One thousand words for one picture. Let me describe my afternoon tea.
The platform zig-zags, so there are many corners to choose. I pick one which overlooks the water, and I sit so that I in front of me is a sheet of new green leaves overhanging from the tarp above me. It’s better to look ahead than up – the tarp is blue and held up by stray bits of bamboo and scrap wood. Better to look at the foliage. To my right is the tea house itself, to my left is the rest of the park, so I can see people going by.
In the shallow pool which stretches the length of the tea house, brown carp suck along the leafy bottom. The algae hasn’t had time to grow, so I can see them rooting in the molding leaves. Next to them, far more handsome, are the golden carp. Unlike their orange and white brothers and sisters which inhabit every goldfish pond in America, or the brown bottom feeders, this small school of four is a bright soft yellow, so that they really do look like shining gold fish in the water. They swim next to the brown carp, making the latter almost disappear into the bottom of the pool. They make me think of legends and folklore, as though they would speak if they heard the right voice or question.
The tea house itself is old – a brown latticework building with a porch supported by brown pillars. A sloping tiled roof ends in the traditional end pieces, most of which have faces on them. The pond separates it and the pergola structure under which I sit. Brown wicker chairs surround small wicker tables, glass tops clean of debris. An ear cleaner walks amid the tables, long cotton swabs at the ready. He dings two pieces of metal together in rhythmic clanging. For a couple of kuai he’ll delve into your ears – a practice which unnerves me. I am capable of cleaning my own ears.
It’s cool out – a remnant of the winter now forgotten. Winters are not as severe here as back home, but everyone still celebrates the return of spring.
I order a tea – theoretically. I ask the man if he has tea, and he crosses his fingers in what appears to be an “x” while he’s talking. I don’t understand the gesture, and rephrase to politely order a tea (Qĭng gei wŏ yī bēi chá). He nods and leaves, neither of us sure of each other. It’s a tea house. I would like a tea. It’s supposed to be simple. Tea here is served in big glass mugs like beer (they pour beer into shot glasses. I have never seen anyone actually drink a shot here yet). There’s a chrysanthemum blossom tea, green tea, and some sort of flower tea with a dried piece of fruit in it. I wonder what I’ll get.
It’s possible I’ll be overcharged – 4kuai. It’s hard to wrap my head around that I’m getting ripped off being charged seventy-five cents instead of a quarter. More so because the tea will be refilled regularly without further charge. I can spend the day here for a dollar, listening to birds, watching golden fish, drinking tea.
After my tea arrives (green with small white flowers), the man drops off a monstrous thermos containing at least a gallon and a half of boiling water. Perhaps I won’t get change for my 10 kuai after all. Perhaps I’ve inadvertently ordered the premium service by not having correct change. It doesn’t matter – a dollar fifty then for an afternoon of peaceful reflection.
This is a disappearing practice in China. Tea houses used to exist everywhere in the country, but Western thought has no place for hours of gossip and reflection spent over cups of tea. So they’re disappearing, slowly but surely, in place of fast food and more “Western” (read: American) practices. The further inland you go, my books suggest, the easier it is to find a teahouse. The Wenjiang locals will sit here for long stretches of time. I feel a subtle, constant pressure to be doing something. Hence writing. Reflection can be scary and difficult, made more so when alone. Better to have something to do and distract in such times.
There is music in the air, lilting and peaceful. It sounds traditional. I recognize a flute and a stringed instrument, and listening more carefully I pick out another two instruments, one of which sounds like a guitar (I looked it up later – it’s a lute). I look about – a troupe of musicians has set up in a nearby pagoda. They are playing traditional Chinese instruments, and they sound really good. They are not, from the look of it, buskers. They are doing it because it is something do be done, to be given maybe. Or they’re practicing. In my meditative state, I like to think it’s because a park needs music, and a calm afternoon needs tranquil music.
Children walk along the handrail, balancing on the edge of the pond. Most are carrying little neon colored nets. Whether this is to try and catch the fish, or to help get the garbage off the surface, or both, is unclear. Most seem to enjoy just trailing the nets in the water, or smacking the ends on the surface, a sure way to keep their quarry far away. Some scoop up what appear to be snails, and run triumphantly to their parents or older siblings, mucky lumps in the netting.
Looking down, I see a giant brownish gray carp swim next to me. The other fish scatter before the long shape. It’s a shadow in the water, and maybe I was wrong about the magic of the golden fish. Maybe like the Holy Grail or the leaden chest, it’s the unassuming fish which has the real power. Or the biggest. Fish politics are beyond my ken.
You can write a thousand words, or take a picture. Well, here is one picture: