A Cup of Tea
This piece is dedicated to my grandma.
The air is stale and musty.
Cardboard boxes lay strewn stacked like haphazardly formed blocks against the arch of the doorway—some slashed open, their contents spilling out, some still packaged up, their secrets contained—all were remnants of our latest move and certainly not the last. Even though it has been months, the boxes still laid unopened in disarray, our possessions and belongings casted away, locked up, sealed in their individual compartments. The warmth they once brought, the memories they once held, now too painful to bear. In a way, we have fastened a little part of ourselves away, sweeping our vulnerabilities underneath our surface, poker face, cut off ourselves so we can feel a little less, be reminded of the throbbing, gashed wounds of our past a little less.
Always on the move, always switching out old houses for new ones, trying to wash away our pain, trying not to stay too attached to a place—lest risk being bombarded with the pain of it as we move on—constantly trying to find a place to fill the forever emptiness in our lives, in our family. The gaping, yawning distance that lies between each of us at the dinner table, so close, yet at the same time not there, each of us cocooned too deeply in our layers of pain. It was early, the tiniest gleam of sunlight dipped the corners of the dark clouds, the world frozen in a state of eerie stillness and bathed in the rapidly lightening shadow of the fleeing night.
I traced the water-stained circles on the elongated table, the scratch-tat-tat noises echoing off the pearl-white walls and ceiling—adorned with the embellishment of a gorgeous chandelier, heavy with multi-faceted, crystal-hard jewels that glisten with each twist—such beauty, I mused as I surveyed the house.
My house, what a weird, alien thought, yet so heart-stoppingly cold, so empty, so hollow, so void of feeling, such a wrenching-cold beauty, the thought twists my stomach. The furniture is new, freshly refurbished, its fillings so soft you feel weightless when you sink into it, the walls so polished, unmarred with scratches, marks, and discoloring, the floors so smooth and sleek your feet squeak as you walk across, the chandeliers so heavy with embellishment they blaze with a million, glistening stars at night. Yet this place has never felt more apathetic, alone, austere.
My insides felt on the verge of collapsing, a growing black hole, how much I yearned for a warm smile from my parents to thaw the hostility and melt the distance between them. How much I craved stability, hanging and clutching onto every scrap of every conversation I have with a friend, every minute of class, every activity in school, afraid that in one second, it’s going to be torn away from me as I am plunged into a new place again and again, each time losing a piece of myself.
Absentmindedly, I crept towards the kitchen, wanting something warm to chase away the emptiness and cold chilling my insides. The dishes were piled high, teetering precariously at unsettling, unbalanced angles, floating in a muck of discolored oils and scraps of food, neglected and dilapidated. I snatched off the remaining cup on the dusty racks and tilted the pot downward, a gush of warm water guzzled outwards, its steam ballooning up in pillows of soft clouds.
I stared at the brown-stained rim of the cup, about to wash it, its surface chipped this way and that, like a half-nibbled bread, but as the water vapor rose up, its soft tendrils carrying a pungent fragrance and scent tingling my nose, a sudden nostalgia so shocking and unfamiliar I felt myself reeling. The ground beneath myself began crumbling, transported and lured away by the tides of intense emotions and hurt still so raw and real, ingrained in my memories. My hand pricked with tension, I released both my white-knuckled grip on the counter and a coil of breath. I swallowed, gulped in the icy, wintry air with urgency, desperately needing to wash away the memories before I was sucked into the abyss, before I had to process and navigate my tangles of emotions again and again, constantly having to collect the pieces of myself that drifted away, reassemble them, and adapt and move on.
I took a deep sip, the lukewarm liquid washing away the bad taste of the memories. A hint of bitterness coated my tongue. Inadvertently, I coughed, shocked by the potency of the bitterness and acerbity, my nose scrunching up in distaste and my mouth puckering. Something stung real hard, my eyes filled as I realized that this scent—pungent yet comforting, bitter yet familiar, yet revitalizing in its acerbity—of oolong tea leaves, was the scent my grandmother carried around every day. I was cocooned inside it as I was crushed in her embrace after being bullied relentlessly for my accent at school, after being scolded by my parents, slipping into her room late at night to comfort my haunting nightmares and fears, I had so long gone without it, I had forgotten it, the warmth and comfort I associated with it sapped away and drained down the basin of time as the years trickled by.
Just like that, I was a little girl of eight, my hair arranged in an assortment of knots, as I clambered down the stairs, the cold, wintry air nipping at my bare toes. My grandmother stood in the dimly lit room in the kitchen, dressed in her age-faded apron decorated with a wreath of chrysanthemums dancing across it. Her wrinkled, kind eyes crinkled with affection and adoration as she saw me, peeking through the door. The warmth of her gaze shone through, even though her glasses fogged up with the vapor of tea. I sit down on the hard, straw-filled cushion of the chair, my feet dangling above the floor as I watch in revel the magic of her tea-making.
She stirred the tea leaves methodically, the leaves crinkling like old paper, then trickled the water slowly through the net holding the leaves—the melody of droplets hitting the water sounding sweet and pure. Abu, would then drag, agonizingly slow, her broken leg over to me, one lurch forward then a heave forward with her cane, then again she would do it, her face portrayed of nothing but her love and affection for me. The only indication being a sheen of sweat dotting her face. She would lay the cup of tea in my tiny hands, her arthritis-swollen fingers folding gently over my own, as she clasped my hands around the warm cup to drink a pocket of tenderness in the expanse of frost, rubbing my brittle, winter-frozen hands with her big, weathered ones, occasionally sweeping my hair back, swiping her hands through the air as if to dispel my bad dreams that chased me during the night. If she saw my red-rimmed or tear-dotted eyes, she’d not leave until satisfied that every drop was finished.
Even though in the morning, her arthritis was aggravated to an intensity of such searing pain she would stand—panting as she groped her way through the hallways, her trembling hands slick with sweat—she would make sure to get up each day before the sun rose, despite her ailments and bad leg, without fail, to make me breakfast and tea. Then again, hustling around the house dusting, cleaning, making sure that when I came home I felt safe, secure, and comforted—that no matter how cruel the world was outside, how berating the batters of school became, I could always come home and be protected. Every corner is a reminder of my grandmother’s care, love, and fortitude to plow onwards despite how much it taxed her. Even though pain clouded her sage eyes, even though age took a cruel toll and tore her down, even though each step was an uphill battle, gnashing her teeth and clutching her cane, even though her ankle so swollen she would have difficulty fitting a sock on, even though Chinese herbal stickers covered the whole of her torso to ease her turmoil of pain, she wore on with a stubbornness I’ve inherited from her—relentlessly with passion, grit and love.
As the years passed on, distance grew between us, I would no longer be skipping with hardly-contained exuberance into the kitchen, my face shining with expectation and excitement, no longer dashing into my grandmother’s room, cowering my head in her shield of arms as I wail out my desolation and despair into her herbal, tea-scented shirt. No longer would I seek out my grandmother’s advice and comforting rhythm of her voice as she tells me stories of her past while stroking my hair. I did not cherish the little givings of tea, her daily envelope of love delivered to me, her presents and expressions of love prepared with such care every day.
She would become a flitting shadow. Cups of tea became a constant I no longer valued. At the end of the day, it was just an insignificant note plucked into the cacophony of my life. Until I learned that cups of tea were finite. That circumstances were capricious. That nothing is constant. Life is variable, but memories are permanent. Until she was ripped apart from me, a family feud after fights broke out and chasms formed between our families and distance, unhealed wounds, unspoken words built up like hoses and boiled the waters of hate between us. Separated oceans away by thousands of miles, drinking our own cups of tea without each other, staring at the space beside them forever wondering. Painfully unreachable.
The scraping words of my bullies at school taunted and struck me like blows in the face, scarring me, marking me as weird, eccentric, Asian. Middle school gruel and awkwardness hit me, my brothers were strung in between confused, disoriented, seeking stability and comfort yet finding none. The transition harsh and brutal made insuperably more difficult by my constant moving. Expectations soared sky-high and life’s hurdles, big and small, became unconquerable and tormenting. Someday’s I lost myself in my never-healing wounds, escaping into the depths of the library, hidden amongst in the dusty, back sections of it to release all of my frustrations, sometimes burrowing into the captivating tales of my books, unwilling to come out, afraid of shattering the perfect illusions I have spun for myself. I would wake up each day reliving that nightmarish day over and over again, jerking awake, tears streaming down my feverish skin, my pulse leaping erratically. I would meander through the constant mob of students, peering into their blissfully-lit faces and witnessing the beauty in my life, and wondering how much my Abu would have wanted to share this moment with me, to see me standing on the stage performing with my band, to see my brothers finally learning his baby steps of arithmetics—much like when Abu guided him to his first baby steps years ago—to see us all grown up, each one with a shining talent of our own, leading our own lives and watching her pride-lit eyes filling with tears to be here.
To just be with her one more day, one more morning, drink one more tea with her and clutch her tight, and treasure every smile, every word, every gesture, every second, because I had not valued it enough. But that’s all a dream, just wishful thinking, heart-tearing, grief-induced imagination and hope that makes the crashing fall into reality all the more unbearable and anguished. Better to keep the memories locked up, stowed away, stashed somewhere private never to be leaked out, hashed open. No longer can I rely on my grandmother’s unbending, resilient fierce protection against the world like a shield. No longer can I seek the unwavering affection and stability wrapping me up warmer than any blanket. No longer can I depend on her sagacious advice and the sure hand to shepherd through my difficulties and grievances.
I was no longer a little girl holding onto the tips of my Abu’s hand, because that figure is no longer there, but I also can’t sit here in this trance, letting the world’s menacing hooves trample on me, reducing me, debasing me. I can’t let the tumultuous tides of my grief sweep me down its wild currents. I can’t lose myself and give up who I am, who I was, and who I will be in this whirlpool of never-ceasing sadness, anger, and pain. I will not, I can not, and I am determined to change that. For all my grandmother sacrificed for me, how she had risen day after day, selflessly putting me first, ahead of her unending agonies and afflictions. Even though sickness had already mottled her skin, even though pain such a frequent emotion had soured her expression, even though her ailments were inescapable and confining, she did not let it confine and define her. Did not allow herself to pity herself, reprieve herself by settling for a life less than what she wanted. She did not sit by the curb to cry, allowing the pains of today to bleed on and steal her dreams for tomorrow. She did not, even when overwhelmed with exhaustion, fatigue, and dying hope in her chest doused out the burning flames, to fight for a better life.
I am not a lost girl wandering the strange, hard terrain of the world, but a warrior, an ember of light that is fading but flaring to life. I will emulate my grandmother’s strength. How she lured our hope in the most desolate of occasions. How she found strength in the most bitter, and devastating conditions. How fiercely she loved and protected me. How she found the good in all bad, and plowed on. How love, courage, bravery, strength, and kindness are not measured in size or volume. How even though it’s a cup of tea, the struggle to make it I see is stone-hard strength and courage. The prudence and deliberate measuring and mixing of it. I see care and love, through the trail my Abu blazed through my life, dropping her little packages of affection and love for me to unravel, I learned the true meaning and depth of her virtues starting with a cup of tea.
I took out the years-old tea making kit, its sides rusting and cracked from years of disuse and neglect. I gripped the creaky handles and slowly, methodically, like how my grandma did it—although, I can never mimic her sureness and precision—I sprinkled the leaves then poured the fuming, piping hot water over it. I made it extra hot just like she always made hers. I smiled wistfully, sorrow twisting the sides, sprinkling a bit of goji berries to sweeten it. I set it beside me as I stared out of the windows into the morning clear sky, empty of any traces of clouds. A new day, a new start. The tendrils of steam rose and twisted up like a phantom spirit. Perhaps it is a spirit traveling from afar, keeping me company.
I took a deep inhale, thawing my lungs with its refreshing sharp bitterness and warmth. I closed my eyes, appreciating the nuances of the tea. I swallowed, a gentle, subtle wave of sweetness ensued afterwards. Bittersweet. Sadness and hope, what an odd combination. Love and grief, strength in pain, that is the taste of tea.
When I thought about underground, I thought about this moment and my relationship with my grandma, how although our communication through language was limited she expressed her love through food and tea. This piece highlights something I’m still puzzling and reflecting on but it gave me so much peace and happiness being able to put to words what I’m feeling and trying to make sense of it through words and language.