It’s the glue that holds my life together.
I was not an easy teenager. My parents still discuss my adolescent years with hushed tones and darting eyes. It’s that look from horror movies, from villagers who come face-to-face with a monster and live to tell the tale.
Over time my dad developed a defense mechanism to deal with my frequent meltdowns, which typically involved screaming and slamming doors: He would bring me a cup of tea. He always made it the same way: a bag of Red Rose, a splash of skim milk, a spoonful of sugar. It was his clumsy Dad way of saying, “Hey, I don’t know what you’re going through, but I get that it’s hard?—?now please drink this and stop scream-crying over your chemistry book.”
I drink tea for everything: to wake up, to calm down, to make me feel better when I’m sick. When my college roommates and I hosted house parties, I would offer to make tea for all the inebriated strangers in my living room . I was always delighted when someone took me up on it.
When I was a lonely post-grad living in Chicago with less than $100 in my bank account, I spent countless hours in Starbucks, ordering hot water and then sneakily infusing it with tea bags I’d brought from home. (When a barista finally called me out on it, I cried.) And after I finally worked up the nerve to quit the first job I hated, I got borderline blackout at the Queen Mary, a Chicago bar that specializes in tea-based cocktails.
Tea is the crutch I use to navigate challenging moments I’d otherwise stumble through. When my friends and family are hurting, tea is what I bring to the table. I can rarely find the words to make the pain go away, but I can boil the water while I listen to them talk. I’ve made tea for people after breakups, job losses, funerals and particularly traumatizing episodes of “Game of Thrones.” When I don’t know what to say, the steeped leaves speak for me.
A (highly abridged) history of tea
We have globalization and a strong cross-breeze to thank for tea. Legend has it that over 5,000 years ago, the servant of a Chinese emperor was boiling water when leaves from a nearby Camellia sinensis tree fell into the pot. The emperor drank the infusion and some 3,000 years later, tea was dubbed the national drink of China under the Tang dynasty.
Slowly, tea began to go global. Japanese Buddhist monks studying in China brought the drink back home with them; the tea ceremony is now an essential part of Japanese culture.
In 1606, the Dutch shipped tea from China home to Holland, where it quickly spread to the rest of Europe. England, which today is a tea lover’s Mecca, was skeptical about the whole tea craze until the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza married England’s Charles II and introduced the drink to Britain’s high society.
In 1664, the East India Company cashed in on the new trend and placed its first order for a shipment of Chinese tea. A little over a century later, colonial rebels dumped 342 chests of the stuff into Boston Harbor, and a little country called America was born.
People rave about the many health benefits of drinking tea. “Antioxidants!” they shout. “Reduce your risk of stroke and heart attack!” But it’s hard to pinpoint the science behind how a good cup of tea makes you feel.
I’ve heard heroin addicts say their addictions are less about the drug and more about the way they feel getting ready to shoot up. I feel the same way about tea. I like the way it tastes; I like the way it makes me feel. But I love those moments where I’m standing in my kitchen, waiting for the kettle to boil, aware that I’m about to do something that will make me feel calm and happy. I’m not a religious person, but my tea ritual is inherently spiritual. There’s a mindfulness to it?—?it’s like meditation, but less boring.
A global connector
Next to water, tea is the most widely consumed beverage on Earth: The world drinks six billion cups of tea every day. You could travel the world and experience tea differently everywhere you go. Even crossing state lines here in the US changes the way I order my tea?—?if I go to Georgia and don’t specify that I want it hot, I get served sweet tea every time.
I learn things about people by watching how they take their tea. Tea bag users tend to be more impatient than people who prefer loose leaf. Green tea drinkers are usually more health conscious, chai lovers more adventurous and oolong fans are all fucking assholes (I’m basing this claim on exactly one interaction with one oolong tea drinker who was a fucking asshole.)
For me and the billions of other tea drinkers out there, tea isn’t a beverage. It isn’t a plant. It’s a bridge that connects us to the person sitting across the table. It’s a salve that we use to self-soothe. It’s a shot of energy, an unspoken promise, an apology, a peace offering.
And if my mother’s predictions come true and I’m cursed with a teenage daughter who behaves like I did, I’m going to make her so, so many cups of tea.