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A Taste of Off-Season Life with Fujianese Tea Farmers

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I stood in front of the house in the middle of the Fujian countryside and watched my friend’s car drive away. I waved as he turned the bend and disappeared out of sight. I wouldn’t see him again for seven days.

The house belonged to my friend’s family in Gande, Anxi, a famous oolong producing region. It was about a week before the tea was due to be picked and I had taken up an offer to stay with his oolong-producing family. This would be my first real insight into what it really meant to live in tea country outside of the tea season.

A house in the village (photo: Dylan Conroy)

The day started around 7am. Everyone would wake up and the mother would do the morning chores which included picking vegetables from the front garden, and cooking breakfast. Breakfast would be set up on the dining room table.

The traditional country style of eating sees the food placed in the middle of the table while you pick at what you want and add it in your bowl of rice. What I found most interesting though was that the food was all salted and preserved, so after everyone finished eating the mother simply put a basket over the food, and left it there until lunch where it would be picked at again. Dishes generally stayed on the table for a day or two until they were finished, based on how popular they were.

This style of preserving food obviously comes from a long history of not having a fridge. On the third day, I actually discovered a brand spanking new fridge in their kitchen, only to find it completely empty when I opened it. I imagine my friend back in Shanghai had bought it for them as a well-meaning gift, but that the family saw no real use for it.

The house I stayed in contained four kids. Two boys around seven or eight, a girl around six, and another boy of around two. To this day I cant exactly figure out whose kid was whose but there are at least two families worth of children in there. (I have heard rumors of a Fujianese tendency to ignore some of the government’s rulings, such as the one child policy and painted propaganda “billboards” reminding people of their family planning “responsibilities” are a common sight in villages throughout the province.)

Fujian family planning policy message (photo: Jake Newby)

They were sweet kids but had a lot of energy and could constantly be found climbing, running, pushing, and clambering over stuff. There was something odd about how these kids played, but I couldn’t put my finger on it until the third day when I realized: they had no toys.

Except for one robot in the corner that sometimes came out to play, these kids did not possess any of the train sets, building blocks, or cuddly animals that many children in the West take for granted. Instead they pushed, ran, and played with each other and with the other neighborhood kids who would come running over after school. This seemed to be another example not so much of lack of financial means to have toys, but more lack of interest. It was like the need for toys had never even entered their minds, just like the need for a fridge. The lifestyle of this family embraced minimalism, without really knowing any other way.

One of the family’s young children (photo: Dylan Conroy)

While the kids played the parents would most often be found sitting outside of the house. There were a few wooden benches they would sit on and chat. Occasionally they would do a chore and chase after a misbehaving kid, but most of the free time was spent just sort of hanging out. Generally the women could be found outside the house, while the men could be found inside around the tea table.

Sitting at the tea table, which was more of a wooden desk with a hole cut in it, tea was loosely brewed without etiquette or form. Neighbors would come and go in an open door policy that can be found across the Chinese countryside. Through the idleness I could feel this sense of waiting. These people lived according to nature. Their crops had decided not to grow yet and there was nothing they could really do but wait.

To some extent this family truly lived with the dao.

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Dylan Conroy
    Born and raised in New York City, now living in China, everything Dylan does relates to tea. He always carries two gaiwans and is quick to give people free tea if they show even the slightly interest. His ultimate goal is to make tea as widely appreciated and understood as wine is in the West. He has his own blog, www.thesweetestdew.com, which is dedicated solely to tea education.

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