One of the gifts I received this year during the holidays was a handmade, traditional Chinese terracotta teapot (cha hu) from my mother, who was in Taiwan to visit family earlier this month. While there, she visited 鶯歌 (Yingge District, a river community in southwestern New Taipei City), renowned for its production of porcelain, art studios, and tea houses.
Many mother-daughter relations can be fraught with expectations, tensions, confusion, amidst the ardent love that each side holds for each other. Like many immigrant families, we’ve shared not only a generational gap, but also a cultural and spiritual one.
And yet, this year of the Tiger has brought necessary conversations to surface— at first too raw to touch directly, but this year’s wild cat custodian also has a soft belly underneath, where the ferocity was only guarding the most precious of insides.
Or like a chahu, hard as stone on the outside, and holding a fragrant liquid made from ancient trees, that when sipped, can open one’s senses to the otherwise invisible.
In many Taiwanese traditions, oolongs and puers in particular receive a quick rinse from its first steep of heated water. Barely a steep, the hot water is meant to rinse off any impurities, since these leaves are organic materials that have been processed in a fairly rustic way; the heat is also meant to wake up the leaves.
The liquid from this rinse step is not consumed, and is discarded, before the first “true” steeping is made and then enjoyed. As my mother gifts me the chahu, she says that this one was made from the regional Taiwanese clay, which most producers increasingly use less of, as imported clays improve the bottom line as Taiwanese clay can require more steps and massaging to yield a desired finished result in the earthenware.
Save the rinse, she says, pour it over the chahu; always offer the chahu its first yield. She continues, 你在养茶壶; you are raising a teapot.
And our eyes lock. It’s her code for signalling that she is also an animist. A Christian animist, perhaps, but one nonetheless.
I replay the encounter as I drive home.
Replay it again when I made my first pot of oolong the next morning, and then my first pot of puer that afternoon.
Our bond felt through this ancient drink, through the earth where each of us were born, where the literal earth herself, mending our fissures, through her form as a red clay living chahu.