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So I just got back from a trip to southern China a few days ago. I was in a “small” (6 million people) city named Qujing in Yunnan province, the province that borders Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. My company is starting a program there where foreign teachers will go to teach special classes. My job was to go spread the good news and get to know the school staff and students. I was there for a week and although the city itself is not particularly exciting, it did make me consider what I am doing in Beijing. Food is cheap in the south, weather there is MUCH better than Beijing (basically everywhere is better than Beijing), and people are really friendly (partially because there are no foreigners). I spent a lot of time at the school and got to know a lot of the students. Some of them were crying when I left, gave me presents, and were just welcoming and excited to talk to me in a way that I haven’t felt in a while. My job in the office is usually pretty boring, but this aspect of my work helped recharge my mental batteries, because these kids really were inspired and inspiring. A lot of the students only heard me talk for an hour, but during my week there many students approached me and told me that my advice to them made them decide to try this or do this. I also got to speak on Qujing’s FM radio 2 days in a row, entirely in Chinese. I was really nervous the first time, but it went better than I thought and it was a pretty cool experience. My time in Qujing reminded me of a lot of the good and bad things about China, but the friendliness and innocence of the people were striking. I was ready to leave Qujing, but not exactly ready to go back to Beijing…

Life in Beijing is as it was. Summer is here after about 2 weeks of decent weather. Very hot, sticky, and polluted. I know my lovely parents are always wondering when I am coming back, and I haven’t really thought about coming back that much (sorry parents!), but I have thought more and more about leaving Beijing. It is an exciting, fast-paced, interesting, and dynamic place to live, but the once-majestic appeal of the sights and sounds of Beijing have lost a little of their luster. I do love the people here, but I think I would like people in most places that I would choose to live. I have no doubt that I will not live in Beijing permanently, but it does offer a chance to learn a lot and have a lot of free time, which I like. I know people read about the pollution and people here, but you really can’t understand how bad the pollution is and how many people are here until you see it. As I said before, Qujing has 6 million people and is considered a small city. Most Chinese people have never even heard of it. This was amazing and exciting to me before…now it seems more like a burden.

I am also getting more and more disappointed with myself. I have been given so many amazing opportunities, talents, and been surrounded by the best people that I have met in my life. I have done, seen, and enjoyed so much in my life, but I feel this growing anger with myself for not doing more. This has always been a feeling I have had, but I always thought I am different or special in some way and things will work out for me. I still feel that things will “work out”, but I want to work hard and not just work out. I have never really felt this way before. People always say that you need to find something that you really love to do, and then it doesn’t feel like work. I am trying to do this now for the first time, and hopefully can gain enough intellectual capital so that I am able to create a job for myself rather than continuing to be employed by other people.

I told you that this blog was going to get more bloggy. I need a place to vent and will turn to this every once in a while when my friends are tired of hearing it from me. Everything is good here though and I will hopefully talk to some of you soon. Hope everyone is doing well, 再见 (bye).

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

As promised, here is the information I have been compiling for the Hutong’s Maliandao Tea Tour (which I sometimes lead.) On the tour we discuss in more detail the tastes and characteristics of tea and the Chinese tea ceremony, while eating an incredible lunch and visiting local family shops.

Buying tea in China can be an overwhelming prospect… where do you start?

Most Chinese teas are grown in Southern provinces; however, large quantities are shipped north to Beijing’s Maliandao Tea Street for purchase and export around the world. Although a lot has changed since the emperors ruled, this tea migration still mimics the journey of the finest teas that traveled from southern plantations to the emperors and on to the Silk Road. Today, Maliandao still houses thousands of tea shops, mostly family-owned, that represent the seven main tea-growing areas in China (Zhèjiāng, Jiāngsū, Fújiàn, Ānhuī, Hénán, Sìchuān, Yúnnán) and vast array of Chinese teas. The street has become a bit more touristy since 2005, but retains its authenticity through being the largest tea distribution center in Northern China.

Tea Basics…
Did you know that all “true” tea comes from the same plant? To call that beverage in your hand ‘tea’, it must come from the camellia sinesis plant. The camellia sinesis plant originated in China, near the base of the Himalayas. India also has a camellia sinesis plant native to their base of the Himalayas. China and India are known for their teas because, like grapes, aspects such as the age and variety of the plant can affect the overall taste. While a tea tree 50-60 years old would be considered “new,” some Chinese tea bushes are over 800 years old, which is why it’s nearly impossible to create a taste similar to that produced by Chinese tea plants. True teas include white, green, oolong, red/black and pu’er. Herbal teas made from ingredients like mint, chamomile, rooibos or mate actually form another category of brewed drink, called a tisane. Although they are commonly referred to as teas, this is an incorrect name in the technical sense.

Soil, climate and variety of plant affect the different overall tastes of the tea leaves, but the most important elements of distinction between types of teas are oxidization and fermentation. Oxidization refers to the amount of time tea leaves are exposed to the air and the process of the leaves turning dark, similar to a cut apple turning brown. Fermentation refers to the decay of the tea leaf and is a process that is continuous after the leaf has been dried.

White Teas
White teas are popular abroad and originated in Fújiàn, China. These teas are made from only one variety of tea plant. They are first oxidized (exposed to the air until the leaves wilt and turn slightly brown) and are left in sun to dry. These teas are light and sweet, and have wide appeal. Often tea drinkers who are turned off by the grassiness of green teas enjoy white tea. It is a common misconception that white teas do not have caffeine. The white tea leaf itself retains more caffeine than other teas that are cooked during processing, but its effect it less strong because the caffeine doesn’t come out while brewing. White tea is becoming famous for its many health benefits, one of which is its beneficial effects for arthritis sufferers.

Green Teas
Green Teas have a flavor closest to the camellia senesis plant itself, and perhaps surprisingly, have the highest caffeine content. Green teas are picked, sweated, cooked and dried. The variety of plant, picking time, picking technique, cooking techniques and drying techniques, all produce different types and flavors of green tea. Common Chinese green teas include Lóngjǐng (Dragon Well) from Zhèjiāng, Bìluóchūn (Spring Snail) from Jiāngsū, Mǎofēng from Ānhuī and Mǎojiān from Hénán. Taìpǐng hóuguí (also from Ānhuī) is perhaps the most expensive and renown green tea because it is China’s national tea. It is hard to ship and handle because it is processed in long, thin strips and stands up straight during brewing. This tea can last up to ten infusions.

Japan also has a strong green tea tradition, producing varieties such as Sencha, a powdered green tea called Matcha and Bancha. Bancha is a lower grade Sencha that includes stems and Genmaicha is Sencha mixed with toasted rice. Unlike Pǔ’ěr, it is best to drink green teas as soon as possible after their harvest to retain the most flavor.

Oolong Teas
Any tea with less than full oxidation (like a black tea) is categorized as an Oolong. Oolongs typically come from Fújiàn, Guǎngdōng and Taiwan. The tea variety, amount of oxidation and rolling techniques all significantly affect the end flavor. For example, Yùlán is a type of Oolong tea made from a bush that produces a flowery, Magnolia-flavored tea. Rock Oolongs or Yánchá are from from Wǔyíshān Mountain in Fújiàn and are highly oxidized, dried and toasted. Wǔyíshān is known to have thousands of different tea varietals, and Wǔyí teas are robust with mineral characteristics. Dàhóngpáo, for example, is famous because the tea tree grows in red soil on the rock mountain. Ānxī, a county south of Fujian is famous for producing Tiěguānyīn or Iron Goddess of Mercy. These teas are lightly oxidized, then bruised and tightly rolled. They are fragrant, fruity teas with orchid or peach characteristics. Oolongs are sometimes mixed with the Osmanthus flower, which is a small, yellow, fragrant flower grown in Southern China. Taiwan also produces a variety of high-quality Oolongs, such as Dongding.

Red/Black Teas
Black teas, known in China as hóngchá (red tea) are fully oxidized and seen less in China than other parts of the world. Common Chinese black teas include Zhēngshān xiǎozhòng and Diānhóng (Yunnan Imperial). Chinese black teas are robust and often malty. Red/Black teas are more like what you would traditionally find in Western countries in a teabag. Teabags are filled with crushed and broken tea leaves (those which aren’t good enough for loose leaf tea), with a high surface area. This creates a sudden, full burst of flavor, which quickly dissipates, meaning the teabag is really only good for one steep.

Pǔ’ěr Teas
Pǔ’ěr is a fully cooked tea that is made in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The pǔ’ěr name comes from the pǔ’ěr region of Yunnan, where this tea was originally processed in imperial China. Known in China as heīchá (black tea), pǔ’ěrs are created through a microbial fermentation process that involves both fermentation by organisms growing in the tea and oxidization. Pǔ’ěr is picked and cooked, often heat-blasted in a wok, and then dried immediately in the sun. The sun drying process creates a base material called Saiqing maocha, which is then further processed into shóu or shēng pǔ’ěr. Shēng pǔ’ěr is steamed and pressed into caked or bricks of tea and then baked to remove any final moisture. Shóu pǔ’ěr goes through wodui processing, which was invented by the Menghai pǔ’ěr factory in the 1960s to mimic the flavor of aged shēng pǔ’ěr teas. The process was a state secret for many years. Pǔ’ěr continues to ferment and change in flavor the longer it is kept, and is the only tea to increase in value with age.

Nowadays pǔ’ěr may be the most famous tea in China, but it has only been this way for less than 50 years. The combination of Chinese investment into pǔ’ěr bricks, the introduction of this tea into the international markets via Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, and the perceived health benefits of pǔ’ěr have caused the price and popularity of pǔ’ěr to sky-rocket. In fact, in efforts to regulate the quality of pǔ’ěr for investment purposes, as of December 2008, only teas produced in Yunnan province’s 639 towns and 11 prefectures and cities can be labeled “Puer.”

You can now see disks of pǔ’ěr bricks in most tea houses and lots of souvenir shops around China, as it has become a national phenomenon. Oddly enough, pǔ’ěr stored in Beijing may be less dark and flavorsome than when stored in other areas of the world with different climates and more moisture!

*The Hutong offers an 8-day Biking, Culinary and Tea Journey to the beautiful countryside and tea plantations of Xishuangbanna, so you can experience tea country first-hand, and even pick your own tea brick, and supports Tea Journeys, an innovative tea company that offers private tea ceremonies, unique flavor infusions, corporate gifts and more! http://www.t-journeys.com/

Email: erin@thehutong.com for details.


Helpful Chinese Tea Words

茶 chá Tea
绿茶 lù chá Green Tea
乌龙茶 wūlóng chá Oolong Tea
红茶 hóng chá Black (red) Tea
白茶 bái chá White Tea
黑茶 hēi chá Pu’er Tea
普洱 pǔ’ěr Pu’er Tea
生普洱 shēng pǔ’ěr “uncooked” pu’er
熟普洱 shóu pǔ’ěr “cooked” pu’er
茉莉花茶 mòlihuā chá Jasmine Tea
菊花茶 júhuā chá Chrysanthemum Tea

香气 xiāng qì scent
香味 xiāng weì taste
口感 kǒu gǎn ‘mouth feel’

好喝 hǎo hē tastes good
不好喝 bú hǎo hē tastes bad
我喜欢 wǒ xǐ huan I like it
我不喜欢 wǒ bú xǐ huan I don’t like it
很浓 hěn nóng very strong
很淡 hěn dàn very weak

斤 jīn Tea weight measurement=500 g
克 kè gram
一两 yī liǎng 50 grams

茶壶 cháhú teapot
茶杯 chábēi teacup
盖碗 gàiwǎn traditional Chinese tea brewing cup
茶具 chájù teaware

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Compiled by and from: Sherry Zhang, Joel Shucat, Celestina Swanson, Sofia Courtney, Erin Henshaw, chinaculture.org and time.com

Aaand we’re back! Sorry for the delay, we were busy soaking up the rays in Hong Kong, traveling back to Tangshan and getting right to teaching. To get back to the trip, I wanted to re-iterate how much I loved that tea house! The whole culture of the miniature tea pots with various designs depending on the type of tea leaf, and intricate system of pouring and sipping was really fun for me. The really nice clay teapots in China are small and made of red or black-colored clay (typically referred to as purple or red). The most famous clays are called yixing zisha (red clay) from the Yunnan province in Southern China. These pots and cups are so small that I thought they were only for show, but really the traditional style is just somewhat miniature, and only one type of tea is meant to be brewed per pot, because the clay absorbs the flavor of the tea it brews. Also, after many pourings, the dull finish of the pot begins to shine like it was polished. I have been able to sample many types of oolong, pu’er, green, black, white and red tea, but green still remains my favorite. One of the most famous green teas is called Long Jin or Dragonwell, and it has a great, earthy and strong taste. As Laura Jacobs has reminded me, I’m very lucky to have sampled lots of pu’er black tea, because it’s an expensive and somewhat rare in the states. It tastes a little like Thai tea without the milk or sugar. Pu’er is interesting because it is sold in circular “bricks” that increase in value depending on their age. We have seen some bricks of Pu’er that are hundreds of years old and sell for thousands of dollars. Long Jin green tea is completely opposite of Pu’er, as it is considered best when drank during the same season in which it was harvested. Tea has always been a major comfort and source of satisfaction in my life, and I am really enjoying learning all about the different types, benefits, and flavors over here. I’m not much for wine, but am understanding through tea the desire to try all different flavors, types, etc. I hope to purchase my own tea set and bring back lots of different types to host some authentic tea tastings. (Sound like a great fundraiser to anyone else?!)

Lets see, the night after rainy Victoria Peak we took Richard’s suggestion and headed to the Red Pepper restaurant near our hostel/hotel in Causeway Bay. The food was good, but unfortunately my stomach problems came to a head with the spicy cuisine and I kept David and I up until 5am with really serious cramps. We slept in the next morning and I got some herbal chinese medicine that came in little black balls and smelled really strongly of herbs. My stomach hurt for most of the day, but we headed out to neighboring Lantou island via a ferry. Lantau was a pretty sleepy, traditional fishing village, complete with many clammers along the edge of the water. There wasn’t too much to do in the port, so we took a bus to Tai O fishing village, which is famous for its dried seafood and fishing village on stilts. The rows of dried seafood were stinky and a little scary, but pretty interesting to see. There were huge dried squids stretching at least 4 feet, and sadly lots of dried sharks fin. As a result of my stomach situation and sheer disinterest, we didn’t try and of the salty, dried goods, but enjoyed the unique architecture of the quiet, secluded village.

Stay tuned…next up we will recount our adventures in Macau, the Vegas of China!


(Also, the last photo of the “No Hawking” from the IFC building was posted especially for Megan Newhouse.)

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