From the day those first few tea leaves fell into a cup of boiling water like a Newtonian apple, humans have a had a deep cultural connection with it. Across the centuries, we have used our creativity to cook, steep, chill and decorate with the bitter leaves. It has been a part of religious ceremonies, tea parties, engagements, and celebrations alike. To the pairing of the delicious sweets of the west to the savoury delicacies of the east, tea always has a place with our food.
More than just an accompaniment, tea production, drinking and serving has become intrinsically part of the idea of “womanhood.” Often the little details in our global history of tea points to how this hot or cold drink has been at the expense of women. I believe that tea culture has become intrinsically interconnected with misogyny, exploitation.
This journey is pretty personal to me. Although the title is similar to Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin’s “Three Cups of Tea,” I am reclaiming the title appropriately for a story of a brown voice. It involves family dynamics, sexism and culture. I don’t mean to insinuate that all accounts are similar to mine but rather that as women and especially women of colour, there are many shared experiences.
1st cup – 5 years old
I can remember the first sip. I was in my great aunt’s apartment in Mumbai with her friends. It was a warm afternoon: the fans were combatting the heat and mosquitos, the pink and red bougainvillaea were in bloom, and we were gathered around the coffee table. My mother had me on her lap, and I couldn’t sit still because I knew I was becoming a “big girl” and drinking tea like the other ladies.
“Since the child wants tea, we can’t leave her out. Children can have very diluted slightly sweetened tea,” said my dad’s aunt to my mom while calling someone to make me a cup in the kitchen.
It was milky with 3 sugars. Although it was not as dark as my mother’s nor bitter as my grandmothers, I was excited as a domestic worker served it to me. I took the blue and white floral porcelain teacup to my lips.
It was like that that I tasted sweetness in my cup. And, it was like that that tea and women became inadvertently connected. As I grew older, I found more stories of women interconnected with the history of tea. Most importantly, how I would become just as instrumental in either maintaining or changing the status quo.
Tea has been a tool of solidarity for women across cultures. In Iran, tea culture is essential for women to bond. In author and illustrator Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Embroideries, Iranians traditionally have 3 occasions within a day which they have tea. The evening tea after dinner was a time for women to gossip, connect and have a general chat with the women of their family. Satrapi makes mention in her novel of how the women of the family would use this time to let loose and feel comfortable within the solidarity of women family members. For me and many others, this translates true. A cup of tea can mean connection and ties. However, some women would argue otherwise.
2nd cup – 11 years old
As a little girl, I always marvelled at my paternal grandmother’s (who I affectionately called Avi) collection of dolls. Pen pals, friends and relatives would bring her dolls from across the globe to wherever they travelled: France, Peru to Japan, she has a doll. They all sat in a gorgeous glass cabinet on display and not to be touched by little children. However, being the youngest gave me the advantage to explore colourful plastic ornaments. The dolls that caught my eye the most were the tall dolls of South Asia. In particular, a Sri Lankan doll of a woman in a blue check saree, red scarf in her hair and basket of high tea leaves on her back. I was a little child when I was curious about what the leaves on the doll’s back were.
“Women farm tea in Sri Lanka. When the British had control of the country, it was called Ceylon. That’s a name of the kind of tea that comes the country” said Avi.
According to the Ethical Tea Partnership, Sri Lanka contributes to 5% of global tea production. However, the tea industry is a huge stakeholder in the Sri Lankan economy, providing US$1.5 Billion per annum. According to peoplesdispatch.org, It is estimated that workers are paid as little as less than US$3/day. Many of these workers have taken to protest terrible working conditions and being underpaid over the years.
Over 65% of workers who contribute to the tea plantation sector are women, according to a study published by the Human Development Organization. Women in this sector, particularly plantation workers, have faced several socio-economic challenges in a country with questionable concern for women and workers’ rights to this day. Plantation workers don’t have access to ownership of land, higher education and a voice in the decision making of an industry that makes up 4.4% of Sri Lanka’s GDP. These sexist laws and practices that are still in practice today have a long way to go before tea plantation workers achieve equality.
3rd cup – 20 years old
Whenever I came home from university, I tried to keep my everyday routine. This includes a very delicious cup of tea twice a day. By this time in my life, I had acquired the taste of sugarless tea. I often had my tea nearly black. While on route to the kitchen from my bedroom, I could hear the chatter of family and friends in the living room. As I got closer to living, I saw a bunch of men chattering. The guests had arrived.
I tried to make a beeline for my bedroom, but my grandmother (another one, the one I called Kama because I could never say Kamala) caught me before I could leave and “invited” me to help the ladies in the kitchen. They were setting the plates with samosas, pies, cakes and cookies. They were all catching up and laughing about old times. I just wanted a mug of Ceylon.
“Deepika, please serve the men their tea on a tray,” instructed my grandmother.
“Why? Can’t I just them their mugs in my hands?” I chuckled at my grandmother.
“No! Besides making your life easier, you have to serve men on a tray. Men have to be respected that way,” she said.
This took me aback. You see, my grandmother was a school teacher who held her own to this very day. A woman who raised both her son and daughter equally and left her abusive husband for a better. This independent woman was telling me to serve men because they should be treated as better than us women.
From my experience, serving tea to a man can often show a sign of respect and subservience in Indian culture. No matter how educated or equal women can be, we must always respect men automatically due to the simple fact that they’re men. This kind of thinking has bred the internalized misogyny, or internalized for her own gender, that my grandmother experienced in small things like making tea. This kind of thinking has produced the generations of rape culture and misogyny that is present in Indian culture across the globe. According to a report released annually by the Ministry of Home Affairs, one woman reported a rape every 15 seconds in 2018. Although these issues are not unique to Indian culture, the first place we can see the way women are discriminated against are in our own homes.
Although these stories represent the polarities of our painful world, they illustrate one simple connection I’ve made over the past couple of years about women and tea: we are inseparable. They are part of our journey to womanhood, unlearning systems of oppression and even understanding worker’s rights. As I finish this with a cup of lemon and ginger tea, I continue to learn about the deep connection between me and what’s in my cup.