Last week, I met up with a fellow Fulbrighter in Fuzhou to buy some tea. And so, we went to my usual tea mall and explored a few shops, looking specifically for qingxiang tie guanyin 清香鐵觀音, a lightly-oxidized oolong, and zhengshan xiaozhong 正山小種, which is what we’d consider in the US “black tea” (although in China it’s considered “red tea” hongcha 紅茶).
Upon arriving at the tea mall, we walked into a place staffed by an older couple with TIE GUANYIN in bold letters on the shop sign.
“Do you have any tie guanyin?” I asked innocently.
“No,” the shopkeeper replied. “We don’t sell tie guanyin.”
What a lie. But oh well, I’ve been hit with the “you look too young to actually spend money on tea, so I’m just gonna wave you away” treatment enough times now, so we went next door to another place that had a bold TIE GUANYIN sign on the door.
One middle-aged lady sat at the table and invited us to sit.
“What are you looking for?” she prompted.
“Qingxiang tie guanyin, and our budget is about 200 rmb per jin (500 grams),” I replied.
She brought out two varieties for us to sample.
Upon trying it, my heart sank. I had gotten ripped off on my previous trip. Last time I came here to purchase tie guanyin, I had sampled three varieties and ended up spending almost double the price for something that was comparable to what this shop was selling for merely 230 rmb.
While the flavor was mediocre, it was a very smooth tea. Rather than leaving my throat dry and course, it was very refreshing, although I would have preferred it a little bit heavier. It was something I felt like I could just gulp down rather than something I would sip and savor.
As she talked on and on about her tea-selling experience, I turned to my Fulbright friend and asked in English, “Thoughts?”
We had a brief exchange. Neither of us were particularly impressed, and so we decided we’d go elsewhere.
“Wow,” the shopkeeper said. “You’re foreigners!”
We nodded sheepishly.
I wasn’t sure what to think. I guess we both look Asian enough to pass the initial appearance test, and we were fluent enough to get by without raising any alarms. It wasn’t until we spoke in English that our friend the shopkeeper realized we weren’t from the local area.
In any case, we bid her farewell and walked in search of another tie guanyin shop. Being in Fujian, there are plenty of places that sell them.
My Fulbright friend was not particularly impressed, so we went to a second shop.
As soon as we walked in, our host remarked, “You’re not from around these parts, are you?”
We were taken aback. Our previous host didn’t realize we weren’t locals, but this shopkeeper was astute enough to catch that point before we even sat down.
“No, we’re from the US,” I replied.
“Ah, that explains it,” she continued. “I used to live in Spain. You Americans carry yourselves differently from those of us who grew up in China.”
While I can typically notice the subtle traits that distinguish an Asian American from someone who grew up in Asia, I hadn’t thought that it would be visible to the older generation. But I suppose her exposure to a variety of cultures helped her identify that we were not locals, despite our phenotypic expression.
After explaining what we wanted and what our budget would be, she brewed two types. Although I specifically requested qingxiang, she decided to give us a sample of nongxiang as well. Just in case.
While it was more fragrant than the other shop, the tea left a sense of dryness in my throat.
After drinking a few rounds and using the restroom two or three times, we decided this would be a good purchase (it was a bit cheaper than the other place), and that going to another shop might not be worth it.
To seal the deal, the kind shopkeeper gifted us a few samples of their Wuyi Rock Tea. She made it clear that these were very cheap, but that they weren’t too terrible nonetheless.
After making a small purchase of 250 grams, we ventured to Sanfang qixiang, Fuzhou’s most touristy place, looked around at some bookstores, and then met up with another classmate for Indian food.
It wasn’t bad, but I was really disappointed in the fact that the food here isn’t spicy.
We also ordered way too much. After three curries, two types of naan, rice, shawarmas, and a rice pudding dessert, my stomach felt like it was about to explode. But wow, that naan was really, really good.
While I haven’t been able to find a Mexican restaurant in Fuzhou yet, I’m glad to know that there are options for non-Chinese food here. While I don’t mind Chinese food, eating at the same dining hall every single day gets a bit tough.
A bunch of other things have happened over the past few weeks, but I won’t be sharing every detail about my adventures here.
I think my next post will be a reflection on the decade ahead.