Discovering Chinese culture in a tea cup

Updated:  2018-01-22 17:05:24

  (China TEFL Net)


Hugh Henry (center) learns the techniques of picking tea leaves at a tea garden in Guiyang, Southwest China's Guizhou province, July 24, 2015.

Inspired by a can of tea given to him by one of his Chinese friends in 2004, Hugh Henry began to enjoy the unique flavor and culture of Chinese tea.

"I enjoyed that can of tea very much and never went back to coffee!" said Henry, an American who is fascinated by tea. "I want to encourage Americans to try to understand Chinese people and culture."

"Many people are drinking coffee in the US and sometimes we use coffee as a substitute for sleep. One can get addicted to coffee and become the slave of coffee. But I found that with tea, there is less caffeine, so you can enjoy the tea without the slavery of caffeine," he said.

Among aspects of Chinese culture, Henry found that tea provides a bridge to understanding China and making friends. "When I came to China, I wanted to be friends with Chinese people, to understand them, and tea was the perfect way to do that," he said.

"People in China drink tea from a small cup, they drink it slowly. It is a beautiful blend of art, science, fragrance, taste and friendship," he said. "I enjoy experiencing new varieties of tea, but I drink Duyun Maojian (a green tea produced in Southwest China's Guizhou province) almost every day."

In 2014, he became an English teacher at the College of Tea Art in Guizhou Forerunner College, a higher education vocational institution in Guizhou province. It suits him well both in pursuing his interest in tea and improving the students' language skills.

Henry is very modest while studying tea culture. "Though I've learned many things about tea, I feel like I've only scratched the surface - I find out from my Chinese students that there's much more to learn," he said.


A student learns to promote tea products to foreign customers in Hugh Henry's vocational English class at Guizhou Forerunner College in November, 2014. [Photo provided to]

As for language learning, Henry believes that practice makes perfection. "I say this to my students. If you want to improve your English, you have to make mistakes and you can laugh about it."

And he means it also for himself. Every time he hears a new Chinese word or a new sentence structure, he will try to use it in daily conversations.

"Whether you are a foreigner coming to China, or a Chinese wanting to learn English, learning languages is a social process, where you get embarrassed or make mistakes. Laugh about it and you move forward," he said.

"As teacher, I'm often correcting mistakes my students make in their English. But when I go out with my students to plant, pick, process and brew tea, it's their turn to teach me. They are infinitely patient when I don't hold the hoe the right way or don't roll the tea leaves correctly," Henry said.

His students often keep in touch with him. Some have gone on to be English teachers and reach out to him for professional advice. Others send him holiday photos from home during the Chinese New Year.


Hugh Henry, (right) and a group of foreign students study the tea-making process at a local factory in Southwest China's Guizhou province, June, 2016. [Photo provided to]


Hugh Henry talks with students of the tea art college about Chinese tea in December, 2017. [Photo provided to]

Henry has many experiences traveling the world. He and his family once lived in Germany and Japan and visited many other countries. But among all the places he has been, China holds a special attachment to him because of his mother and her family.

"My first impressions of China came long before I arrived here. My mother's earliest memories in life are when her family arrived for a two-year stay in Beijing in 1937, three days after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident."

"She taught me to use chopsticks and often talked about her experiences living in the Beijing Legation Quarter. Going to my grandparents' house in California as a child was like visiting a Chinese museum," he recalled.

Henry tends to live the Chinese pastoral life portrayed in Pearl S. Buck's novel, The Good Earth. The book, depicting the story of ordinary Chinese farmers, was extremely popular in the US during the 1930s and won a Pulitzer in 1932.

"[It] made a deep impression on me," Henry said. "She wrote that book from a perspective of an insider, or an outsider living in China, but she really understood China. It gave the Western world a window [to know China]. For me, I want to live in a world that book talked about and it made me very interested in farming, too."

After two unsuccessful planting trials in California and South China's Guangzhou, he finally figured out the right climate and techniques to grow tea trees. Now, he has tea trees, which were brought from a nearby county three years ago, sprouting tea seeds on his balcony.


Students teach Hugh Henry, (third from left), how to make pyramid-shaped rice dumplings for the Dragon Boat Festival in June, 2016. [Photo provided to]

"With the tea college here, we can go all the way from cultivating tea to the drinking and selling tea and every step in between. I'd like to experience the whole process, not just the one thing I'm drinking but from the beginning to the end," he said.

Henry and his family moved to the countryside after living several years in Guangzhou and instantly fell in love with rural China.

"We have found countryside people so kind and welcoming! We ride our electric scooters through small villages and people are always asking us to sit with them or come to their home for a meal. Once my son left his mobile phone outside on the sports field, a stranger found it and tracked him down to return it - when does that happen in the big city?" he said.

He refers to the present as the "golden era" for Americans to cultivate friendships with Chinese people: "Take the time to read about Chinese history and culture. Invest the time to learn the language; there are no shortcuts."

"One culture can experience so many benefits from another culture. So open your mind and open your heart, and learn something new," he said.


Source: China Daily

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