Monday, March 08, 2004

come inside and have a nice cup of tea

When I journeyed in India, I was force-fed so much chai tea that the first phrase I learned to say in Hindi was "thank you, no more please, I am sick" which only worked on occasion because many Indians believe that the cure for anything is just to drink more tea. I'd never got in the habit of drinking tea at home in the States... I always thought it was suspiciously similar to pondwater, and when I was a child the more colorful reddish teas looked like juice, but tasted like the aforementioned pondwater, and I just got in the habit of not picking up any glasses that seemed to have tea in them. In India, however, it is almost unheard of for any social (or indeed even business) transaction to take place without a pot of chai being involved somewhere in the process, and rather than offend my hosts I drank the tea, and even developed a bit of a taste for a strong chai.

The Indians, of course, got the their love of tea from the British. Tea is not native to India... it was brought there by the British, who were having trouble convincing the Chinese that they should assist the Empire in its economic expansion without thought for their own. Although the British eventually persuaded the Chinese to open their borders to trade (first by introducing the Chinese to opium addiction, then by forcing the 'treaty' of Nanking in 1842), British demand for tea was so great that the Indian tea market has remained strong to this day.

Before I learned these things, I thought tea was from India and opium was from China... which only shows how completely the authorship of history books lies in the hands of the conquerors. The Chinese were introduced to opium from India and tobacco from the States in the 1600s, and India first grew tea in the 1700s, both as a result of Dutch and British empire expansion. It's not like this information was hidden... it's widely available in references, and the book and movie 'Taipan' tell the story well with fairly good historical accuracy - it's just that my American education was... somewhat selective.

I'm convinced that there is something Americans just don't get about tea, something the British and the Indians know yet is inexplicable to us. As a result, I decided that the best way to figure out the relationship the British (and therefore the Indians) have to tea would be to find British writings on the subject. I found that their ideas about tea are as strong as they are varied. This essay by George Orwell carries a tone similar to his political writings, and while Douglas Adams' viewpoint is expressed in a manner consistent with his characteristic humor, his instructions retain the rigor and discipline and overall seriousness of the issue.

I've made an agreement with the British Empire (in absentia): as long as they don't ask me to try to understand the game of cricket, I won't hassle them about the tea. And furthermore, as with bowing in Japan, I won't mangle their ritual by attempting it when the subtle nuances are a mystery to me.