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     One of the struggles I had when I was younger, and I see this in my siblings, my cousins, all the younger kids in my family ; once they start coming out into the world is... You have energy and you don't know where to put it. So when you're looking for interests developing hobbies - some people just intrinsically know what they like and what they're attracted to, or they've been doing something for a very long time, so they just continue doing those same things.

But then there are other people, like me where I've reached junctures in my life where certain hobbies no longer were suited to my lifestyle. I used to draw a lot, like, daily, and had so many sketchbooks cluttering up my house, but I realized I didn't feel the inspiration to produce visual arts anymore. I sort of felt adrift, like, what am I? Who am I? What is my identity? Not as an artist, as a hobbyist? And I wanted to figure out what other things I might enjoy, what am I capable of absorbing because - I'm still young, and I certainly think that developing hobbies and developing interests in other things is not limited by age. You have to listen to your body, listen to your mind to figure out what sort of pursuits are suited for that specific point in your life.


The development of my interest in tea was very gradual. I sort of grew up with some tea exposure and then for 20 years, didn't really think about it, bought stuff out of tea bags. And then once I started getting interested in it, it was taking a high speed train. There's so much to learn, and eventually I was drinking tea so often and learning about it on my spare time to the point where I got really comfortable with it. And now, that's why I say it's sort of just become part of my lifestyle, and not so much something that I'm actively pursuing and trying to enlighten myself about.

I do remember when I was in college, pretty much everyone around me drinks coffee, and I just never took to the caffeine and coffee well. So I was like, okay, what else can I drink? I started buying tea, and I went to this grocery chain called Wegmans, which was one of the only ones near my college. And they had loose leaf tea, and I had never seen it sold like that before. It existed in Chinatown, but again, as a kid, I never really paid attention. So for me, that was the first moment in my life that I really consciously noticed it. So I started buying the teas there, and it was gunpowder greens, Earl Grey, English Breakfast, so a lot of the more run of the mill boxed tea flavors. But for me, it was fascinating because I had only really drank Lipton up to that point. So that was my college experience with tea. And finally, a few years after I had moved back to New York, I suddenly thought, oh, I have so much free time now. What should I do? And I remembered I enjoyed drinking tea way back when. Why don't I look at what opportunities there are to find, like a local club or tea tasting events? And back then, tea tasting to me was still very English: I was thinking tier cakes and sandwiches and a pot of tea. I'm Chinese American and tea culture really originated in China, but that completely didn't appear at all in my thoughts!

So I was looking at English tea services and I realized a lot of them had flavorings added to their teas. And from that point on, I started thinking, what is pure tea supposed to taste like? If we don't add the flowers, if we don't add the oils and the herbs, et cetera. So that's when I went on, which was a popular app to find local activities, and I found the New York Tea Society, which is a club that I'm still active at today. Even though I moved halfway around the world, I still try to put my two cent in! I remember going to my first event there: it was so amazing to be surrounded by people who are so knowledgeable, who are so generous, and they gave so many samples of tea to try that from then on, I just had more questions. When you find yourself in a situation like that, when you're suddenly bombarded with a lot of information that you heretofore haven't been exposed to, there's two really common responses. One is, like: run away, it's too overwhelming. And then the other response is, oh, this is actually really interesting, and there's a lot to explore: where should I start? I think for me, instinctively, it was that because tea just hit all the perfect notes. It was a gustatory experience, it was a cultural experience, it was a social experience - and those are the things that attract me the most.

I'd like to clarify that when I said free time, my experience up to that point was fresh college graduate, working for the first few years, I had up to three, four jobs at a time. And I mean part time jobs mixed with full time jobs, just trying to pay off my debt, trying to pay off my housing and my food spending, as well as supporting my family. So it wasn't until I started earning more money, that's what I mean by having more free time, once I started earning more money, I could start letting go of some of my part time jobs. And then I suddenly had hours of the day where I wasn't rushing off to my next job. Tea, I found out, is actually quite an expensive hobby to get into when you sort of don't know how much things should cost and where you can find things. So that's why I first started out by looking for clubs, experiences that don't cost too much money and allows you to get a glimpse into what it would look like to be more engaged. At this time, I was going out to other events as well - artistic pursuits were another thing that I was considering, and tea just happened to be the most exciting thing that I found, also because it wasn't that accessible yet... So you really felt like you found a hidden gem.


Moving from New York to Taiwan... I do feel a little more spoiled. New York is a good place to be because it is a huge shipping hub, so a lot of fresh teas you can get sent from Asia. But I found that being in Taiwan, there's a certain level of freshness that you can't capture even if you ship out that early. It's walking into a factory - and you don't necessarily always have to travel far. Like within Taipei, we can go to any of the surrounding cities. They are really beautiful, very mountainous. I like to bike through them, and they have a lot of tea factories. I didn't mention this earlier, but my first experience of smelling fresh tea leaves being processed was actually when I was completing a 環島 [huán dǎo], which is around the island tour, and I was doing it by bike, and I had been heading towards Yilan for the day. This was the first day of the trip and we were passing through... I believe it was a small temple that is famous for the statues of the Goddess of Mercy, so I can't remember the name of it right now. And then I started descending that mountain heading into the town, and suddenly I had this moment where I almost completely stopped on my bike because I smelled like a blast of tea in my face. It was Baozhong tea - I found that out after I got to try it. I had never smelled that much tea before. Sometimes in Taipei you pass by a bubble tea shop and you're like, oh, the scent of tea is so nice. But then there's also sugar and all these things on top. This was like I just smelled like if someone brewed a giant tank of tea and blew those scents towards my face. So I just stopped my bike, all my friends just went ahead, I didn't even tell them, I just started looking like, where is that smell coming from? And then I saw a doorway and it looked like machinery. And so to date, at that point, I hadn't seen tea machinery in real life before. So I just got off my bike, parked it, and there's no sidewalk. These are those mountain towns, so it's the road and then their doorstep. I just walked in and I looked like a cartoon character. My head was raised up and I was just, like, sniffing and walking in. And then I froze because I saw a woman and a man squatted over one of those baskets, just like, sifting some of the leaves. And then I just looked at them, and then they looked at me, and I was like, I really hope they don't kick me out, because I started walking towards them since I didn't hear them yell at me. Taiwanese people are just so kind, they wouldn't yell, for the most part, anyway. And I asked, oh, what are you making, I really like tea and the scent of your tea made me stop. They started talking to me - I couldn't grasp most of it, but I did understand that they were preparing the tea that they had harvested, and they ended up inviting me for a tasting. So at this point, my friends were like, I don't know where they were headed, we were supposed to stop somewhere for a lunch. I was the slowest biker and I was like, oh, no, I need to go. But then I thought: this is a once in a lifetime opportunity! Like, how many times can I do this while on this trip? And I took them up for their offer.

They took me into a back room where it was, I guess, their administrative office. Paperwork stacked everywhere, but in the center was this giant, heavy carved tea table. They already had an assortment of teaware cups and whatnot laid out. They cleared everything, got me my own cup, and they brewed it what I consider farmer style or grandpa style. It is a tasting mug - just like your coffee mugs, except they have grooves on the side, or I would say, like the edge of the pouring side has these grooves that help hold back the leaves when you pour it out. And you dump in your leaves, put in your water, and you brew it for a longer amount of time, like usually a couple of minutes, up to six, I believe. The idea is that when you brew tea for that long, if it has impurities or if it has flaws in the processing, those flavors will come out, but if it is a really good tea, it will taste good regardless. Backtracking a little - growing up, I was used to the English way of brewing tea, which was, a teaspoon or so of tea leaves and then steep it for like two, three minutes. When you're doing Gongfu style, you're using a lot higher quantities of leaves, and you usually flash brew them for a few seconds to maybe a minute, depending on the temperature. So going up to like six minutes is pretty insane to me. If the tea is good, it will taste good. So you just trust in the process. Then I had my first ever batch of super fresh Baozhong tea, and then I had to leave. I was like, I'm really sorry. They wanted to give me more samples, and I just needed to catch up because I was worried about getting lost, and it was raining, too. They were so sweet, they gave me a couple bottles of frozen tea to go, so this was loose leaf tea that they had inserted into little pouches and stuffed into plastic water bottles and then brewed and then froze for whenever they want a chilled drink. So they gave me a couple of these because I told them I needed to catch up with my friends. They're like, oh, share this with your friends. So we ended up having some fresh chilled tea to accompany our lunch.

Gongfu style brewing is a more common Chinese method of brewing tea, where you would use a larger amount of tea leaves and a shorter brewing time compared to the English style of brewing.


So, right now, I have a teapot, Chinese style teapot. I believe this one holds about 80mL of liquid. This was actually gifted to me by a friend of a tea friend. I have no idea what the value of this was. He sort of just like, here, you should definitely have a clay pot while you're in Taiwan, because I didn't have one at the time. They're supposed to extract certain flavors out and make the tea express itself in a more ideal way, whatever ideal means to you. Then I have little teacups. These are tasting size, so they're not mugs, because when you're drinking Gongfu style, they're much smaller quantities of liquid. Then I have what is called a fairness cup. A fairness cup allows you to decant your brew : the water homogenizes, so when you serve to any guests, if you have some, they will all have the same quality of brew as opposed to having one that might be more mild in flavor. And I have two packets of tea on the side that I will be trying today. We have a Bai Mudan, which is the white peony, and the Bai Hao Yinzhen, which is the silver needle. These two are the highest grade of Chinese white teas. Silver needles are the tip, most buds, and then the white peonies are just under. So we have lower and lower grades. And when I say grades, I don't necessarily mean that the tea tastes of an inferior quality. It's more that there are certain grades of tea that are considered more premium. So it's a matter of taste again. So white tea is the least processed of the teas. You pluck the leaves and you let it dry. It requires a lot of mastery to produce, because you have to have really good, well cared for plants. With green teas and red teas and other teas like the Pu'ers, the yellows, and whatnot they do go through additional processing which requires application of intense heat and then getting shaped, getting dried at multiple intervals. So there are different points where you can manipulate the resulting flavors. With white teas, you don't have that flexibility. So it really is like as simple of a tea form as you can get without just plucking fresh leaves and brewing that in a cup.

Taiwan is most famous for their Oolong teas, specifically their high mountain. There's also the Oriental Beauty, which is another famous Taiwanese tea - I'm just putting it out there because it's really good. I think when I drink high mountain tea, the best way I describe it to my friends is you feel like you're tasting the mountain air and the mountain water. There's something about it that is almost, I don't know, like cold, very cold. Alpine, but not the trees. It's a very hard thing to describe, but I would say it's very clean and crisp and you can see it in the color of the tea as well. They're usually like these bright yellows or very light greens and you can see through them without any particles and without much oil residue because there are certain standards to what ideal high mountain tea is here. So they select for that when they're processing.


Tea did not factor into my decision to come to Taiwan. It just happened to be a huge perk after I arrived, so I am really happy that I made that choice because I don't think I would have enjoyed Taiwanese teas as much as I do now unless I had made this move. I really enjoyed my farm visits. I've gone to two to date, both in Taiwan, and they were very different experiences because I went during different seasons.

My first one was in the winter time, my second one was in the summertime and when I went in the winter, it was at a high mountain farm that belongs to my friend's family. I've heard that it's not that easy to get tours during production seasons because they're super busy and they generally wouldn't be accepting tourists. So I feel really grateful for that opportunity. When we arrived there, I was super stoked just smelling the air. It was so fragrant because I didn't arrive on the first day. It was, I believe, the second or third day. So they already had a couple batches on the racks drying. So I would follow the masters and our day would start - because we weren't part of the harvest crew about, I think it was 08:00 p.m., so after dinner and after the leaves had had time to wither and were ready to be further processed. So we would go into this huge room where all the leaves were laid out in these giant bamboo or rattan - very flat baskets and they're stacked about, I think it was ten to twelve high on these rolling racks. And they're huge because each one had a couple of kilos worth of tea on it. And that's a lot because tea, when we drink it, they're tiny. Like these leaves are so dried up and rolled up, you don't think about how much mass it was before it got turned into that state. So I was very intimidated about trying any of it, any part of the process, because I didn't want to accidentally ruin anything. And they walked me through the process, which required me to stick my hand in there to waft out some of the scents and they're like, just smell it until the green is gone. That's literally what they say, the green is gone. And it refers to this process during tea production, which is called killing green. That's to get rid of that raw, grassy note. Once a certain amount of moisture is released, you'll see a cloud of almost mist inside. I think I got a little carried off there, but suffice to say, my first experience on the farm was just downloading so much, so many different emotions. First of all, like just the pure excitement that I was finally able to see this firsthand, and then the knowledge in a way that wasn't recordable, you couldn't read up on the information that I learned. It's really stuff that I could only apply on that mountaintop with that type of tea leaf they were producing. The masters even say we have no hard rules, we just work with what quality of leaves we have for the season.

When I went to the second farm I visited, this one was very small. It's a husband and wife team. They grow their tea organically, so completely no chemicals or pesticides. I don't know if they even used any natural ones because they have such small production - and when I say small production, I think their finished product that summer was maybe two, three kilos at most. That's very small. You can't really make money off of that. So for them, they weren't doing tea for business. It was part of their interest, part of their lifestyle. I stayed overnight there and it was a B&B experience. We would wake up, go out, harvest and forage, they would pick out all of these plants that were growing - because they didn't get rid of anything, you would have a bunch of edible herbs and berries that are integrated into their tea farm. We went around looking at their tea bushes, and their tea bushes were so ugly because they were bitten all over the place. But that's what, you know then, that it is pure, or I don't want to say pure, because there is a place for chemicals in large scale production, but it was definitely naturally produced tea.

It's wonderful that you can come to tea with completely different processes and still have something that is so well thought out. Like these farmers really feel passionate about what they're producing, and they might have different standards for what is the optimal conditions to grow it, but they really put their heart into it, and each season is one less opportunity for them to work on it.


It's like, just let tea be what it is. Enjoy it for what it's worth. If you like it as a drink, if you like it as an activity, if you like it as a bonding experience, there are so many ways that it can fit into our lives if we choose to allow it to. And, like, tea is never really the emphasis when I'm in a social setting: it is the glue and the lubricant that smooth conversation.

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