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my brother is an ambidextrous tea picker

image3 [101064] image2 [101062]


“my brother is an ambidextrous tea picker”

the sun dances off the beads of sweat on my brothers neck, mirroring the grace in his hands and I
try to imitate the instinct and
mimic the method in his movement

the sun beats down on my head and I feel suffocated;
my clumsy hands do little to nurture the tree, to pick the tea (or better yet: pick the money?) but
my brother:
my brother is an ambidextrous tea picker.

last night I looked upon the fullest sky of stars
and in their twinkling lights I imagined:
there at the top of a mountain I dreamed I might exist
indistinguishable from the dying stars.
it’s quantum entanglement, the way I escape to the sky
the way my brother lives with his tea as if
they have known each other for so long that he has tea-telepathy.
he has an indiscernible bond and I’m lucky to observe it

if I could channel my envy I’d tune into Bangdong Radio 88.8
(all about tea tea tea)
“breaking news from the top of the hill;
the government decided to raise the price of red tea for the autumn season…”
and in some burst of knowing I could
I imagine a magical connection with the trees around me,
a myriad of secret whispers darting out to me like synapses

my brother is a machine of whirring hands, the
automatic snaps as the tea leaves are picked filters to my ears in a melodious cacophony;
I could never dream to have that fluidity,
too caught up in the mechanics of the art.
my mind whirs with “too small?” “leave it behind” “too old” “pick it anyway” until I focus on naught
but a pinhole in front of me

my hands morph unrecognizably, they are
killers; every plant I touch is infected with
my own cultural footprint
it’s my own human realignment
I touch them and their life span is 2 weeks:
the duration of my stay in this hideaway.

an idea blooms in my head, mirroring the tea blossoms in front of me
and I wish I could remove my hands
gift them to my brother;
a tangible contribution! a worthy reinforcement!
but we pull off the tea blossoms before they seed

I felt utterly helpless during my first days in Bangdong, our rural homestay of two weeks. During my first interaction with the family, I fell down nearly an entire flight of stairs (right after they’d told me to be careful not to slip). That interaction seemed to shadow me at first: I wasn’t allowed to help wash the dishes because “the water is too hot,” I wasn’t allowed to cut the peppers because “my hands couldn’t stand it” (as it turned out, I was grateful for that one—the spice from the red peppers would have caused my hands to sting), and I wasn’t allowed to help with any of the sweeping. I felt like a rainy day in Bangdong: lazy, with nothing to do.

This feeling of helplessness translated over to tea picking, the only task I had been allowed to help with, which prompted me to craft the above poem as I worked. As I struggled to pick the tea, I felt like I was actively holding them back by picking the wrong tea leaves, picking slowly, and breaking off healthy branches. As a guest, how was I supposed to show my appreciation for their hospitality if I couldn’t help out at all?

When I asked how to help, they told me to take care of my two little brothers. This was a daunting task: neither of them could really speak Mandarin, and I hadn’t lived in the household long enough to understand what they were allowed to do. In the end, my brother’s ended up running to their parents anyway; I think they were used to bugging them as they worked. I was stung—it hurt a little to think that I had been delegated a “useless” task.

I’m the oldest child; I’m used to helping around the house, doing chores and watching out for my sisters. At home, I’m expected (and often yelled at) to help out with chores, and otherwise I understand what I need to do to make the household run smoothly. After meals, I tried desperately to help wash dishes; the bowls were taken out of my hands and I was shooed away to “去喝茶” (go drink tea).

At this point, my discomfort transcended feeling helpless. In my family, drinking tea is a men’s thing. While the women take care of the children, do laundry, cook, do dishes, etc., the men relax at the table with their tea and cigarettes. Cigarettes are the town’s social lubricant—for the men. Any guy can come over and chill with a cigarette, while the women stayed out of the way, except to bring out snacks. As a woman, I felt like I couldn’t sit in on that social scene. Especially when guests are over, it’s much more comfortable to sit with the female contingent, but when both my aunt and my sister were in the kitchen and I’d been sent outside, I felt like my role was unclear. My family’s gender dynamic wasn’t as severe as some families’ at the top of the hill: my brother still took care of kids, my uncle swept the house, but ultimately my sister and aunt were the ones doing the brunt of the work.

But my first assessment of Bangdong was hastily done (on this trip I’ve often found myself forming an opinion, only to completely reverse it a couple of days later). I was soon able to help more around the house. The rain let up, which opened up more chores to be done, and I (slowly but surely) squeezed my way into sweeping the floor in the morning and doing dishes. I grew accustomed to their idea of cleanliness, and went through my morning/bedtime routines feeling like I was “properly” clean. Tea picking became easier as well—I braved through the long hours in the heat, and practice allowed me to commit some of the picking to muscle memory. It was easier to identify which tea leaves should be picked; some re-grown tea leaves showed me that I was able to pick tea without killing the tree.

Once I showed that I was able to contribute to the daily routine, I felt my role in the family change. I was no longer the stranger who “didn’t know how to wash her feet;” I had found a place where I felt comfortable living there. As I showed more interest in their lives and histories, they showed more interest in mine; our conversations, though stilted by the language barrier, had a charming fluidity that helped me relax into the calm, content rural lifestyle.

I think it would be ambitious or arrogant to say that I felt like I was part of the family, but I really value the mutual understanding I built with them. I think a lot of my relationship with them is lost in translation, and I don’t think that every minute I spent with them was quality time; yet the sheer amount of time we spent in each others’ company, sitting or working quietly alongside each other, fostered this mutual appreciation. By the time I left I was no longer a burden, but merely a guest.