Saturday, January 27, 2007

Notes on the Pathology of Sinensis Psychosis

[[EDITOR'S NOTE: this piece by our own geraldo originally appeared on 15 june 2006 at it is reposted here by the author's permission.]]

When I travel, I usually go to the trouble of packing a gaiwan and some pu’er in my carry-on, and I considered myself a little obsessive and eccentric for doing this. For alcoholics, travel simply entails getting drunk in new places, and I wondered if my enthusiasm for tea, and for pu’er in particular, was taking me to a similar, single-minded location. In short, I feared I might be suffering from Sinensis psychosis, an over-the-top fixation on pu’er that pushes aside other worthy considerations. This troubled me somewhat until I learned that I am not alone in the determination to mix sight-seeing and pu’er-drinking.

Several of my tea-friends in the U. S. have extraordinary tea kits that they carry about. The kits resemble those fancy, shiny cases with the cut-out foam holders for protecting exotic handguns or camera lenses. But instead of guns and lenses, their cases cradle little Yixing pots, sharing pitchers, and cups.

Recently I visited New York. It was my first trip there, and I went to meet and drink tea with several of my pen pals. We took the ferry from Manhattan to Staten Island. As soon as the ferry got under weigh, my friend whipped out his tea kit. He had, besides his metal tea case, a book bag, and in it a thermos of very, very old pu’er. We cruised past the Statue of Liberty, and small, red Coast Guard gunships flanked our ferry like little piranhas flanking a fat koi fish. As our ferry chugged along, we drank aged pu’er from fine porcelain cups. I never expected to catch my first sight of the Statue of Liberty as I held a cup of ancient pu’er in my hand, but I could not have asked for a finer experience. Later we partook of a very similar tea break in Union Square. There, amid street-dancers, goths, panhandlers, and vegetable-wallas, six of us sat together on park benches and tasted tea that was all about forests and quietude. The juxtaposition was wild and unforgettable.

I have friends in Guangzhou, China who cannot set aside their pu’er fixation while they take in the sights. I had the pleasure of visiting those friends six months ago. Like St. Louis and New Orleans, Guangzhou is a river town. The Pearl River bisects the city, and there, close to the river’s mouth, the river is wide. Working boats ply the current, carrying grain, coal, cars, people, and who-knows-what else to far-flung destinations. The Chinese love holidays and celebrations as much as anyone, and they love parades, too. Guangzhou’s residents have merged their river and their celebrations. In Guangzhou’s parades, the floats literally float, and the Pearl’s channel is the parade route. Neon lights festoon tugs and transport boats, depicting themes important to the city. Along the river’s banks, all the towering buildings are faced with flashing neon. At night, Guangzhou looks like Las Vegas. It’s spectacular.

One night during my visit we took a two-hour excursion on a three-decked boat while floats paraded on the river. The upper deck of the excursion boat was fitted out like a restaurant, with about twenty tables under the stars. We sat there atop our great pile of floating neon and cruised past neon-encrusted sky-scrapers. Disco music and Madonna blared. In a shrill voice, a tour guided chanted her script over a loudspeaker. We floated through a giant Asian fantasyland, and the experience was magical.

Amid all this, one of my Guangzhou tea-friends ordered six tall glasses of hot water. He used two of them as tea vessels for brewing aged sheng brick, and he managed to pour the tea back and forth into the other glasses until he had created excellent tea. So we sat high on the boat, feeling the throb of the motors, hearing the pounding music, transported by Guangzhou’s city fathers into a psychedelic pu’er trip complete with world-class light show, and we drank steaming-hot aged sheng from cocktail chimney glasses. Only a person suffering from advanced Sinensis psychosis would go to that trouble at that time and that place to brew tea. And the tea did not diminish the magic of the moment. In fact, the aged pu’er added a wonderful counterpoint to the chaotic visual and auditory stimuli. My Guangzhou friend is a real piece of work, a non-stop, happy epicure of tea, a true disciple of Cha Dao. He never tires of tea. Tea commands all of his thoughts, and he perceives the world through tea-colored lenses.

In Guangzhou I tasted congee for the first time. As you probably know, it is rice gruel, usually a little thicker than gravy, and it is good, especially with bits of vegetables and meat added to it. I had the pleasure of trying it at a roof-top restaurant in the busy heart of the city. Once again, my Guangzhou tea friends produced a little chunk of aged pu’er and brewed it as we waited for our meal. What fun it was to dine at this restaurant and enjoy congee and aged pu’er. The day was perfect, the sun shining, the restaurant lively and crowded.

Six months later, on the other side of the world, I had my second helping of congee in New York City at a restaurant called, appropriately, “Congee.” Our host on this occasion produced some excellent aged golden melon, and requested that the waiter bring a pot of hot water. The golden melon was perfect for this occasion—as it brewed during our meal, it offered many infusions and never became bitter. The congee, by the way, was fantastic, served with garlic, ginger, and fish.

Tea people travel with tea. They keep it near at hand. They plan ways to consume it wherever they may find themselves, and the inclusion of tea adds a festive magic to the occasion that renders it indelible in the mind’s eye. I will never forget standing in a crowd at Kennedy International Airport, looking for a pen pal I’d never met in person. My eyes moved over the masses, wondering who in that huge group was the friend I was to meet. I saw a smiling, bearded man holding a Yixing teapot above his head. What an elegant solution to our tacit puzzle!

The world, once so big, has grown small, and the Internet is rapidly smashing the walls that governments have built between cultures. Tea, and all it entails, will never fully catch on in the west—our people will not give over the time and energy required to brew good tea in its proper fashion, seeing it, instead, as a chore rather than steps toward relaxation and ordering the mind. In a nation of latte shops and drive-thru grab-it meals, westerners will never take time to explore the avenues of contemplation that tea could offer. Programmable coffee-makers and gong fu tea pots are symbols of diametrically-opposed worldviews and lifestyles. But a few of us, Sinensis psychotics, will carry our little tea sets with us.

For us, I know now, tea is a vehicle, a ferry motoring along on life’s currents, and it carries us into the moment. Guangzhou and New York were more vivid—not less—for tea’s influence. For tea enthusiasts, travel is not about new places to drink tea—that’s looking at the wrong page in the wrong book. Instead, life is about friends and clarity and this moment’s joy. Tea is a pretext for the full experience. It diminishes nothing. Look for us on rooftops and boat decks, clacking our gaiwans, distilling the essence of the very now.

— Geraldo (

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