Early in the presentation, Josephie showed pictures of her Texas tea and its bright green leaves, about 10 times larger than what I shook into my little pot every day. How could it be that I’d given so little thought to what tea might be like in its natural state? I had only experienced it when it was ready to use, completely dry and curled.
While Josephie talked, we sipped tiny cups of several teas with particular historical significance. “You have to use all of your senses when drinking tea,” she said. “The sixth sense is your soul. You might find that, when you really smell the tea, it will bring back memories.” She was right, of course. When I stopped and paid attention, I could suddenly be in a small tea shop in Seattle, sipping too-hot lavender black tea too quickly, or sitting on the floor in my college boyfriend’s apartment, trying strong, fermented Pu’er for the first time.
Several weeks later, I met Josephie for tea at Gaiwan. Once settled at our table, she removed two sets of carefully wrapped Chinese teacups and taller, cylindrical scent cups from her purse, and placed them on small wooden trays. Next, she pulled out a gaiwan, a Chinese tea infusion bowl invented during the Ming dynasty.
She filled the gaiwan with tea leaves and waited just a moment for the tea to steep before pouring some into my scent cup. She demonstrated the proper technique, placing the cup on top of the scent cup tightly, flipping it, and slowly releasing the scent cup. The teacups cooled slightly, and we buried our noses in the empty scent cups. “What does it smell like to you?” Josephie asked.
“Honestly, it’s a little like barley,” I said.
“There are no right answers,” she said. “It’s all about how it smells to you, what it makes you think about.”
As the tea dried in the scent cup, the smell changed, almost jarringly. My barley scent became a strong honey aroma.
Only after we’d thoroughly noticed the scent could we begin to sip the tea. Josephie told me that in Chinese culture, it’s polite to hide your teeth as you drink, and that you should finish the cup in three sips.
She poured out the excess tea from the gaiwan into a stoneware pitcher from her purse and refilled it with water for a second steeping. “It’s even better the second time around,” she said.
As we sipped, we talked about resilience. “The tea leaf has been abused,” she said. “Its water has been taken from it. When it comes back to life, it’s called the dance of agony.” She paused to take a sip. “But when you taste it, it’s all worth it.”
Beauty out of hardship and suffering is a metaphor close to Josephie’s heart. As a divorcee, immigrant, and single mother, Josephie made a living in the male-dominated oil and gas field. When her daughter rose above bullying, she reminded Josephie of her own potential. Later, newly married and blending a family, she decided it was time to grow into that potential. She planted her first tea crop.
Even when everything is going well, it takes four to seven years before you see a harvest from a tea plant. Josephie’s first plants suffered through drought and insect ravages. Still, they carry on.
She removed a small bag of traditional Chinese black tea—she called it Texas Cha Cha—from her purse. As she steeped it, she reminded me that this was the tea James Norwood Pratt, a noted tea authority, once called the best U.S.-grown tea he’d ever consumed.
We had been drinking good tea at Gaiwan, but something about this experience was different. I had never tasted tea in the presence of the person who grew and processed it. I didn’t know if it was really that much better, or if my brain had tricked my taste buds, but it was delicate and slightly floral. “It tastes a little like a Darjeeling, doesn’t it?” Josephie asked. It did.
The next day, Josephie flew to Texas to check on her tea. When she returned, a week later, she sent me a text: “Have a little tea leaf plucked from TX and shall be guiding the core members of tea class how to make tea tomorrow. Let me know if you would like to come.”
I texted back immediately, asking for the address.