holiday cheer regardless of location — do you fancy what the Brits would call a cuppa?

If you said no, that you’d prefer coffee or cold beverage, I suspect you may be a compatriot of mine. Once upon a time, I was an American like you — I didn’t drink any caffeinated beverages apart from Diet Coke. But then I traveled to Europe and Asia, and now I can’t imagine a life without tea. As the Chinese lady who owns Ching Ching Cha, a traditional Chinese tea house in Georgetown, DC, once remarked to me, when I told her how much I’d grown to like tea from my travels: “For me, tea is a way of life.”

Those who already know what I’m talking about may read no further. But for the unconvinced, here are 10 lessons I learned while living in two major tea-drinking nations, Britain and Japan, for many years. (If you’re the bucket-list-keeping type, think of it is as 10 reasons to develop a tea-drinking habit before you die!)

1) Even if coffee is more your cup of tea, so to speak, give tea a chance.

Coffee is great for that jolt to the system. One of its most effective uses, apart from first thing in the morning when you’re going to work, is for the jet lag that occurs after a really long international flight — say between the United States and Japan. (Japanese, btw, love coffee as much as the English do — and perhaps thanks to German influence, can make an even better cup than anyone in the UK or the USA.) But unlike coffee, tea is what keeps you going day in day out, putting one foot in front of the other. It’s the sustenance beverage for the marathon known as life.

2) I mean tea, not tisanes.

I apologize to those expats who’ve spent their formative years in France. I have nothing against those herbal drinks with medicinal qualities. I just think it would be a shame to miss out on the kind of caffeine that tea has to offer — the kind that produces sustained mental alertness. Not to mention tea’s own medicinal qualities — all of those lovely antioxidants. Why do you think the Japanese live so long, with all their bad habits of smoking, drinking to excess and overwork? Likewise, the English writer, George Orwell, was able to sustain himself on cups of tea when living “down and out” in Paris and London.

3) Tea has a special role to play in the holiday season.

It’s the perfect libation to help you recover when your feet are aching after a full day of shopping and wrapping gifts (surely, the bane of any adult female’s existence this time of year!) or when you think your hand will drop off if you have to write one more Christmas card. It’s also the perfect drink to serve, because so convivial and relaxing, when meeting up with friends or family you haven’t seen in a long time.

4) Tea is a primary aid for developing a more stoical attitude towards life.

As explained in the very first post in this series, I found it a bit of a challenge to adapt to the brand of stoicism-cum-fatalism both of these small islands, England and Japan, have cultivated over the centuries. But the day I worked out the connection between tea-drinking and stoicism marked the beginning of the end of my struggle. If only I’d paid closer attention to Orwell, who said:

All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes.

5) Tea may also be the key to a philosophical approach to life.

The process of drinking a cuppa slows you down for long enough to clear your head of pressing thoughts and work out what is important. Strangely, I found Brits to be almost as insistent on the importance of a regular tea-drinking habit as the Japanese — even though it’s the latter who are renowned for their Zen approach to tea. Take these words of Rudyard Kipling’s, for example:

We haven’t had any tea for a week…
The bottom is out of the Universe

It reads like a haiku, doesn’t it? Certainly, his sentiments are not far removed from the Japanese proverb:

If man has no tea in him, he is incapable of understanding truth and beauty.

6) The rituals are just as important as the tea itself.

After nearly a decade of living in Britain, I had it all down to a fine art: boiling water to serve tea, heating the pot, putting the milk in the cup first, and pouring the tea without spilling. To this day, I cannot imagine making a pot of tea without pouring hot water in it first to heat the pot. The water and the pot need to be at the right temperature to brew the tea properly. Imagine the affront I experienced upon returning to this country and being served a cup of either semi-warm water or boiling water with a Lipton’s tea bag on the side. And though I found some of the Japanese tea-drinking rituals a bit obscure, especially those related to the tea ceremony — twirl the cup around three times, really? — I still took delight in the spectacle.

7) Tea should be served with something sweet.

“Tea and biccies, anyone?” as they say in England — usually meaning the chocolate-coated digestive biscuits. And the perfect way to offset the super bitter green tea (macha) of the Japanese tea ceremony is with the almost sickeningly sweet kashi and wagashi — confections that are usually served beforehand. A tad of sugar helps this most medicinal of teas go down. Not only that but it’s a beautiful combination, as anyone who has sampled green tea ice cream, by now a classic flavor, will attest.

8) Tea should be served in an aesthetically pleasing cup — never paper or plastic!

Part of the pleasure of taking tea at Fortnum & Mason’s or the Ritz is the bone china it is served in. If the world had a treasure chest, surely it would contain a full set of Wedgwood or Royal Doulton? In Japan, by contrast, it is the roughness and imperfection of the tea cup that provides aesthetic pleasure, or, if you’re drinking Western tea (usually served with lemon, not milk), the sheen of a fine china tea cup — either English (Wedgwood Wild Strawberry is very popular there) or a Japanese version (eg, Noritake). Can’t be bothered with china? At the very least, make your tea in a proper mug.

9) Tea is the ultimate social drink.

Perhaps the British writer known as Saki (yes, he was born in the Far East) put it best when he wrote:

Find yourself a cup of tea; the teapot is behind you. Now tell me about hundreds of things.

Japanese may not be as fond of having a natter when they take tea; nevertheless, they see it as a custom that fosters social harmony.

10) No one should ever be too busy for a tea break.

My fellow Americans, are you still with me? This pointer is particularly for you — particularly those of you who are always crazy busy — although as Tim Kreider pointed out on the New York Times‘s Opinionator blog, it’s often not clear why what you’re doing is so important. Perhaps if you took time out for a regular tea break, you would slow down a bit — see 5) — and find an escape from your self-imposed “busy trap.”


And now I must leave you as the clock says ten to three — only, is there still honey for my tea?

Readers, do you agree that tea may be the answer? Or is this just another of my moonbat pronouncements that’s put you in need of a strong cup of Joe?!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post from Kate Allison.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Img: Collage made of two photos available on Flickr via Creative Commons: (left) “High tea,” by John Heaven, and “Japanese tea ceremony,” by JoshBerglund19.

12 responses to “LESSONS FROM TWO SMALL ISLANDS — 5) Keep calm and pour some tea

  1. Lynn Lees December 4, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    It’s strange. I drank loads of tea growing up in the UK but upon moving to the USA became a coffee drinker with the odd cuppa thrown in here and there first thing in the morning, if I was at home. Then I moved to Singapore, more coffee – tried green tea but nah, not my cuppa tea! Starbucks in Singapore is the Social hub for the Women’s group I joined, so maybe that explains the coffee thing. Now, here I am in the UK, visiting my Mum and I find myself drinking copious amounts of tea, put the kettle on seems to be Mum’s mantra! Coming up to Christmas and reading this post it got me to thinking about my Dad. He was a major tea drinker and on Christmas Day he would always put a drop of whiskey in his tea, his Christmas morning treat.

    Every now and again though my hubby will say “I just fancy a cup of tea” – especially if we have some nice English hob nobs to “dunk”! Lovely!

    • ML Awanohara December 4, 2012 at 4:34 pm

      Thanks, Lynn — and thanks once again for nominating us for the Blog of the Year Award. We are really choughed.

      I know what you mean about switching back and forth between coffee and tea. It crossed my mind while writing this post that if I’d been an expat in Sweden or Germany for the same number of years as I lived on my two small islands, I’d now be extolling the virtues of coffee. Especially if I’d been a student. Can you imagine hanging out at all those lovely coffee houses and cafés? And no doubt they confer many of the same social benefits I associate with tea drinking.

      As to green tea, I’m not a great fan either except after a Japanese meal, when it tastes right to me. That said, I do drink a fair bit of “brown” Japanese tea — have you tried it? I’m talking about hōjicha — it’s roasted green tea, which makes it brown in appearance. it has a caramely flavo(u)r. I find it rather delicious. Great after a meal — no need for milk.

      • Lynn Lees December 4, 2012 at 6:27 pm

        I could possibly go for caramely flavored tea! Can I put Whiskey in it?! Lol! As for the blog of the year award, you are more than welcome, I do love me my Displaced Nation. 😉

  2. expatlogue December 4, 2012 at 7:24 pm

    I get my tea shipped from the UK to Canada because the tea here is DIRE! Red Rose Orange Pekoe is torture in my opinion. The idea of life without Twinnings Assam is just too bleak to imagine – I’ve found some Barooti Assam here which is the next best thing and I’m slowly weaning myself onto it.
    Back in Britain I was almost exclusively a tea drinker, apart from the odd afternoon cappucino, but here I’ve developed a coffee habit. Not Tim Horton’s stuff (on a par with Red Rose), but a freshly percolated pot of Van Houtte’s will set me up to face the day.
    Tea will always have it’s place because, as you say, it’s what keeps you going – if I drank coffee like i drink tea I’d be shaking like a crack addict all day long!

    • ML Awanohara December 5, 2012 at 12:31 pm

      Yes, I’ve developed more of a coffee habit, too, though some of that comes from my days in Tokyo, which has the most wonderful coffee houses (called kissaten) in all the world, imho. Their coffee-cake combinations are to die for!

      Hmmm…. Funny that Canada doesn’t have more of a tea-drinking tradition, given its origins. Is that the corrupting influence of the U.S., I wonder?!

      And you are right, that’s the beauty of tea: it doesn’t make you shake! It gives you fortification while also making you feel calmer. An extraordinary beverage.

  3. dosankodebbie December 5, 2012 at 5:43 pm

    Thanks for this post! I am an American born and raised in Japan, and have LOVED tea, both green and black, for all of my very long adult life. In recent years, however, I have been unable to handle caffeine even in small quantities. My despair changed to joy when I discovered I could order very flavorful decaffeinated black teas from the US (British companies). I have yet to find decaffeinated green teas in Japan, but there are tasty and fragrant alternatives here in other traditional teas, so I manage okay.

    • ML Awanohara December 6, 2012 at 12:33 am

      Thanks for your comment. It’s lovely to have you on the site, especially as you make so many of the dishes (cups, mugs, plates) that can be enjoyed with tea. For instance, this wonderful plate illustrated with a teapot and inscribed with one of the sentiments I’ve tried to convey in this post: “let’s sit and talk awhile.”

      So you’re importing decaffeinated British tea from the US to Japan? Now that’s displaced! 🙂 While also being a measure of your devotion… I’m so glad you’re managing to hold up the side for us tea drinkers, despite your caffeine affliction.

      I read once that the Japanese who were interned in this country during the war, no matter how much pressure they were under to eat American foods, could not give up three things: miso soup, rice, and ocha. But of course!

  4. The Overthinking Expat December 6, 2012 at 2:51 pm

    Loved this post! While living in Ireland, I had the proper way to make tea drilled into me (yes, must scald the pot/cup or face dire consequences). The stubborn iced-tea drinking Southerner in me fought it for years before finally realizing just how comforting a cup of tea with its mandatory biscuit can be. When I moved back to the States I had a really difficult time locating the right kind of biscuit to dunk. The US has baking down, but does terrible things with store-bought biscuits and chocolate. Travelling in Asia has brought a new love into my life. Anything goes better with a little —or a lot—of chai masala.

    • ML Awanohara December 7, 2012 at 8:48 am

      @ Overthinking Expat
      I was going to ask whether moving back to the United States had proved the most difficult challenge of all, but then I visited your blog and see that you have now landed in Abu Dhabi! What is tea like there?

      Learning to make proper tea in Ireland — that’s like learning to cook in France. The Irish know how to make a strong cuppa!

      I’m glad you brought up iced tea. Japanese people drink cold (or at least room temp) tea in the summer, whereas Brits maintain that there is nothing more cooling than a hot cup of tea: makes you sweat so brings your body temp down. I have to confess, I like tea in all its forms — choices about flavor and on whether it’s hot, cold or lukewarm depend on my mood, on what I’ve just eaten.

      Three thumbs up to your recommendation of masala chai. I was in love from the first sip! Have you actually been able to enjoy chai in India? I’m envious…

  5. Spinster December 8, 2012 at 7:52 am

    “All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes.”

    Yep. Smart man, George Orwell. And tea is the answer to all of the world’s problems. (If only.) Since being here, I’ll never look at, or drink, tea the same ever again.

    • ML Awanohara December 8, 2012 at 9:14 pm

      Ah, Spinster… It was George Orwell who convinced me way back when (before I ever thought of living in the UK) that a person could live down and out — and still survive (barely) as long as he had his wits and a diet of “tea and two slices.”

      As recorded in Down and Out in Paris and London, he learned these survival skills from the bum he befriended, the parsimonious Paddy:

      Food, to [Paddy], had come to mean simply bread and margarine–the eternal tea-and-two-slices, which will cheat hunger for an hour or two.

      If nothing else, Orwell really impressed upon me what a miracle drink tea could be, even for the lowest of the low — so much so that I was open to the experience when it eventually came along.

      And yes, I take it stronger with each year that passes! 🙂

      • Spinster December 9, 2012 at 4:14 pm

        “Food, to [Paddy], had come to mean simply bread and margarine–the eternal tea-and-two-slices, which will cheat hunger for an hour or two.”

        Wow. That above quote just brought me back to childhood. When I was a kid, my (Panamanian) (maternal) grandma always made tea – I guess I got my love of tea from her AND all or most Spanish-speaking countries drink tea anyway – and she always asked me if I wanted bread & butter/margarine with it. Of course I said yes. So my snack of choice at grandma’s house after school was tea with evaporated milk & sugar and bread & butter/margarine.

        Thank you for bringing me down memory lane and a smile on my face. May grandma rest in peace. 🙂

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