January 24th, 2011

(4) A Cup of Tea Solves Everything…Right?

Healthy Tea Drinking, a Friendly Capitalism, and the Results that Should Follow

There is nothing like waking up in the morning to a warm cup of tea.  It makes me feel happy even if I have to wake up early for Monday morning classes, or if I just woke up on the wrong side of the bed.  I like to think that it is the warmth of the tea in my stomach, and the soothing flavor that puts a little hop in my step, but there are actual health benefits from drinking tea.  Here are some interesting facts I found:

Tea is often considered a healthier alternative to coffee.  They both, however, have their own advantages.  A cup of tea has about half the amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee, which will less likely give you the jitters and a headache.

Tea is also a great source of antioxidants that act on free radicals in our bodies, and can help prevent diseases.  For those who want the most bang for their buck, white tea has the most antioxidants.  Moreover, studies have shown that those who drink tea regularly have lower blood pressure.  It also lowers cholesterol, which protects against heart disease.   There are also studies that show a correlation between tea drinking and the lowered risk of cancers.  Green tea is known to prevent against lung cancer –so for those who smoke a lot, get to the market pronto!  Tea also delays the onset of Alzheimer’s. In general, tea makes for a stronger immune system, which may explain the longevity of Chinese and Japanese people.  The oldest person to have lived, according to the Guinness World Records, is a Japanese man named Shigechiyo Izumi, and before him, Niwa Kawamoto, also Japanese.  Perhaps the two oldest people were produced from Japan because of their tea drinking culture.

Statisically, however, our country is responsible for one of the highest percentages of deaths due to heart diseases and cancer.  The public is led to believe that they are taking action by buying promoted healthier foods.  But why do I think of Diet Coke and “100 calorie pack” Chips Ahoy boxes when people mention healthier options?  And in vending machines, why not sell tea bags?  Perhaps America can improve these sad statistics by adopting the tea traditions so that everyone can have a little hop in their step, or at least take a hop down on the mortality rate.

For those interested, there are plenty of websites that list a wider and more detailed range of tea benefits.  Here are a few I found useful:

http://www.2basnob.com/health-benefits-of-tea.html

http://www.ivillage.com/top-10-health-benefits-drinking-tea/4-a-108301

http://www.revolutiontea.com/health-benefits.html

But what does this mean?  For all our grievances against capitalism and commercialization that feeds our deplorable mortality rates, does commercialization offer salvation through one of its products?  Perhaps this is at the heart of contradictions.  Whole Foods, organic foods, tea: Don’t they all posit the health and well-being of its consumers over the titans of bad health- the grocery store brands?  Yet they are themselves giants in commercialization.  If commercialization lowers tea to the standard of the everyday man and woman, is that necessarily a bad thing?  When I began to recognize the degradation of tea cultural values, I became somewhat disappointed that centuries of tradition and ritual could be reduced to a tiny tea bag in my cabinet.  But considering the health of Americans, perhaps this universality of tea drinking and its absence from high culture is a good thing.  

Or is there something else that is missing from the equation?  Perhaps even with all its affordability and accessibility, not only is it valued less, but maybe tea is ignored by certain consumers.  What if the “universal” nature of tea is really only concentrated within segments of the consumer populace?  And even these tea drinkers could simultaneously be our McDonald’s and TV Dinner consumers “balancing out” their bad diets with “healthy” tea.  Tea may only be part of the equation, and further from the answer.

January 17th, 2011

(2) Drinking Tea with Your Pinky Down

The Birth and Death of Ceremonial Tea: Tradition vs Commercialization

Drinking tea used to be like an intricate dance.  Your wrist does a little plié, your spoon does a pirouette, then you point your pinky and end with a grand sip.  In today’s social standards, that’s too pretentious.  I ate at Joe’s Shanghai this past weekend, and drinking tea from their rusted steel pot with my pinky down was probably the best option.  It is interesting to observe how the standards relating to drinking tea have changed drastically throughout the centuries, and can perhaps serve as a metaphor of modernity’s conflation and destruction of cultural values and identity.  

In the past, tea was held in high regard and was consumed only by the royal and elite classes.  It was an integral part of the booming tea trade and is often associated with Great Britain’s tea time.  However, tea originated from China.  It is said that in 2737 B.C. Chinese Emperor Shen Nong liked to have his drinking water boiled.  One day, he was in the garden with his cup of hot water when small branches and leaves fell into his cup, emitting a redolent taste and aroma.  During the Tang Dynasty between 618 A.D. to 906 A.D., tea became China’s national drink and its popularity continued to spread throughout the world.  Cultures from Japan and the Middle East to eventually Europe adopted tea drinking into their customs.  Japanese tea drinking ceremonies became perhaps the most traditional and formal signatures of tea upon sociocultural interactions.  

Although tea drinking from Emperor Nong’s great Eureka moment developed into a ceremony celebrated by upper-class cultures across the globe, its hierarchical status was challenged in the 20th century with the simple commodification of tea by large industries and the introduction of tea bags by Thomas Sullivan.  The price of tea was significantly lowered, making it accessible to all social classes.  Thus began the decline of tea as an art performance.  Today, tea is no longer a beverage only for the upper class, but now more a drink of the people.  

As a Chinese/Vietnamese-American from the heart of Little Saigon, I grew up drinking tea from brass tins after family meals, yet still noticed the same cheap tea leaves being steeped and poured into “good china” that sat on Buddhist altars.  While such use of tea certainly remains esteemed in my family during holidays, weddings, and death-day celebrations, these moments are few and limited.  At its highest, tea is the honorary gesture at a wedding’s commencement.  I’ve watched all my uncles and their brides giving a cup of tea to an older couple on wedding day at the bride’s house.  But usual family celebrations finds the cup of tea sitting stagnant amongst fruit offerings and incense sticks.  

So is it surprising to think that the same tea leaves once discovered haphazardly became a bastion of cultural ritual, and then declined in prestige when it found access to hordes of tea drinkers?  Bumping elbows with strangers at Joe’s Shanghai, I think not.