Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Zen of Tea on the Road to Taiwan

A Story for the Ox New Year.
Travel to Taiwan for an American was still very exotic in the late 1980s, before the Internet, before the English language invaded Asia outside of Hong Kong, which was still under the British flag.

My BFF had been living in Taipei for 8 months when I went over to visit. She met me at the sparkling, modern Chiang Kai-shek airport with her boyfriend, who we will call Wachung, and his black town car. BFF herself got around town on a small Honda motorcycle, like most of the city dwellers. Unlike many of her fellow expat English instructors, BFF did not live in an American enclave, but in a “real” apartment, and so I quickly got swept up into Asian city life.

We buzzed around the city on the motorcycle—zipping over to the Chiang Kai Chek memorial, the Long Shaun (Dragon) temple, the Shrine of the Martyrs, with it’s impressive changing of the guard. At the National Palace Museum we partook of the sublime ritual of a proper Chinese tea service. The teahouse was renovated in 2007 into modern blandness, but in 1987 it was still a replica of the Three Treasures room at the Forbidden City in Beijing with a spectacular carved and painted ceiling, dotted with songbirds in bamboo cages. (A traditional tea service requires the presence of a songbird in a bamboo cage.)

Proper Chinese tea is a confluence of time, commitment, exquisite design, aroma, flavor, and textures: the cast iron kettle, the Yixing clay tea pot, porcelain cups and bowels, the linen of the tea towel, the bamboo of the songbird cages. It’s a tacit contract between the server and the served that presentation is essential, that every action is embued with artful thought. There is a fluid choreography to the motions of pouring and straining, steeping and drinking. It was a deeply memorable experience.

We spent New Year’s Eve at dinner at Wachung’s parents, who had gone out and bought knives and folks for everyone at the table. They thought that I might not be able to use chopsticks, and they did not want to single me out. It was extremely gracious though unnecessary. After dinner we went to watch the fireworks and then out to a club to go dancing, all to welcome in the Year of the Rabbit.

After giving me 3 days to adjust to my jet lag, BFF suggested the radical idea of taking the motorcycle on a 2 week trip literally around the country. Wachung didn’t like the idea. He did not speak much English, but he was quite clear with “M.A., you no go, you no go. You lady, lady no go.”

But what an opportunity. BFF and I were fans of the Hope/Crosby “Road” pictures, and here one was coming to life for us. We joked about needing to wait for the script from Paramount, but I had to stay on a schedule to get back to Wall Street on time. So without a script, and trading a camel for a motorcycle, we headed Southeast out of Taipei enroute to Hualien, a city of marble.

(top photo AngMoKio)


Me, BFF said...


This is wonderful! I forgot about the knives and forks, but I remember laughing a lot at WaChung's house. Didn't he take us out to see fireworks after dinner?
A great night.