I was never a tea person. Ever since I surreptitiously sipped my father’s iced coffee at the age of three, I have preferred the comforting smell of those oily, roasted beans. Tea can certainly be shared with a grandmother, and used as a sure remedy for a stomachache, but, in essence, all it consists of is hot water and some leaves. My apathy towards tea was exacerbated when my parents took my brother and me to live in India for three months to broaden our perspective and showing us that our comfortable, American way of life was not found everywhere. In India tea is as embedded in the culture as the bindi, that mark the foreheads of women.
For the first half of the trip, my family and I lived in the northernmost region of India in the middle of the Himalayan Mountains and stayed with a woman named Yaan Chen. Tea was made on her two-burner stove more times in a single day than I make my bed in a month. The first time Yaan Chen served me tea, carrying it on a tray, smiling, and saying, “Tea, Miss?,” I politely accepted, although I was not too keen on drinking it. Yet when that steaming cup of impossibly sweet chai slid down my throat, it was like drinking mother’s love in liquid form.
She served us tea several times a day, and for the first few days I enjoyed every hot, dense sip. However, after a week, I yearned for my familiar mug of coffee, and soon, even the sight of a teacup made me feel queasy. I accepted the chai anyway, because Yaan Chen had been so kind.
But one day, when Yaan Chen reverently bent over with her heavy tray of tea, I said, “No thank you. I’m really full.” Her smile faltered for only a moment, but it was enough to make me feel as if I had leveled a mortal blow. After repeated refusals, though, it became easier
Despite Yaan Chen’s struggle with English, she was able to communicate with us through her love and compassion. When I impertinently displayed my American teenage exasperation to my parents in front of her, she seemed to tacitly understand and never judged. On quiet nights, she invited my stepmother and me to cook dinner with her, showing us how to roll the flour for the chapati bread and pat it flat between our clumsy hands or how to fill the momo dumplings with just the right amount of vegetables. Yaan Chen laughed with us when our momos flopped over.
At mealtimes, she made sure that our plates were filled before she ate, and if she did not think that there would be enough for everyone, she would not eat, saying, “Oh, no thank you ma’am, not hungry.” Living with Yaan Chen showed me the virtue in being selfless and loving, peaceful and still.
At the end of two months, it was time for my family and me to continue our travels. On our last day with Yaan Chen, the air was filled with sadness. For the last time, our hostess prepared the tea. This time, when she offered her tray, I accepted with a sincere smile of gratitude for her many kindnesses. It was then, as I put the cup to my lips and drank, that it struck me that I genuinely regretted those weeks in which I had denied this drink, this ritual. I realized how much I would thirst for Yaan Chen’s steaming hot cup of chai, and even more, her omnipresent smile and the motherly affection that was steeped into every cup. Gratefully, I drank.
Anna Liebling is a former Clark University student now completing a degree in Environmental Studies at Naropa University, Boulder, Colo.
Photo credit: Tea. Photography. Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest. Web. 14 Dec 2015.