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Click Here for Tao of Tea
When Chinese offer tea
to visitors, it’s never a hasty Lipton teabag affair. Chinese tea
is an art—but one I’ve had to learn to appreciate. I’m
used to guzzling coffee from giant mugs or German steins, and soda from
a 32 oz. (907.2 grams) glass. So sipping tea from a cup that is no more
than a thimble with handles takes some getting used to. Even the teapot
is so small that I could down the contents in one gulp. Chinese tea sets
remind me of the toy kitchen sets my sister played with when she was five
But gradually my impatient palate has come to appreciate the art of Chinese
tea, and the casual conversations with friends as we perch on bamboo stools
and sip Oolong from our thimble cups. Drinking tea is as much an art as
preparing it, and Chinese are always willing to do both—no matter
what the circumstances.
I dropped in unannounced on the MBA Dean one evening. He promptly served
up Anxi tea in thimble cups and we chatted for two hours, as if he had
all the time in the world. The next day I learned from his secretary that
he’d had to stay up the entire night finishing urgent reports—yet
he never even hinted that I’d been interrupting. Surely nothing
compares with Chinese hospitality. But…their ceremonial “offer—decline
3 times” custom can be frustrating for foreigners.
Protocol requires Chinese must offer tea 3 or 4 times, and guests must
decline 2 or 3 times with a humble, “Bu yao mafan ni” (I don’t
want to trouble you). So when I invited MBA students to our home, I warned
them, “Foreigners are frank. If I offer you tea and you want it,
say yes—because I won’t grow old repeating the offer!”
A few days later, my 32 students climbed the 105 steps to our hilltop
apartment. Sweaty and gasping for breath, my desiccated scholars sprawled
on sofa, chairs, and floor “Would you like some tea?” I asked.
“Oh, no!” came the chorus. “We don’t want to trouble
you!” Even though my steaming teapot was right in front of their
“Are you sure?” I asked again.
“No, too much trouble,” they repeated, though hesitantly.
“Ok,” I said. And I shattered protocol and set Sino-American
relations back a century by ignoring the obligatory 3rd and 4th requests.
They watched in horror as I, with exaggerated contentment, sipped a cup
of steaming tea. But I relented half an hour later and asked once more.
“Are you sure you don’t want tea? Raise your hand if you do.”
Hands shot up everywhere. Some even raised two hands, as if they were
being robbed. I laughed and said, “Help yourself!” And my
students unceremoniously raced for the teapot.
The following Friday night, a chorus of laughing MBA students showed up
on our doorstep and shouted, “Hi Professor. Where’s the tea?”
Last Updated: May 2007
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