Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Fascinating Tea Experience

Last week I had a surprising and wonderful experience. Initially I had the usual 'what's going on here?' kind of feeling which we as foreigners in Korea know so well, but that feeling soon changed to one of curiosity, respect and humility. Mr Shin, one of the senior teachers at my high school - the one who's mother's funeral ceremony I attended - came along on Thursday and told me that his friend at the local court wanted to have English conversation lessons. Thanks to interpretation by the ever-wonderful Mr Kang (my high school co-teacher), it turns out that Mr Shin's friend is the chief judge of the Sangju district court and that he wants me to give him and his staff at the court English conversation lessons. To discuss the details, he had scheduled a meeting for us on Thursday afternoon.

So off the three of us (Shin, Kang, Jess) went to the court. An important-looking place of course, with metal detectors in the foyer and finger-print entrance-security in the corridors. Once we entered the chief judge's office I suddenly felt rather small and lowly: he has a huge office with the usual 'important' couches for entertaning guests - similar to the ones one encunters in other important places in Korea. We bowed our greetings and took our seats.

The judge sat at the head of the table and infront of him the typical equipment for a traditional Korean tea ceremony were laid out. This took me by surprise, but it soon became apparent that this was his way of showing respect to us for agreeing to meet with him, and in no time the tea ceremony was in full swing.

Kang did a fabulous job of explaining to me what the judge was saying about the various pieces of equipment, different types of tea, preparation methods etc. I commented that one doesn't come across traditional tea ceremonies very often, and Kang translated that this had to do with the Japanese occupation which tried to stamp out a lot of Korean traditions.
Tea ceremonies are generally associated with people of higher social standing, then and now, and this explains why the judge would have 'treated' us to this: as a way of welcoming us, but also maybe to make us appreciate that we were in 'important' company.

It seems that traditional tea ceremonies in Korea were becoming less and less common, but have recently been experiencing a kind pf 'revival', as a way of relaxing in the formal setting of the workplace, and re-connecting with traditional buddhist beliefs and a healthier way of life.

So the equipment which the judge, Mr Song Bong-Kie, used was as follows: a main teapot (symbolic of the father), a secondary 'teapot', a kind of shallow cup with a spout (symbolic of the mother) and a few small cups without handles (symbolic of the children). The tea leaves - he used early-harvest green tea - are placed into the 'father' pot and then it is filled to the brim with boiling water. It is left for about a minute, no longer, and then the tea is poured into the 'mother' pot/cup. From the mother pot it is then poured into the 'children' cups.

'Dad' teapot - with the symbolically phalic handle, 'Mom' pot in the background (as usual) and the kids lined up next to them.

We were each given a little cup and could drink our tea. The green tea leaves can be re-used three times, i.e. the 'father' pot is re-filled with water three times. I must note that the 'tea set' is very small compared to our western tea sets: the pots and the cups. The tea tasted lovely: a clean, green tea kind of taste which I'm sure I couldn't even fully appreciate.

He told us that he also uses Puerh Tea from China, which he buys in compressed cakes for lots of money. I definitely got the impression that doing the tea ceremony the really traditional and proper way required access to lots of money.

They asked me whether I drink tea: I said yes, but that I drink tea from tea-bags and feel that one can hardly compare the two. I tried to look bashful and I think I communicated myself quite well :) Mr Shin himself is also quite a tea connoiseur and often brings me traditional Korean tea to try at school. But he refuses to try my rooibos tea as it is in a teabag!

Then a friend of the judge's, a buddhist tea mistress, came to join us. She is a highly-respected tea master/msitress(?) and is the one who taught the judge all about tea and tea ceremonies. This appeared to be the really special part as she used some very fancy implements to prepare 'Malcha' tea - powdered green tea of the highest quality.

Equipment for making Malcha tea - powdered green tea. (photo courtesy of 'The Internet')

She used a different kind of pot - similar to the 'mother' pot - for this tea. A special bamboo spatula was used to place the powdered tea into the pot and then a little cold and then hot water was added to it. She then used a very strange looking implement made of bamboo: it looked like a cross between an old-school shaving-foam brush and a whisk.

She stirred the mixture very briskly for a few minutes and it got all foamy and green - a lovely bright colour. We each had a turn to drink the tea straight out of the mother 'pot' and then she made a fresh batch for the next person: it had a very strong, rather bitter flavour, but also very fresh. I quite enjoyed it!
The judge then gave me a tea set: this came as a complete surprise to me, and I felt very honoured and humbled. He explained that the tea set was pottery and made in a wood-fired kiln by a well-known monk at a nearby temple.

Mr Shin later told me that I was very lucky to receive that tea-set as a gift as one cannot actually buy them: the 'special' monk who makes them only gives them as gifts. Now the pressure is on - I will have to ask Mr Shin to help me buy the 'right' tea to drink from my unique and precious tea set - and ask him to help me make sure I do it all right. Come on over and I'll show you all how :)

My special tea-set, wrapped in the traditional Korean way.

Post script:

At no point during our meeting did we discuss the English lessons. The closest we came was the judge asking me whether I needed to see a dentist, and inviting us to a dinner meeting with himself and his dentist friend where we would (maybe!) discuss the English lessons further (?). After the dinner his dentist friend would be more than happy to check my teeth! To be continued...


Unknown said...

Wow, what an interesting experience Jess! Cant wait to hear the next installment about the dinner & dentist's visit!! I was thinking you can get rooibos tea leaves in SA (not in bags) which perhaps Mr Shin would drink? I can send some to you if you like, just let me know.

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