Tea, Cultures, and Guests

Black tea in Turkey. // Image courtesy Henri Bergius

The thought occurred to me that tea is something like the common denominator in my tutoring life. Across a variety of cultures and economic backgrounds, I’ve been offered a lot of tea.

None of these observations should be taken as being inherently meaningful or indicative of any large-scale cultural norms. This is a pitifully small sample size. I just got to thinking about this as I added a splash of lemon juice to my morning Earl Grey the other day, and thought it would make for a nice peek into my daily life.

First of all, there’s the choice of coffee or tea. I still haven’t developed a taste for coffee (my mom told me it would happen while I was in college—not true), so tea it is. In that respect, I’m a poor Swede.

Most of the time, it’s black tea. I’m fine with this; I still have the palate of a small child, so green tea is far too bitter for me. Once in a great while (usually in families where there is a contraindiction against caffeine for health reasons), the tea of choice is rooibos. This is fine with me, too.

I made a note a while ago about DuoLingo and whether the exercises should be literal translations or localized ones, given the case of the “glass of tea” answer. I’ve noticed that I generally get tea in glasses (though, with handles) rather than cups from my Persian and Saudi students. In Turkey this seems to be connected to honesty—glasses allow the guest to see exactly strong the tea is—and maybe it’s the same reason with my Persian students. A moot point here, when the tea comes in bags and guests can decide for themselves how strong (or weak) they want their cuppa to be.

When it comes to the things you can add to your tea, the students I’ve had from Iran and Saudi Arabia also don’t seem to take as much sugar or milk as some of my other students. Sometimes they catch themselves and ask me if I want any, but usually not; it seems to be an afterthought. The one exception is nabaat, Persian sugar infused with mint or other herbs that looks exactly like rock candy I had as a kid. Again, fine with me: I find milk in tea to be kind of repulsive, and I can live without sweetener, though I enjoy the nabaat when it comes out.

Nabaat usually isn’t brightly colored, but you get the picture.

Tea from Russian students always comes with sugar cubes on the side, but lemon wedges instead of milk. I don’t usually take lemon in tea, unless I’m fighting a sore throat, but I’ve found that a splash of lemon juice is just the thing to freshen up an Earl Grey. It’s a habit I have now with my own tea consumption at home.

My Sri Lankan and Indian students ask more often about milk or sugar. Contrary to what one might expect based, they usually serve regular Earl Grey rather than chai.

With Indian, Sri Lankan, and Persian students, the offer of tea is usually coupled with a small sweet thing of some kind. Tea from my Hungarian student was always a digestif after a full-on lunch. (An accident of timing: our lessons were always right around lunch, as she was a homemaker, and lunch is the big meal in Hungary.) When timing meant there was no lunch, there was usually a small plate of home-made baked goods to go with the tea.

Beverage offers from German and French students are much more intermittent, and seem to depend on other factors: cold weather, whether the student wants some themselves, whether they were already in the middle of eating something themselves. With Swedish students it seems to be a factor of time of day: early morning lessons go along with a cup of tea or coffee, until about 10 AM. After that, it’s just down to business. Swedish friends, on the other hand, offer tea and coffee no matter what the time of day.

If the weather is warm, my European and Sri Lankan students switch to offering water (or, in some cases, homemade fruit smoothies!), but with other students it’s always tea, no matter how warm it is outside.

I would be remiss, of course, if I didn’t include myself in this. I have guests too, after all! I don’t think there is anything particular about how my sambo and I handle tea. We generally take care of boiling the water and, if a guest opts for tea instead of coffee, go digging in the tea cabinet on their behalf. But our kitchen is very self-serve otherwise; we let guests fill their own cups and add milk to their own taste. Not sugar, though. We don’t typically have cubes or other sweeteners on hand. My other Swedish friends seem similarly “help yourself” with their tea and coffee. I suspect this is the line between being a professional being paid to be in a house for whatever reason, and a friend invited over just for company’s and entertainment’s sake.

How do you take your tea? What do you usually offer guests in your home? How self-serve is your household?

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