The fragrance of the teas was overwhelming. Pungent leaves of brown, black and green, speckled with dried fruit and herbs. The leaves had been dried whole and rolled—humbled in their shriveled, preserved state. Comforting scents of dirt and new grass whispering of promises they might keep. If only it would rain.

Abruptly, sharp citrus notes began to transcend the earthiness of their mélanges, presenting themselves, brazenly, in the foreground. Orange, lemon, pear and pineapple, mouthwateringly sour and sweet. As the flavors started to caramelize, to fuse harmoniously—it became difficult to discern an individual fruit.

Slowly, elegantly, warm spices began appearing out of thin air. Smoky wisps of clove, cinnamon and cardamom wafted, coyly at first, then began to fume ardently—incense incensed. Until they fully unfurled elaborate tapestries of darkness and firelight.

Devoting attention to the teas was to lose oneself in a luscious dance of dominance. A succulent present and past to savor, unfolding in endless complexity. A lovely and confounding Escher.

Decisively, I gathered up my favorite tea combinations and walked to the counter to purchase them, my head still in a haze of their intoxicating perfume.

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The cashier glanced at me, his face a riddle. His mouth hung open a split-second too long as he weighed a hard decision. What language should he speak? He went with English, as they usually do, even though I can speak German just fine. Stubbornly, I continued speaking German—I live here after all, I am no tourist. His face contorted into even more confusion. His English was slow and strained, but he continued anyway. I, too, continued speaking German, insisting vainly that I would be a part of this place—this mix—this country. No one should have to change for me.

The cashier and I were locked in an absurd duel, speaking separate languages uncomfortably for the other we thought we knew so well. Even as we revealed ourselves to be somewhat different than expected, we still continued in bizarre formality, the ritual of polite service and exchange:

Him: “Would you not prefer a loose-leaf tea? They are fuller in flavor and you get more for the price.”

Me: “Nein, danke. Ich habe keine Teekanne zu Hause. Diesmal möchte ich lieber das mit Tütchen.”

Him: “That will be 32 Euros and thirty cents.”

Me: “Darf ich bitte mit Karte bezahlen?”

Him: “Yes, you can. Here, please swipe your card.”

Me: “Danke. Tschüss.”

Him: “Thank you. Have a good day.”

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I know all too well the glaring truth. I cannot hide myself. My oddness. My Fremdheit. I am as brazen as a lemon peel.

I’ve lived here and there for too long. I will never fit-in anywhere. This is not a complaint.

Many people find this refreshing and exciting. Sometimes I do too. Well-meaning they say: “Celebrate your oddness. Show what makes you you!” That sounds great, but doing so every day can be extremely tiring. Going about daily tasks is simply not fun when you are not treated the same as everyone else. It is often just a minor annoyance, but it can quickly escalate into something ugly. “We offer a 40% discount only to real Berliners,” a merchant once said after he charged me full price. I was tempted to argue with him, “Great, then I have two real Berliners right here!” Would he ever accept that my two mixed-race children, born and raised in Berlin, are real Berliners? Would they themselves?

It is much more than just about race or nationality. The cashier in the tea shop was not European, not in terms of race, though he spoke German as a native speaker. I would guess he was a second-generation Chinese immigrant. But he too, would not accept that I could speak his language—ultimately, that we shared the same home. Most people just want to help, but helping someone who doesn’t ask for it is not helping. Presumption should not precede (ahem trump) all of our senses.

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A Chinese man selling teas to an exotic woman in a flowered dress is a picture as classic as a calligraphic mountain complete with pagoda and bamboo garden. And two Asian people, living in the west, compiling their identities with nuances, stubbornly speaking the wrong European language to each other—that is as modern as the smartphones in our pockets, buzzing with populist Tweets.

If the present is any indicator, it will only get more complicated from here on out—that is, if someone who idealizes simplicity does not bring about the apocalypse. They would fool us into believing that complexity is a bad thing-—that we are incapable of embracing it. But it can’t be true.

It can’t be true, just look at our palettes. We always yearn to have it all, both the comforting and the strange, the new and the familiar. Let’s not fight modernity, let’s enjoy it. Let’s savor the odd juxtapositions of the present—the je ne sais quoi of our modern mélanges, steeped in a history more bitter than one can stomach alone. Inhale deeply. Exhale. Let the complexity unfurl, unfold—not unnoticed, not untasted—into the infinite.

Text and images by M.P. Baecker, © 2017

3 thoughts on “Deciphering Tea Leaves

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