Every morning in Tokyo, as the tile roofs of the neighborhood houses come into view, I put the kettle on for Darjeeling tea. When the water reaches a rolling boil, I pour it over the dark, crinkly leaves of the Camellia sinensis var. sinensis tea plant. Like the Japanese paper flowers Proust writes of, the ones that bloom when put in water, a world unfolds as the leaves steep and the musky, floral fragrance rises.
The tea estates, which I first saw as a small girl when my mother brought her American husband and children to her hometown of Darjeeling, lie 6,700 feet in the Himalayas near the India-Tibet border. The long, even rows of emerald tea bushes undulate with the hills, dirt paths cutting through them like veins. The estate names read like a roster of champion racehorses: Margaret’s Hope, Makaibari, Happy Valley, Rangaroon, Liza Hill. The teas include crisp and ethereal First Flush, harvested in spring; rough-edged Rain Tea, produced during the summer monsoon; fruity, coppery Autumn Flush.
Bringing water to a boil, waiting for the leaves to brew, pouring the tea into a cup and milk into the tea (only a drop, so the taste isn’t diluted), I’m doing what my Tibetan family has done for over a century. The earthy notes of the amber liquid conjure the wool-and-camphor smell of our Darjeeling house, the odor of butter lamps and incense in the altar room. They make me feel connected to the land itself: 28,000-foot Mount Kanchenjunga, soaring over the town; sacred Observatory Hill, where our family feasted at Losar New Year; the dusky waters of the Teesta River, where my grandparents’ ashes were scattered.
I was born in Spain, when my father was stationed at an American naval base in Andalusia. I spent my first two years there, lived with my grandparents in Darjeeling while my parents got settled in Nepal for an assignment with the Peace Corps, and then moved to the States when I was three. For twenty years, I didn’t visit India or think much about it. Not wanting her children to feel different from the other kids—and thrilled to leave behind the old country—my mother made no effort to educate us about her culture of origin. She was determined to do things à la American, as she liked to joke. She did cook curries and call me “darling” in the British accent she acquired at convent school in Darjeeling, but she’d put aside the long Tibetan chuba dress in favor of slim wool suits and swing dresses, pencil skirts and capri pants. She went all out at Christmas, decorating a tree with twinkling lights and homemade gingerbread men, filling the living room with presents. At Easter there was an egg hunt, and on Halloween, trick-or-treating in the costumes she’d stayed up night after night sewing. My intellectual psychiatrist father, whom she met when they were medical school classmates at Columbia, objected to these pursuits as mindless adherence to social convention, but I sided with my mother because I loved the presents and egg hunts and costumes.
The best part, though, about not having to wear Tibetan dress or celebrate Losar New Year in February was that no one knew I was half-Tibetan. In 1960s and ’70s New Jersey and California, there were relatively few children of Asian descent, and I lay awake at night wishing for blond hair and blue eyes. It was bad enough that I had to endure taunts on the playground of “Ching, Chong, Chinaman!” I didn’t need people finding out that I actually came from some strange place they’d never heard of. My plain vanilla name, Ann Davis, kept its secrets, but because I looked different, people tried to guess my ethnicity: “Hawaiian? Irish? Italian?” And if I told them I was born in Spain: “Oh, that’s it. Spanish.”
There was another reason I wanted nothing to do with the Asian part of me. By nature, and coming of age during the era of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, I was an outspoken, strong-willed girl. My father encouraged these traits, exhorting me not to “trivialize” myself, to consider myself anyone’s equal. But in my mother’s Tibetan-by-way-of-the-British-Raj upbringing, girls were socialized to be demure and humble; I was, she fretted, becoming “too American.” Don’t ask so many questions! she’d say when we argued. Don’t talk so much! Who do you think you are? A good question, I always felt, though not in the way she intended. I brooded over the meaning of “half-Tibetan” and “half-American.”
My parents divorced when I was eleven. Though my mother and I continued to clash throughout my teen years, I became her confidante. On weekends, we’d sit at breakfast long after my siblings had finished and she’d talk about her job as director of a public health clinic. She told stories about the dorm parties she threw in medical school (“We drank loads of Japanese sake and then rumbaed down the hall!”); about going on pilgrimage from Darjeeling to Bodh Gaya with her family by overnight rail and waking to the sun rising over the Indian plain. Filled with remorse that I’d looked at her only as “mother,” I felt the first stirrings of wanting to know more about where she’d come from.
When it was time to leave home, I was afraid my mother would be lonely, but I also knew she wanted me to set forth into the world as she had. In college, I studied comparative literature, focusing on French and Latin American novels, and decided to make my life as a writer in Paris. But the confusion and anxieties of my girlhood persisted, my unhappiness intensified by a letter from my mother during senior year: she’d raised me all wrong, she was sorry to say; in the end, I had turned out “too American.” After graduating, I fell into a depression. For reasons I couldn’t fathom, I abandoned my Paris plan and went to Darjeeling, winging my way back like a homing pigeon to the country I’d last seen when I was three.
Until the moment I arrived, I worried I was making a terrible mistake. Why travel to the place that seemed like the source of my melancholia?
Being in Darjeeling for the first time as an adult—visiting the house where my mother grew up and the old monasteries where our family prayed—I felt like an archaeologist stumbling across the excavation site I’d long been searching for. Since tea is such an integral part of my Tibetan family’s life, it’s deeply entwined with my experience in Darjeeling. When I tried tea as a girl, I recoiled from the astringent flavor. Yet in Darjeeling I began drinking it and have continued ever since. The tea ritual, its complex materiality, has changed the way I feel about my family, my mother, and myself.
Tea plants were introduced to Darjeeling in the mid-1800s by Dr. Archibald Campbell, a Scot working for the East India Company to develop the remote, sparsely inhabited area as a retreat from the sweltering plains in summer. The plants flourished in the high-altitude rain, mist, and sun, and the local tea industry was born, transforming the town into a cosmopolitan crossroads of Europeans, Anglo-Indians, Tibetans, Nepalis, Chinese, and Bengalis. My great-great-great-grandfather worked as an assistant to Campbell and sold family land for the founding of the Pandam and Glenburn tea estates. In the 1920s, my great-grandfather bought the Aloobari estate, site of Campbell’s first tea-planting experiments. The estates were wild and lonely places, vast tracts where mostly British tea planters—often working-class men low in the pecking order—oversaw the laborers who plucked the leaves. Though tea was a constant reminder to the laborers of the disparity between their meager wages and the profitability of the estates, they drank cup after cup on the job and at home, adding salt or milk and sugar. And with millions of pounds produced annually, tea became indispensable to the British Raj and local elites at the center of Darjeeling social life, enjoyed at tennis parties and in ladies’ drawing rooms, at the Gymkhana Club, and the New Year’s tea given by His Excellency the Governor of Bengal.
For my family, tea became as essential as daily prayers. In the half century my grandparents lived at Annandale, their house on a quiet side street, they had tea every day at four. It was a time to relax and reconnect before going back to the Windamere, their Raj-era hotel, and preparing for the evening’s events.
When I returned after college, my grandfather was gone. Then, and during visits over the years, as I settled in Tokyo, married, and became a university professor, I had tea in the living room with my grandmother. Thangka scroll paintings hung on the walls, renderings of landscapes and heavenscapes with jeweled trees and palaces, buddhas and flying monks, yogis and demons. In one corner were photos of Queen Elizabeth and the Thirteenth Dalai Lama; in another, my grandparents’ collection of Gershwin records. The tea items were laid out with the same care as the family’s ritual prayer objects were arranged in the altar room: teapot with tea cozy, sugar bowl, creamer of heated milk; Wedgwood Campion flower-patterned china.
Some of these items dated back to the early 1900s, when my grandmother was a girl. After her mother died, she supervised the household staff in serving tea to the officials constantly calling on my great-grandfather, who was active in local politics and worked with the Dalai Lama. She saw to it that the sterling tea service was polished, the linen napkins starched, fragrant roses arranged in bowls, finger sandwiches cut into perfect triangles and arrayed on doily-covered platters, cakes and tarts set out on tiered stands. “How many people came,” she liked to remember. “Viceroys, rajas and ranis, ambassadors. Big people, short people, mad people. My father had full reliance on me, small as I was!” I saw in her the same pride my mother took in preparing a meal or knitting a sweater, and was struck by how my grandmother and mother didn’t feel diminished by these woman-identified acts. Maybe this was part of what my mother had wanted me to understand when she pushed me to be more demure and humble.
As my grandmother and I talked, the peaks of Kanchenjunga fading to blue in the oncoming twilight, we drank cup after cup of tea. We ate Scottish Walkers Shortbread and syrupy Indian rasgulla cottage cheese and semolina balls, Sikkimese gram (fried chickpea flour with turmeric and cumin) and peanut butter “imported from California” (brought by my mother on one of her visits). What sort of writing did I do, my grandmother wanted to know. For her, husband and children had always come first—how did modern girls manage career, husband, and children? In her silk chuba dress and turquoise jewelry, hair braided and coiled atop her head in the style she’d worn since the 1930s, she ruminated and reminisced about her battles with her unkind stepmother; the traditional marriage proposals she refused, too independent to “worship the he-man”; my great-grandfather riding his pony over 17,000-foot passes in the dead of winter to mediate a political dispute in Lhasa; Tibetan citizens who, after the 1959 uprising against the occupying Chinese, were “dragged round and round, whipped to death, put in the black cellar as punishment.” And my mother, who, when leaving for America, “didn’t shed one tear,” just waved goodbye to her weeping parents and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll be perfectly all right.”
On my visits to Darjeeling with my mother, the conversation would start out free-ranging and relaxed—one of the rare moments when the strain between my mother and grandmother abated. Though my mother had idolized her father, she harbored resentment toward her mother. She was amused by my grandmother’s stories, which generally involved someone meeting a wretched end, but the mood changed when, inevitably, my grandmother told my mother to sort out the altar room or organize the photo albums before returning to California. (Thrilled that her granddaughter would journey for days to come see her, my grandmother was disinclined to order me around.) My mother hated how girls were expected first and foremost to be “good housegirls,” regardless of their intelligence or achievements. She’d attempt to explain or negotiate, or just start shouting—Even though I’m a doctor, you think all I’m good for is tidying the house!—as my grandmother fell silent, expecting filial piety.
When my mother was growing up, she told me after one of these quarrels, girls who were too “bold” were “squelched.” Then I better understood why she’d been so happy to go away to America. I also glimpsed something that would take time to fully grasp: both my grandmother and mother were iron-willed, independent women who’d supported their daughters’ ambitions yet held to old-style expectations for girls. I came to see I could break the pattern with my own daughter. At the same time, I realized I’d inherited my determination from my grandmother and mother. I sensed myself being drawn in and reconnected, felt lines extending to the future.
In the ritual of tea—the lush aroma of the leaves grown in Darjeeling soil and the gleam of the silver tea service, the delicate weight of the Wedgwood china and the sound of tea being poured, the flow of stories and conversation under the gaze of the heaven and hell gods on the thangkas—I’ve found what I traveled halfway around the world in search of after college. The taste of the tea varies, different notes coming to the fore—mellow or spicy, flowery or bitter—but the steady continuity of the ritual never wavers.
From when I was a girl until I was in my early thirties, I had a recurring dream about trying to run away though my legs were filled with wet sand. I never dream this anymore.
At home in Tokyo, I enjoy my tea surrounded by thangkas, the traditional blue-and-white porcelain teacups with silver lids that were a wedding present from my grandmother, a prayer wheel from the family altar room. Until my grandmother died in 2004, my children loved having tea with her at Annandale, eating prodigious amounts of gram and cake while listening to her stories and answering her questions about their lives. On the last day of our visit, my grandmother would take us to the prayer room and touch our foreheads to the altar. Generations of our family prayed in that room; it was where my mother said the old Tibetan prayers as a girl. Next to the flickering butter lamps and statues of deities was a battered copper gau locket that family members had worn for protection on journeys. I always wanted to tell my children that times had changed, that their paths would be easier than my mother’s and mine. Instead, I’d help them light incense as an offering to the ancestors and the gods. Then my grandmother would walk me and the children to the car, wish us happy landings, and give us big packets of tea to take home.
Ann Tashi Slater’s work has been published by the New Yorker, the Paris Review, AGNI, and Granta en español, among others. Her writing appears in Women in Clothes and American Dragons, and her translation of fiction by Reinaldo Arenas was published in Old Rosa. Current projects include a bardo-related novel based on her Tibetan family history, a memoir about a pilgrimage to her ancestral homeland, and multimedia events at NYC’s Rubin Museum, including an October 2018 talk about her essay, “Traveling in Bardo,” and Tibetan wisdom in everyday life. A longtime resident of Tokyo, she teaches comparative literature at a Japanese university.