Sunday, October 4, 2009

Asma attack: Face culture and buckwheat tea

Spent an afternoon recently chatting with Stephan Asma, a prof at Columbia College, about his upcoming new book, On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears (coming out, appropriately, just before Halloween). At the end of our conversation, I had to ask him about tea, given the years he spent living in China and southeast Asia — years which fueled a previous book, The Gods Drink Whiskey: Stumbling Toward Enlightenment in the Land of the Tattered Buddha, the book that finally landed my understanding of Buddhism.

Asma recalled the prevalence of tea culture in China and Japan, even Vietnam (surprising?). Despite all the great green tea available, he said the hardcore tea lovers drink black. Flower teas, too, he said, were immensely popular, "though it's a bit of a chick drink."

"Tea culture in China ties in very much with face culture, and the guanxi," Asma said. "You have to do business in China face-to-face. You have to develop your guanxi, your connections, because they open doors for you. It's an important concept to understand. In China, it's very much who you know. ... When we went to enroll our son in school, you know, here you'd go down and fill out the forms and hand them over, but in China we had to have a personal connection to the school. We had to find someone we knew who knew someone who knew someone connected to the school, and have this meeting where we were all present. It seems strange still to Westerners.

"Drinking tea builds face time, helps build these connections. Younger generations are, of course, getting rid of a lot of this. Everything's online now, and the face culture is disappearing."

Asma said his favorite tea beverage while he lived in China was soba cha, buckwheat tea. First I hear about barley tea, now buckwheat. Anyone up for drinking some bread with me?

1 comment:

  1. When he says the tea lovers in China all drink black, he probably means they all prefer Puerh. That's "black" to the Chinese, where the Westerner's black tea would be "red" to them. Is drinking tea going out as a way of connecting in business in China? Perhaps. But tea won't be forgotten; it'll just be a part of all the changes as things modernize. --Teaternity