Well, my tea escapade continues! I’m going on three weeks here at the tea factory, but I’ll backtrack to the first two weeks for a brief summary of what life has been like in a tea village where I can’t speak the language, and where I stand out so much that locals actually take pictures of me.
Here at the factory, there is a pervasive sense of community. The tea makers’ mother and grandmother live and offer their support here in the factory and out in the fields. There are four generations living in this factory. Both tea makers (Mr. and Mrs. Wang (pronounced more like Woughng, not Wahng, not Wong)) work directly with the laborers in the factory and field. They do everything the workers do, not to mention they feed them and care for them in other personal ways. It’s all quite seamless and natural, on a large scale, but not so large that Mr. and Mrs. Wang don’t take part in every small detail of labor, production, quality control, and distribution. Not to mention they have two young children to care for! I don’t know how they do it all – oh wait, yes I do – they work countless hours every day and night for weeks on end during the harvest. This is the life of a tea maker.
It would seem, not only is my name difficult to pronounce in Japan, but so too here in Taiwan. “Shane” has become a marriage between “Chen,” “Shin,” and a french dog. At least no one is calling me Sean for once. The offspring of that marriage has matured into a sharply pronounced, rising toned, “Sheen.” And if I don’t respond to that, “hello” is often used as a substitute (because that always gets a foreigners attention, right?)
While I do speak the universal language of Tea, my Taiwanese is limited to searching for words in my pocket phrasebook, which is actually in Mandarin. This has lead to a lot of funny scenarios as one might imagine. I had predicted a lot of handwaving and laughter – and it has been so. About five main words are used to communicate with me, my “name,” “one,” “yes,” “no,” and “hello.” That combined with hand gestures has been all I’ve really needed to get by. It might seem a little arrogant of someone to go to a country – for three months – where they don’t speak the language, but I go with the best of intentions and no one seems to mind, plus I’m studying the language while I’m here of course.
Little did I know (because no one could tell me) that a documentary was scheduled for my 3rd day here – and apparently I was to be the highlight of the film. I felt pretty lucky, but the film director told me that she was the lucky one to have such an interesting story to cover. Thinking back, documentaries and books were the only mediums through which I knew anything about tea and tea production, until I began tea farming in Hawaii and taking a tour to Taiwan in 2011. I’m not sure when the documentary will be finished, but I’ll be sure to post it here when it is.
I put a question mark after “pictures” because usually when foreigners travel to a foreign land, they’re the ones taking pictures. In my case, however, it’s the locals taking pictures of the foreign white guy working in a tea factory on the mountainside of Taiwan. It’s quite humorous; some people just can’t believe it. Actually, I could hardly believe it in the beginning either; the experience was just so over the top it hadn’t really sunk in during the first two weeks.
One theme that became prominent in my first two weeks was that tea is livelihood for so many people, particularly in a tea village. When you grow up here, you’re sure to be involved in the tea industry in one way or another, which is why so many people find it strange that I would come here to experience that livelihood. I too would think it strange of someone to travel halfway across the world to volunteer in an apple orchard or a wine vineyard in the Okanagan.
We have this fantasy image of farming, harvesting, and making tea, but it’s not nearly as glamorous as it’s made out to be, unless you choose to adopt the perception of glamour even in its rouged-ness. It’s not all green rolling gardens, spring harvests, and fantasy mountains in far off Asia, although those images are real. I myself am guilty of selling and perpetuating that incomplete and ideal tea image because until now, I had not experienced what tea life was really like – and I still have much more to learn. While I’m sure everyone involved in the tea making process is happy on some scale that this infusion can offer a spiritual and relaxing experience to so many around the world, I think more prominently they’re just like you and I, trying to make ends meet and pay the bills through means of work. (that’s a lie; I don’t pay any bills).
Anyway, don’t get me wrong; harvest time can be very sacred and making tea is an ancient tradition and a beautiful art with a rich and cultural history, but it’s also a commercial product at the end of the day, grown unnaturally in massive monocultures to meet the market demand and fast pace of our current times. I’ll elaborate more on that in a future post.
In my next entry, though, I’ll be elaborating on what it takes, physically and mentally, to make Taiwan Oolong Tea during a major harvest. It’s an amazing process and there are many facets involved that we don’t often hear about in the West.