All the Tea in China

By Dena Rash Guzman

The man in the tea shop glances up at us, opening his yellow smile like smog. My hands are hovering over sliced dried lemons. Hovering. A month later, after consumption of those lemons, my mouth will hover over my American toilet.  The lemons were poisonous. So much in China is poisonous. So much anywhere is poisonous. Poisoned. I don’t know yet about the lemons. I’m in the tea shop, wanting them, knowing how long it takes to make them at home in my oven. In my head I hear “Suzanne.”

I am going to bring home tea and lemons all the way from China. I will feed people these things. No oranges. No need. They are too heavy whole and I like California oranges. I like tangerines.

The tea man and his smile are not poisoned and are not hearing Suzanne. Maybe they are. How could they not be? Everything consumable in China is tinged with poison. Oh, melamine, oh protein adulteration. I love the yogurt here though, and sometimes it comes with a Pokemon spoon. Perhaps he’s a vegan. His smile is not poison. At the moment of the smile flash, it is not. My hands hovered over lemons just that hue. Now my hands are flirting with a small tea cup. Now my hands are on statue of Buddha. Now my hands drop a small plastic bag full of egg tarts. The man still smiles yellow nicotine and tea. Why is he so nice? I’m touching everything I see like a child. Don’t touch, don’t touch. Touching it all like it will heal my inherent moribundity. The tea shop is tiny and full of tea and tea accessories. His wife sits in the back at a laptop, typing madly from between giant headphones. She never looks up at us. I wonder if she ever looks up at all.

Camellia sinensis. Tea, all the tea. Not for all the tea. Michelle Tea. Green, black, white, flower. Herbal, medicinal. Ceremony. I don’t need tea but I want souvenirs and I want to go home. Not just to the hotel, but all the way home. All the way to America home. I’m ready. It’s time. My plane departs tomorrow, March 7. The day before my birthday. The Eve of International Women’s Day.

The tea man puts out one cigarette and lights his next. Each to next, each to next. For all the tobacco. Such yellow teeth you have, kind tea shop man. I have no Chinese beyond ni hao and xie xie. Hello, thank you. Hello, thank you.  I’m that sort of traveller. Language makes me shy. I’d be the worst kind of immigrant, speaking the native tongue only in the most dire of circumstance.

For the plant genus, see Nicotiana. For the American electronic musician, see Tobacco(musician). Not to be confused with Tabacco.

I have nothing to do now but pick the dropped egg tarts up and smile back. I want to buy some tea and leave now. I want to go home and shower. We took off into the city early, unshowered and unburdened but are coming back with sacks and sacks of treasure, wearing layers of Shanghai as second skin. City filth is skin and cars and dust and germs and oily residue on the hair. Now he beckons. Now we go to sit, glancing at each other, wondering if this is a tea ceremony scam. We sit on carved wood stools.

Both of us, always wondering if everything is a scam. We are from Shanghai and Las Vegas. We are of grifted universes, where everyone’s a shyster on the lam, and everything always is something of which to be wary.

We sit though, and the man pours us tea. Without mutual language, and with only hand gestures and smiles, he teaches me to make tea with a tiny cup and tinier cups and a lid, straining and straining, and he pours hot water over the tea and sloppily over his wooden table which is ornately carved like a tree covered in lore and mythology. The table has drains. He splashes his hands sometimes. He never winces at the heat. He gives us tea and tea. Not all the tea in China but all the tea we can fathom drinking again for the rest of our cynical lives. He gives us his cigarettes to smoke. He smokes more than he breathes. He won’t take ours in return. Ours are of higher quality but people do settle into brands, don’t they? An hour later, I am hovering over the shopkeeper’s tea bins again, over the dishes. We try to give him money for the ceremony and he won’t take it. It was a strange gift in a side alley in China, like so much is a strange gift. No grift. If not a gift, a gift with purchase. A sales technique. A small grift, perhaps, but a nice one. Sometimes it feels good to be taken a little. That’s the reason people fall.

We leave the tea shop, poison lemon and tea-laden, and I miss my plane the next day. Bad dumplings. Poison. Dirty oil, perhaps. I’m sure it’s not the tea. Tea can’t make you this sick. Right? We are sick. We nearly die. I hold tight to the Chinese plumbing fixtures, sure they will save me from my own mortality. I leave the hotel on March 8, my birthday. International Women’s Day. In China, women traditionally get this day off. In the US, not many realize it’s a holiday at all. I’m light as air, dehydrated, and weaker than watered down tea. I’m saying goodbye, half crazy. I travel blind, lemons and tea, lemons and tea. Tired nearly to sleep, I look down at the dark sea tickling the edge Asia and wonder if I see Jesus walking on the water; no. It’s a tanker full of tea or melamine or Barbie dolls with their perfect bodies. My seat mate, a Baptist preacher from Arizona, tells me we will be taking the long way to the layover in Seoul because North Korea is threatening to shoot planes out of the sky. I settle in, sleeping mask on, and cry. I take it off. I hold a mirror and wipe my eyes and lean back toward home, forever, until the next time, take a sleeping pill with some of the flight attendant’s lukewarm tea and I touch perfect unconsciousness with my mind.

*Excerpt of essay published originally at The Faster Times as a guest post for Chloe Caldwell’s Love and Music column.