I watched a woman move her hands rapidly; it looked like she was hardly touching the bushes in front of her. She flicked and picked her way across a section of the bush, and once she got to the end, she emptied her hand into a canvas sack on her back. Our group was walking through the countryside in Fuling, China. Beyond this woman were miles and miles of green bushes fresh with tea leaves straight from the root. As we walked, we saw many older natives doing just the same, assigned to different regions of the tea farm.
A man and a woman occupied an abandoned-looking shed that we stumbled upon. They kneeled, spreading the fresh-picked tea leaves on a circular metal mesh pan that was then placed in a metal storage rack. They started asking us questions, and our translators helped guide the conversation. They invited us into their home just down the road to try the tea that their family dries and processes.
The five of us and our two translators followed this man and woman up the hill to their house. It immediately struck me as a rundown home in an impoverished section of the city – doors were left open, their unkempt dog would not stop barking and was unkempt, and there were pitchers and pitchers of moonshine lining the counter. The lack of communication and the unknowing nature of the event made me feel like I was in the middle of a drug deal rather than a tea tasting.
There was a younger man, presumably their middle-aged son. He was shirtless and smelled of hard work in the sunlight. He gestured us to sit around their round table, bringing up more chairs for our group. The table was garnished with cups filled with tea that looked days and weeks old. He handled a tea pot, placing loose-leaf greens into a strainer then into the teapot. He waited, then poured us each golden liquid into small ceramic cups, gesturing us to drink.
The green tea this family dried and processed was the most pure tea I had ever tasted – it was crisp and light, hot and comforting. I could feel all of the care that went into making this tea slide down my throat, warming my stomach. This was their life for this family – living in the countryside, waking up before the sun rises to begin picking tea, staying indoors when the sun hits its peak, then the inevitable return back to the tea gardens as the sun goes down. They work every day for years on end pruning miles and miles of plants, working the irrigation, to simply give the world tea.
China’s countryside tea gardens are responsible for the majority of tea that is imported to the United States. We drink tea when we need a little caffeine and we don’t want coffee, or when we want to calm down; but for them it’s a lifestyle – waking up to harvesting, drying, processing and, of course, drinking tea.
Written and photographed by: Josie Kochendorfer