Traveling can be an opportunity to witness one’s own cultural conditioning and bias. Whether or not we gain the entire picture of what is actually happening in these new contexts (we can’t ever fully), the process of dislodging one’s own well-worn assuredness in the face of fresh and even surprising experiences grants us deeper reflections about our own dispositions in addition to the opportunity to shift them. Just the sheer amount of hospitality and openness the Taiwanese people displayed seemingly all across the island began to erode at my filthy-seeming western skepticism, and eventually deeply impacted me. In moments where I allowed myself to slough off hesitations, I thought to myself, was I allowing myself to deeply feel another’s gift of simple kindness and reflect with appropriate gratitude? What could I reciprocate? I should practice this hosting in my own home and this openness in my life at large.
Another example: I originally hadn’t planned on visiting Ali Shan and searching for the genuine article in this overly famous region. My line of thought was that there’s plenty of enticing territories not as well-known that are worth exploring that produce just as good tea, without the risk of being ripped off due to high demand and low supply that hyped teas often suffer from. And we’ve all heard the rumors about cheap Chinese and Vietnamese leaf material being imported to the island to be sold as Ali Shan.
By happenstance, I met a woman in the commons of a hostel I was staying at whose father sold organic fertilizer to farmers and asked her if she would ask him if he had any tea farmer customers whose tea he would recommend. She relayed his endorsement of one Mr. Zhan in the Dinghu area in, of all places, Ali Shan. By the time I received this follow up message some days after initial contact, I was deep in high mountain country in the middle to southern side of the island, somewhere between Ren’ai and Lugu. As I was shared Mr. Zhan’s contact I utilized my local friend’s conversational abilities as a primer to set up a visit, and from there the sails were set in the direction of the one area I hadn’t expected.
We drove through remote mountainous countrysides, stopped for a parade of monkeys to cross the road, up winding roads through lush spooky misted forests, finally arriving at the Zhan family tea gardens where they have a small facility at a junction along a system of hiking trails. In addition to their tea, they sell homegrown herbal medicines, canned and pickled garden veggies. Ali Shan is located close to the Tropic of Cancer, a geomarker considered by some to host the optimal tea growing conditions throughout the world. Dinghu is the highest growing region in Ali Shan, residing between 1400-1700 meters. Mr. Zhan’s gardens rest at a nearly always cloud-enshrouded 1660 meters.
An incredibly warm man with a big jolly demeanor, Mr. Zhan graciously took us on a stroll through the moss-laden forests thick with birdcall and mists to some of the most ecologically pristine tea gardens I had seen on the island thus far (video). His family observes Yiguandao 一贯道 beliefs and served us a delicious vegetarian meal later in the afternoon. The teas he poured for us all seemed to impart the same cool, clean, lush characteristics of the surrounding ecology. One tea really stood out, a variation on the standard high mountain oolong style, yet finished with a brief roast. The slight roast finale pulls out some bolder, brassier, nuttier, and meatier tones in the EQ of the classic vegetal-buttery-floral bouquet.
Everything was checking out remarkably well with this new situation yet nagging thoughts about faked Ali Shan teas and unscrupulous markets practices crept in, and while away from our hosts for a moment I asked my friend if she had any reason to believe these folks were untrustworthy. She looked stunned, like I was crazy, and repeated my question, incredulously. Exasperated, she nearly scolded “of course I trust these people!”
It may be no coincidence that sentiments of mistrust and skepticism are consistently broadcast the loudest often by vendors that have chosen to live close to tea producing areas, yet must commercialize their teas to distant populations. Innocently enough, they seek to set themselves apart from their competition and begin to fetishize an on-the-ground knowingness and control, yet in their approach tend to amplify paranoid thinking through marketing. This paranoia has thoroughly permeated large swaths of the western connoisseur market, a group tragically removed from Tea — both culturally and geographically — making them especially susceptible to this thinking. While some apprehension is absolutely founded in the instances of obviously shady market practices, let us not trick ourselves out of knowing good tea when it's right under our nose.
In the immediate moments after I probed my friend, I felt shame. Briefly I had ignored my instincts and entertained anxiety. Despite how well-intended its programming is towards the end of securing authentic, highest quality tea, if the inner skeptic is given full reign it will sabotage. Sabotage one’s own ability to show up in generosity and reciprocity. Corrode the trust and altruism between people by asking annoying, prying questions produced by its own small-mindedness. It sabotages in a never- ending mission to seek ultimate control and knowingness, and in the process will sabotage even the best opportunities placed right in front of it. In the global world of tea work, one must decide on which people to collaborate with and to trust and continue to practice and rely on that trust, building the relationship. As false as hyper-individualistic notions of complete self-sufficiency, there does not exist a tea purveyor that doesn’t rely vulnerably on the trust of others, because there is no such thing as ultimate control and knowingness when community and cooperation is involved.
While I was indeed in one of the world’s top, most famous tea producing areas where suspicions could be allowed to run amok, I let those thoughts fade and instead relied on my instincts and sensations fully. In the company of truly good people, good tea, and good environs, this felt right… important, even.
Thank you Taiwan and thank you Zhan family.
What are your thoughts?