Breaking Out of my Undergraduate Shell

I visited a tea distributor in Fuzhou today (Oct. 5) specializing in Wuyishan teas. The operation is family-owned, and the owners both have Ph. Ds in Tea Studies from Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University. That is, although they studied tea chemistry and production, they also learned tea arts, history, and culture before opening shop.

And so there I was was, sipping tea with them, ready to discuss my research, when they opened the conversation with, “What questions do you have?”

I knew already my question was too broad. It had no specificity whatsoever. I was still scrambling to find a potential direction to go in, as every time I found a lead, someone else had already done it, or the lead would end up being a dead-end.

And so, I gave them my generic answer about studying contemporary tea culture.

“… That sounds like an undergraduate student came up with that,” the dude with the Ph. Tea said. “Did your graduate advisor really approve that? It’s way too broad.”

I bit my lip.

“I’m still discussing it with him,” I explained. “I’m not quite sure what direction I want to take this in yet.”

My guqin classmate from before chimed in, “In our earlier conversation, we talked about tea as a spiritual path in a Chinese setting.”

“Ah,” the lady with the Ph. Tea cleared her throat. “I’ve researched this before. It doesn’t exist—at least not in the way you’re thinking of. I’ll forward you an article on the topic.”

And with that, two nails sealed my academic coffin shut.

But that didn’t mean I wouldn’t rise—or eavesdrop—from the crypt.

Although I had faded into the recesses of everyone’s attention, I noticed the varied conversations going on around our small table. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people with elite tea arts certificates and Ph. Ds in Tea Studies. Their conversations revolved around the latest changes in tea licensing, the quality of the latest batch of Wuyishan teas, and of course, the quality of the teas we were drinking.

The world of Chinese tea is primarily commercial. Everything seems to exist for the sole purpose of selling tea. The entirety of the tea ceremony is an elaborate sales pitch. From brewing a sample of fine tea to knowing how to explain the tea’s origins, functions, and story. Contrary to my expectations, there was no deeper meaning behind tea—at least not to the people I’ve been talking to.

When I got home, I had received three articles. I’ll give the a read over the remaining days of the holiday, and hopefully I’ll be able to come up with a concrete research question before the International Tea Expo next week.