Lin, Li and I hover over the Coffee Time counter, mouths watering as we examine the sugary treats. We’re mesmerized by the colourful display of cakes: red, green, pink, yellow. The girls’ eye glitter and I’m certain this is the most excited I’ve seen the two since I met them in Jinan nearly two weeks ago. One of several coffee shops surrounding their university campus, Lin and Li chose Coffee Time as the place to go after I insist on treating them to something “special” before I leave their city. “It’s better than Starbuck,” Lin assures me.
After several minutes of deliberation Lin settles on a red bean latte and chocolate cake, Li on a tiramisu latte and rainbow cake drowning in a thick layer of white icing, and I on a matcha latte. I pay the bill, which is about the same I’d pay at any coffee shop in Canada. Remembering an earlier conversation, I calculate this treat is about half the monthly government allowance the girls receive as students.
After placing our orders, we make our way up a twisted staircase to the second floor of the coffee shop. At the base of the stairwell a cork bulletin board confronts us covered with handwritten notes in paper of all sizes, shapes and colours. Some are written in broken English, some in Chinese characters. We examine the rainbow of notes pointing out letters that share passionate professions of love, hurt, joy and rebellion. We are all amused.
The second floor of the coffee shop is filled with young women sitting alone or chatting amongst groups of friends. All are sipping indulgent variations of coffee-flavoured drinks and most have a dessert. We choose a table next to the window where below the street is bustling with people, cars and noise.
After taking off our jackets and settling in, the server brings our order and places it on the wooden table. The girls’ eyes light up again. Li enjoys a gulp of her tiramisu latte and giggles. “This is so good,” she squeaks.
Between sips of my own drink, I notice an orange and white-speckled notebook at the corner of the table. I pick it up and flip through a few pages. Similar to the notes that line the base of the stairwell, the book is a collection of secrets and dreams written in English and Chinese. I scan the coffee shop and notice that a similar book sits on each table.
“Young Chinese use these to share their thoughts and feelings about things they can’t say in public,” explains Lin noticing my curiosity. She translates one confession of a secret love, then both girls laugh as they point to a Chinese inscription written in bold red letters.
“This one is from a girl who is not happy with her boyfriend,” Li says.
Between sips of coffee and bites of cake, the conversation flows from puppy love to pop culture. I learn in great detail of the girls' fascination with G-Dragon, a young South Korean rapper, and their affinity for Japanese fashion.
Pointing out the number of coffee shops I’ve seen in Jinan, I ask Li and Lin if young Chinese people are influenced by North American culture. “I guess I was expecting to see more people drinking tea in China,” I confess.
They explain that many young Chinese people admire the freedom of the American lifestyle, and that the popularity of coffee shops like Coffee Time, that allow people to share their feelings through notebooks or stick it notes, reflect that desire.
“It’s not that tea isn’t important in China, because it will always be part of the Chinese culture,” says Lin. “But it is expensive and a lot of work to have a tea pot, tea cups, water and leaves. It doesn’t fit with student life.”
Both girls think they will drink tea when they are older because it is healthy, but for now they prefer both the taste and lifestyle that coffee offers.
“The one thing I miss about tea is that I am more fat now that I don’t live at home and drink it everyday,” says Li as she scrapes the remains of icing from her plate. “Then again, maybe I shouldn’t eat so much chocolate cake.”
We look at each other and laugh.
Author's message to you:
This is one of six short based on my research about the Chinese teahouse culture. A lover of tea, and curious about culture, I spent a month visiting and participating in teahouse rituals across 4 Chinese cities. My goal was to understand and describe whether learning about teahouse culture could help tourists like me better understand and appreciate the Chinese culture. I chose to present my research in six (a lucky number in China) non-linear stories, which I found to be in line with the fluid nature of the Chinese culture.
I would very much appreciate your opinion on the following, or any other thoughts that come to mind:
- How (if at all) does the above story change/expand your understanding/appreciation about the Chinese culture?
- Do you have any personal tea experiences/stories that have helped you know a different culture more intimately?
- What are you thoughts about tea and the Chinese culture? Did this story change any ideas you previously held?
- Is your "culture" represented through any tea practices/rituals?
-Next time you sit down to enjoy a cup of tea, make note of the colour, texture, taste, aftertaste and feel of the tea as it slides down your throat. What do you see, what do you hear, how do you feel?