Tea or Jews?

Like what I did in the title there?  So as I mentioned we took a trip to a tea shop last Thursday.  Something I didn’t know before I came to China the first time, is that all the myriad of teas that China has, for the most part at least, come from the same plant.  So white tea, green tea, Oolong tea, red tea (black to us foreigners), and black tea (which is post-fermented) all come from the same plant, the only difference being length of the fermentation process and strain.  With more fermentation, you get darker color and more caffine.

Probably the biggest thing I learned about tea in China my first time around is that you never drink the first steeping.  When drinking tea, always “wash” the leaves first to get rid of dust, chemicals, and other shit that might be on the tea.  When doing a proper tea service, as pictured below, this first steeping is poured over the various “tea pets” or little figurines on the table as a sort of offering to Buddha.  The tea can then be steeped up to 7 or 8 times depending on its type, but the best are steeps 3 through 4 when the tea really opens up.

On a service like this, you have the host giving all guests a very small cup.  Never fill the cup to the brim, and when tasting the tea (品, pin, peen) there’s a bit of decorum to observe.  Thumb and index finger go on the brim, with your middle finger on the bottom, and your remaining two fingers extending down.  Each cup must be drunk in three sips.  Not one, not two, not four, but three.  And five is definitely out.  That’s because “to taste”, the character above, is made of three 口 (kou) characters, which means mouth.  Simple, no?

That day we had a couple different teas.  My favorite was Iron Buddha or Tie Kwan Yin as it’s sometimes translated (named after Guan Yin, the most famous female Boddhisatva), which is probably the most well known Oolong tea, and one of my personal favorites.  Also featured were a five year aged white tea, dianhong which is a red tea that kinda tastes like sweet potatoes, and two types of Pu’er tea which is the best known black tea, named after its city of origin in Yunnan.  If you ever see a cake or brick of tea, it’s probably black.  The tea is post-fermented and then pressed into these bricks that are stored to age, like fine wine.  People even use them as investment items, as they can fetch tens of thousands of dollars.


This reminds me actually of a story I learned in 4th grade.  Allegedly as a British sailor in the 18th and 19th centuries there was a pretty risky, but quick way to make your fortune.  First, sign onto a trading ship.  Next, get to America and trade something, probably your belt, for an otter pelt.  Step three, get to China and trade that pelt for a brick of tea.  If you can make it with that brick all the way back to England through disease and the dangers of the open ocean, you can sell that brick for enough money to never work again.  Easy, right?

All the teas were delicious, but I don’t think my vocabulary is expansive enough, nor my palate sensitive enough, to give you an accurate description of everything we drank.  Maybe someday I’ll start a tea blog, but that day is not today.

Moving on, last Saturday’s weekend outing was to Harbin’s Jewish museum.  One of Harbin’s unique qualities that I’ve mentioned before is that it was home to about 20,000 Jews from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th.  The most had left by the 60’s, but I remember hearing the last “original” Harbin Jew died in 1980.  Some came fearing persecution for their faith, some came fleeing the revolution in Russia, and the vast majority were from Russian speaking countries.  I’m not entirely sure why they chose Harbin of all places, probably to do with the railroad.  As you might expect, they were fairly well off if they managed to make the journey to China.  So when they got to Harbin, they generally set up Western style businesses/shops and did a lot of infrastructure investment.  Among them were a fair number of accomplished musicians, and the first person to export soybeans to Europe.  So yeah, thanks dude.   They set up their own schools and social groups as well, and were crucial in fighting some of the floods of the Songhua river.

It was really cool to see this huge expat community in such a random place.  I would have loved to experience it and seen how these Jews interacted with the local community on a day to day basis (probably not as much as one would like).  How was their Chinese?  What was their treatment during the Cultural Revolution?  These are things I want to know.

The museum is housed today in the newer of the two remaining Synagogues, with the older on having been recently renovated after its tenure as a hostel and turned into the concert venue that I hope to go to soon.  Really cool to go see.  That’s all for today, bye!



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