The tea harvesting process begins early morning for the people of Bangdong – the village in southern Yunnan that my China cohort and I have been staying in for the past week or so. Each family operates differently, but from what I have observed so far, some part of tea harvesting and/or processing is part of most everyone’s daily schedule. While I have been out to the tea fields with my homestay gege (older brother), I have not yet had the opportunity to either participate in or closely observe the practice of picking leaves. My family seems far more involved with the processing and sales side of the tea business; despite this, I hope to have at least one opportunity to be introduced to the tea picking procedure before our group departs for Kunming.
One of my first few days here in the Bangdong area was spent shadowing my gege, Yang Song. We drove to a town about 45 minutes outside of our village called Xigui, where we spent most of the day waiting to purchase the day’s harvest from local tea farmers. As the majority of the farmers won’t call it a day until around sunset, Yang Song and I had a lot of time to kill. Around lunchtime, we headed down to the Lancangjiang (Mekong River), where we met up with a group of people who turned out to be Yang Song’s bosses. I would later find out that the bosses only come down to the Bangdong area once every few months; in hindsight, I realized I got to experience something that very few people in my position would ever have the opportunity to behold. I was very lucky. The group of us – Yang Song, his bosses, and I – crossed the Lancangjiang and set off for a restaurant where we spent the next few hours eating lunch and talking. To be fair, after fielding some preliminary questions from the bosses, such as “Ni jiao shenme mingzi? (What is your name?)” and “Ni cong na’er lai de? (Where are you from?)”, I did very little talking. This was both because I struggled to understand most of their talking points and because I didn’t want to intrude upon anything of importance. I already felt as though I was stealing a quick glimpse at a part of life that I should not normally have been privy to, so I was careful not to overstep my bounds. The bosses were around for the remainder of the day, as we returned to the tea fields to purchase leaves, and even as we eventually returned home. They all seemed very interested in taking video of everything they saw – from tea trees, to ovens and machinery, to me, their new “meiguo pengyou (American friend)”. In a way, I found it interesting how it seemed as though many of the bosses were like tourists in their own country. Seeing as some of them were from as far away as Beijing, perhaps my perception of them as tourists speaks to the sheer size and cultural diversity of China as a whole. Having been to Beijing before, I can attest to it seeming like it belonged to a completely different country than Bangdong, even down to the differences in dialect. At the same time, part of their reasons for videotaping their experience could have been because they weren’t expecting to see an African-American, especially in a location as rural as Bangdong. Recording their findings could have also been helpful for their business. Nonetheless, it was a finding that left me thinking for the remainder of the day.
When we returned home that evening, I was first introduced to tea processing. The bosses had brought along their workers, who spent the whole night spinning tea in Yang Song’s ovens. I observed from the backdrop while the bosses continued to take video of their workers roasting the tea leaves. Still possessing some of the same timidity of earlier that day, I hung back, not wanting to interfere with the process. I did, however, start to pick up on some of the motions and techniques that the workers used in the ovens. Hoping I would have an opportunity work the ovens in the near future, I headed off to sleep, as the night was growing late. Unfortunately, the next few days proved to have no timely moments for me to get involved. In fact, as those days were plagued by heavy rain, it seemed as though no one in my family had much of anything to get involved with. I asked my jiejie (older sister) what they tend to do when it rains. From what I understood, they didn’t often do much. After those few days, some women I had never met before showed up at our house. They came with tea leaves, and I eventually discovered that they were workers for Yang Song’s family. So then, even though the rain hadn’t quite let up, there was a new supply of fresh tea leaves at the house to be roasted. That time, I did offer to help. While I think Yang Song was hesitant to let me try – understandably so, letting some kid you’ve known for a little over a week handle your cash crop in a 300+ degree (Celsius) oven is never ideal – he eventually let me go for it. Once your hands are in the oven, it’s a lot hotter than you could have realized from the outside. Even with the gloves on, you can’t let your hands linger on the metal surface for much longer than a second. The first day I helped out, I was only allowed to work for around ten minutes; the next day, however, I spent around an hour and a half rotating with Yang Song on the ovens. It’s a tiring endeavor. Even as I say that, I only have around an hour and a half of one day under my belt. After getting somewhat of an authentic tea roasting experience, I can understand why some rainy days might be left to rest and recover.
I have only been in Bangdong for around a week and a half, and I can already sense that I will never really understand much about tea. From processes that I haven’t even touched on yet, like the planting and the nurturing of the trees to the fermenting of already roasted leaves, there is so much to know. Even the few things I think I might know a bit about, I’m probably ignorant towards. In considering how much specialization and knowledge is required for something like the processing of tea, it’s almost beyond comprehension to consider how much such knowledge is required to keep things like running water and electricity – things I take for granted everyday – supplied to billions of people everyday.