Living in a small apartment means tight constraints, so I constantly shuffle objects to find the exact right place for them. It's like a reverse Marie Kondo, and I ask objects if that's where they need to be. For a time, a particular object might have the proper resting spot, but then I might lose track of it. For years. In the great and slow reshuffling of all the objects, they can reappear seemingly from thin air at just the right moment.
During social isolation, I've found myself doing more shuffling than usual to help reconsider the space I already have available to me. I removed a snag of cables, a blanket and a broken alarm clock from the shelves of a massive dresser that I inherited from my grandmother. In the very back I pulled out a pu-erh tea cake, and I realized that it's been exactly ten years since my first (and last) visit to China.
So many feelings and memories came back to me. I was taken to the moment when I bought the pu-erh from a tea dealer in Beijing, how I sampled all of these different teas from Yunnan with friends, and talked with the tea dealer about the tea making process. I was deeply appreciative to have that experience. But I also remembered how strange it felt to be in China, and it was a real shock from what I had thought the experience was going to be. Superficially I could blend in, no one would notice me packing on to a train or walking down a street. But as soon as I needed to talk to someone, a barrier slammed down. I felt so guilty for not speaking the language and realized how unforgiving people were when they realize I could neither speak nor read Chinese. I felt tongue-tied and voiceless.
Many of the people I encountered over the month even had a hard time conceiving that someone who looked Chinese could not speak or read the language. And in those moments I've never felt more American, and in an extremely awkward way. It made me question how I identify as Chinese in the context of my American-ness, and I suddenly felt like I wasn't "authentic" enough. That I had failed miserably against an invisible and unknowable standard. I wasn't pushy and loud enough to get to the front of a non-queue at the ticket window of a train station, nor demanding enough to get the attention of a waiter to give me water.
I spent about a month in China and it was excruciatingly difficult. It seemed like there wasn't a way to feel like I belonged in China or the U.S., and that I was always going to be caught between. The pandemic has certainly been a painful reminder, where I've had casually racist remarks said to me as I walk in my neighborhood. Every time I step out the door now I worry about how people perceive me and what that perception could lead to, whether it's verbal abuse or even physical violence. And there's the inevitable, "You're from Jersey? No, where are you ~really~ from?"
This tea, though, is a reminder of something else outside of all of this. The tea dealer said that it would get better with age, so I had set it aside like a good bottle of wine. I forgot about it, in the back of that dresser, but in the intervening years it's been slowly gathering flavor and richness and depth. When it resurfaced, I knew it was finally time to open the package. At first I had doubts. I wondered if it would upset my stomach, and I wasn't sure how much or for how long. In the end I figured it didn't matter and I should just try it, so I broke off a few small pieces and I let it steep.
The tea was mellow, deep and warm. It felt so familiar and comforting. It gave me space to reflect on these past ten years, and how much change has happened in my life and the world. Sometimes better, and sometimes much, much worse. A decade seems both short and an eternity. And in that time span I've been able to find community and a sense of belonging, knowing that I'm not the only one who has faced these feelings. The path was so much harder for those who came before me, and those in the generations after me face different challenges.
The tea, for me, is a little bit like a thread that connects all of us. A line across the ocean that transcends language and time. Can we use this moment to slow down and reflect, take stock of what really matters? And truly understand what our connections are? Can we imagine something different? A more equitable and just society, and really put that into practice?