Peace Corps Writers
Second Time Around (page 2)

Second Time Around

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     We were the oldest people on campus — the average retirement age in China is 50 for women, 55 for men — but the students treated us as peers, as fascinating people with something to offer them. They wanted to talk about everything. The movie “Brokeback Mountain” was much on their minds. They also wanted to know what we ate, what we thought about Japan, if children took care of their aging parents in the United States, if we fell in love at first sight, how we disciplined our children, what we thought of Jane Austen, if we watched “Desperate Housewives,” and why we came to China.
     Our sense of wonder was rekindled by the simplicity of our life there. We lived in a small apartment on campus, walked or rode our one-speed bicycles everywhere, bought food daily, worked hard, made friends, took the crowded bus into Hangzhou on the weekends to walk along West Lake or drink tea (or coffee — yes, there was a Starbucks). We were glad not to own a car, and when students asked if we knew how to drive, we admitted that we could, but didn’t mention the two cars in our garage in Minneapolis.
     Doing without — no car, few clothes — was easier than slowing down. Colleagues talked about spending the day, the whole day, relaxing at a tea house. We tried, but couldn’t figure out what you were supposed to do all day at a tea house. At every establishment we visited the server brought us each a tall glass half full of tea leaves and filled to the brim with hot water then left a tall, pink thermos next to my chair. No spoon to push the leaves down, no sugar, no lemon. If we tried to drink too soon, we burned our fingers on the glass and got a mouthful of tea leaves, so we had to wait for the leaves to sink. Even so we were never able to last more than thirty minutes in such an establishment. We drank our tea, sometimes refilled the glass once from the thermos, and left.
     It was a young teacher in our department who taught me how to drink tea. Kevin — I never knew his real name, his Chinese name — spoke beautiful English but wanted to sound like a native and asked me to help him with his intonation so we practiced rising and falling inflections for a couple of hours a week. For our last meeting he invited me to go to Qing Teng Tea House, the most famous in Hangzhou. It was obviously several steps above the tea establishments Chuck and I had frequented and expensive — 60 yuan for a cup of tea. “We must have Hangzhou’s most famous tea, Dragon Well tea,” Kevin said.
     The tea came in two tiny white china cups, no handles, but with lids and saucers. After a few minutes, I lifted my lid to drink. “No,” Kevin said. “You don’t drink the first or second water. The leaves are dirty.” He lifted his cup and, using the lid as a shield, poured the water into the tall ceramic bowl on the table. (I’d thought it was a vase.) I did the same, and then he took the teapot of hot water that was on a small brazier near our chairs and refilled our cups. “Do you know what the lid is for?” he asked. Well, that was obvious — to keep the tea hot. He smiled, picked up his cup between two fingers and his thumb, raised the lid slightly, and breathed in the aroma of the tea. “The lid holds the flavor, so you take it in just as you sip the tea. Like fine wine,” he said. “The bouquet.”
     There was a tray on the table that we took to an adjoining room where there were two long buffet tables with hot and cold delicacies: spring rolls, soups, meats, fruits, tarts. Kevin filled the tray. “You must try this and this and this.” Each was more delicate and wonderful than the one before and every time I said I liked something, he went back for more. After an hour or so, the server appeared to put a bowl of several kinds of fruit on our table, to refill our tea pot with hot water, and to rekindle the fire under the brazier.

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