Tea Stories: Goh Tae-yun

Posted: September 15, 2015 in tea stories
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Professor Goh Tae-yun is the husband of Hong Sun-yi, a teacher at the school where I worked. Sun-yi was astonished to hear my stories about tea. She had no idea a foreigner would be into tea.

So she arranged for me to meet her husband, whose job it was to profile Buddhism and Taoism for his research in religious studies. He used his position to travel throughout Asia studying his secret fetish: Tea.

The evening stunk of haste, for I had planned to get together with non-Koreans after work and had not expected this invitation. Nonetheless, my meetings with Korean teachers always took the front seat to any involvement I had with the foreign community, and most people knew this. I was the Waygook-Hanguk Saram.

Professor Goh picked me up from the elementary school where I worked and stopped off quickly to his University for a package. “So you like the Fwer tea?” he mused.

“Uh, fwer?”
“Nae, Boicha, Boicha!1
“Ah~ Boicha! Nae, boicha joayo!”

So he learned that I had discovered pu-erh in Insadong, and enjoyed the tah-do tea ceremony in Gunsan. He was happy to be among such company, an english speaker who also had a taste for tea.

At his home, he practiced tah-do. He even donned traditional Korean clothing for the occasion. It was a shaky tah-do, though, meant more for function than form. Soon I’d had several full cups of tea, pu-erh varieties and more. He even served a special Black from China and presented me with a red pouch of it, which I humbly accepted. I was not worthy of such a jewel, one that he’d gleaned from his extensive travels through the world’s largest landmass. He had a story about gifting tea.

“You know, US President Nixon.”

“He went to China to meet with the Chairman Mao Se-Tung. now you know there is a tree for tea at a certain elevation, the only one capable of making this kind of tea. Only one thousand grams can be yielded in a year, and it is China’s most precious tea.

“The Chairman Mao arranged for five hundred grams to be gifted to the President Nixon. Upon the presentation of this special gift, Nixon raised a hand to balk at the offer. ‘I am the President of the United States,’ he proudly announced, ‘and you offer me this gift, a little bag of tea?’

“The Chairman calmly replied, ‘You should not be so indignant. I have offered you half of China.'”

Professor Goh’s eyes and mouth curled skyward together, a silent laugh and smile expressed gracefully in a glance.

My coat pocket was buzzing with calls from foreigners wondering where I was. The rushed invitation to this tea gathering prohibited me from letting my foreign friends know about my whereabouts. Later, I would choose to spend time with foreign friends to battle loneliness, rather than learning the Korean language and studying the peoples’ customs. I would pick and choose, weekend by weekend, rather than prioritizing the one I preferred. Either group would accept me, and I wanted to please everybody. Truly, there was a choice to be made, of which culture I would embrace, and I made the decision to choose neither by trying haplessly to accommodate both.

I slyly turned my cell phone in pocket off.

“You need to get that?”
“No, Professor Goh, it’s okay.”

We talked late into the night. I excused myself once to relieve myself of some tea and quickly message the foreigners, “Be there soon!” even though there was nowhere else I wanted to be but in this livingroom.

Wisely, Professor Goh ended the evening by telling me about the Buddhist concept of “In-hyun.”

“It means, it is fated that you will meet the right people at the right time, whether just for a few hours, or for your whole life. But no moment is more special than another, and if you never see someone again, it does not mean they were unimportant.”

He gifted me a white porcelain tea set, which I treaure to this day. I have gotten much use out of it, brewed many pots of Pu-erh. But I never saw him again.

Later, Sun-yi would arrange for me to stay at a Buddhist temple, Geumsan-Sa, where he was writing his book about Taoism. As soon as I got there, he was gone. The day I left the temple, Sun-yi brought me and her daughter out to the countryside of Jeonju, Jeollanamdo to visit a tea shop that grew its own green tea in a field below its gorgeous structure, the description of which is a novel, not a humble article. Perhaps that’s for another Tea Story.

The sun beat down in the tea field as we strolled about, smelling the fresh August post-pluvial aroma, as of the whole field were a pot of tea we’d been steeped in. Professor Goh did not join us for tea. He didn’t need to. He is still in my mind years later as I sip green tea from a glass jar, an ocean, a culture, a language, two seasons and a nationality away, yet still: in-hyun.

1“Boicha” is Puh-erh tea. The consonant “프” is always “puh” but it transliterates “fuh”. In order to correct the transliteration error, Professor Goh pronounced “pu-erh” as “fwer” although he didn’t need to.


In Seoul you can find just about anything that Korea has to offer within a limited radius. The good stuff can only be found in the rural areas. The exception, of course, is tea. You can find the highest quality teas from Korea and all around Asia on one little street called Insadong.

Insadong is a tourist-friendly shopping street in Seoul close to Korea’s premiere historical palace, Gyeong-buk Gung. There you can eat traditional Korean food such as hae-mool pah-john seafood pancake with makgeoli rice wine, samgyeopsal grilled pork with soju alcohol shots, grilled eel with bokbunja black raspberry wine, bulgogi fried meat or bibimbop, bokeumbop and booribop- all different rice dishes served with kimchi and kongnamul beansprouts.

The food, however, isn’t the main attraction. You can experience these delights and more outside of Seoul, in the country regions, where traditional food is more conservatively- and cheaply- offered.

Also you can see the masks of Ha-wae Talchum here, from the traditional mask-dance of Korea, in particular the maks of Yang-ban, the aristocrat. You can visit Korean calligraphy shops, or find trinkets from Korean religious influences ranging from Taoism and Shamanism to Buddhism and Christianity. Korean musical instruments can be found here too, and there are several chances to view past, modern and innovative art and design.

But the real reason to go to Insadong is the tea.

The most prominent tea house is the O’Sulloc Tea Shop where demonstrations of their light roasting methods are held daily, and visitors are warmly welcomed to come in and sample their blends and infusions, or just catch a whiff of the aromatic tins stacked neatly in every corner of the room.

Sure, when I take someone else there, I take them to O’Sulloc. They love the fragrant fruit teas and exotic blends. There isn’t much, after all, you can do with green tea, except sell the costly ujeong jaksul, “sparrow’s tongue,” a tea picked as soon as it’s ready in the spring, by far the subtlest and finest flavour of nok-cha (from hangul: nok: “green” and cha: “tea”). Unpaid Product placement!

No, my discovery in Insadong was the Chinese “pu-erh” tea, the first tea that opened my tastebuds to a nice, small cup of tea with no sugar or cream.

I had previously preferred flavoured teas. I liked Seattle’s Market Spice, and bought big bags of it whenever I had the chance. I enjoyed the bergamot-flavoured Earl Grey, but shied away from Orange Pekoe and English Breakfast blends. To me those were too ordinary, too Tetley, too English. I could never get into green tea. It’s the diva of teas: if your water is too hot, your steeping period too long or your ratio too heavy, you end up with a bitter cup.

But pu-erh tea is a gem. Its long steeping period and 5-6 re-uses makes it a good tea to brew strongly without inviting much bitterness. And I never would have discovered it if it weren’t for the mad hatter.

Truly. Like a tourist, I was bumbling around the street, looking for nothing in particular. I plunged my face into a dusty window to check out some old tea-pots I’d seen inside. Tea-ambivalent as I was, I traipsed into the dusty old shop only to see a gaunt man with dark chin-whiskers pouring himself a cup of tea from the world’s smallest teapot.

His English was passable and he had a bright look in his eyes, as though he were either very enthusiastic about life, or he’d had too much tea.

Probably the latter.

He invited me to have a seat and he proudly danced about, telling me everything I needed to know about the preparation, consumption and presentation of pu-erh. His shaky hands dropped the golden liquid into a tiny cup and zoomed right into my bubble, lifted his eyes, grinned and chirped, “whattiya think?”

I didn’t know what to say. It didn’t taste like much. It reminded me of carrots when I first tasted it. It tasted nothing like carrots, that was just the immediate association I made. I sputtered out the obvious. “wow, it’s like nothing I’ve ever tasted!”

He jumped to his counter, “Of course it isn’t. I think you should try. Hmmm, wellll. I don’t know.”

He was hunched over a small rectangular block of deep, dark tea that looked like black plastic. It had been moulded tightly and imprinted with a scene of a man with an oxcart atop an agrarian pastoral scene.

“Okay,” he gave, “you try this, and I’ll have some too in the special small pot.” He unearthed a tiny pot and crumbled a bit of the black block into it. After pouring the brew, he divided the tea three times, a little into each cup, when a gentleman dressed in traditional garb calmly strode into the room and sat across from me at the table. Formalities were exchanged, and this new guest was invited to try the pu-erh, which I learned was a hundred years old.

The tea changed the consistency of the water. That was strange.

But Leif Teacher, you say, of course the water will become denser when a flavour is added.

No. The water became lighter. And somehow… wetter. Yes, this tea was wetter than water. I felt like I was having a hallucinatory experience.

I bought a round  of the first pu-erh he gave me. It was a generous amount, probably good for a hundred pots, and it only ran me 50,000 won. I inquired about the century-old brew.

“Well, maybe, I can give you for 200,000 won.” A small black tablet for two hundred bucks? Yes, it was a great experience, but two hundred?

“Tell you what,” I cajoled,” “how about I grab a pot’s worth as a sample, and I’ll return.”

This required some humming and hawing. The notion was ridiculous. I didn’t have the special pot. I could not have replicated the experience. But I’d become so used to bargaining for things in Korean street markets that I felt compelled to make an offer.

I returned to the mad hatter’s shop a few times, but it was never the same as the first time. I began trading tea with other teachers. I found out that there was a Tea Underground in Korean schools. There were Korean teachers who used their summers, or knew others who did, to travel and pick up tea from all parts of the world. This led to many sittings for tea, and I began to get a taste for what “tea” actually is.

Tea is an event loosely based on the “tah-do” tea ceremony, but incorporating a certain frame of mind, a style of conversation, and a manner of etiquette. Topics discussed during tea include travel, art, philosophy, current events and things of interest to the thought-stimulated, caffeinated mind. Just like people talk about sports over beer, discuss their personal problems over hard alcohol, or discuss going to the convenience store for slushies and nacho chips after some MJ, tea is a beverage that pairs well with quick minds and lofty topics.

I wanted very badly to bring this ritual to my foreign friends. But first, I had to see what a real tea ceremony was like.

Tea Stories: Tah-do

Posted: September 15, 2015 in tea stories
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The EPIK program is responsible for ensuring foreign English teachers in Korea have a smooth sail, and in turn, that the local schools get all they want out of the foreign teachers. To this end, EPIK coordinators often arrange outings for guest teachers. Thus we attented a traditional tea ceremony, tah-do.

Tah-do is a Chinese word for tea ceremony, but in Korea it’s practiced with a style unique to the peninsula. Hanboks were worn by two young women during the demonstration. A tea mother presided over the event.

Helpers came to each table and instructed us on how to perform the ceremony: the various turns of the pot, the hand with which to hold the cloth napkin, the number of times to pour considering the number of guests, and the order of guests to be served based on seniority. The level of complexity associated with the ritual filled me with giddy energy. Or perhaps it was the caffeine.

After tea we had soft, sweet rice cakes as helpers approached foreign teachers at the tables to volunteer for a demonstration with the tea mother. Every foreign teacher declined until a helper came to our table.

The helper approached the teacher next to me.
“Ma’am, you like to make tea with tea mother?”
“Oh dear Lord, I could tell you were going to ask me. No.”

Just before the helper, looking quite dejected at the moment, sauntered off to find another table, I called out, “Wait, wait, uh… 잠깐만!”

The helper turned slowly. “네?”

“Uh, I..다도 좋아합니다
His eyes narrowed. “네?”
“May I?”
He smiled. “Yes, of course!”

I approached the stage where tea mother sat calmly. She didn’t look at me. She smiled and waited for her helper to translate.

“아니요,” replied the helper. “이거 외국인 한국어 말할 수있다.”
Tea mother looked confused. “정말?”
She turned to me. “당신은 한국어 알 수 있습니까?”
I nodded. “네, 조금. 한국 이년 에서 왔어요.”
“알겠습니다,” she replied.

We had lovely conversation as I spat out every Korean phrase I could think of, asking her about her favourite foods and rehearsing terribly constructed sentences about my time so far in Korea.

I poured her tea, albeit with a few accidents involving my puerile habit of confusing left and right, and made it through the demonstration without any major mishaps. We parted, very happy to have met each other.

As the group was leaving, I was intercepted slyly by the event coordinator. “Mr. Nordholm,” he whispered, “why don’t you come here after dinner?”
“Uh, sure.”

The dinner was thrift Korean. Thrift Korean is food given to foreigners who are unlikely to appreciate real Korean food, and would complain about anything they were given. Usually it’s made without spices (an abomination in Korean cuisine), made in mass quantities, and resembles bad Chinese takeout. Why spend too much money on food that no one’s going to eat?

I returned to the tea hall after a few forkfuls of the lamentably flavourless foreigner gruel. There the coordinator waited with tea mother. She told me how muh she appreciated our demonstration together and gifted me a box of one of the finest teas I had ever tasted, 황차 or golden tea.

We said our goodbyes and I left. I was sad because I thought I would never see tea mother again. What I would do, however, was introduce tah-do to out foreign community. As one of my favorite photographs boldly proclaims, if tea can’t fix it, it’s a serious problem.

Joey don’t drive no buses no more

Posted: September 15, 2015 in stories
Joey was quite the driver.  I hear he found a new job in the city. He’ll be happy.
Not many envy the difficult task of doing the night drive up North.


Story & Music by Leif Reginald Cosmic Sunsplatter Nordgube Jr.

gods among men

Posted: August 31, 2015 in stories

When I was seven years old, me and my friend Tyrone had the oddest belief. We believed that there were ghosts in the trees in the small park across the street from my grandparents old wooden house on the boundary of the Musquem Nation in Vancouver, BC.

We’d go into the tiny forested park, a park due to be bulldozed, the old oak and arbutus replaced with pink stucco seven-rooms with two-car garages intended as single-family homes. People have to live somewhere. Even at seven, I was aware of this fact. I was realistic. A realistic seven year-old who talks to ghosts in the forest.

But when the ghosts were exorcised along with their homes, another exorcism happened within. It wasn’t until a decade and a half later when my neighbour Brent led me to the inner harbour in Victoria that I felt it. Brent would often talk of a time when gods walked with men, in his characteristic hazy beat of speech, this man, a dreadlocked bass player in a cover band out east driving his cherry-red convertible pig-bait.

He led me by bicycle to an old galleon moored for the tallships festival. We parked our bikes out on the dock and gazed at the spectacle before us. I had no idea a galleon would be so large in real life. No idea that it would occupy so much of the tiny harbour, or so much of my dreamspace. I was so mesmerized by the site that I barely noticed Brent was boarding the vessel.

“Leif, c’mon. It’s time.”

I looked up at him. I blinked to make sure that what I was seeing was accurate.

“Cut the rope, Leif. It’s time for our adventure to begin!”

I just looked at the man, a man older and in many ways wiser than me. A man who moved through life in his cherry-red convertible doing the things he loved to do.  A man born on the wind and carried by it regardless of the limitations of our imaginations. Then I looked over at harbour security, a man who did not look fit to run after us for two minutes, a man who was obviously radioing for backup.

“Quickly Leif, we don’t have time! Cut the rope for the love of gods!”

I stood, paralyzed. I was thinking about my family. About my future children with my newlywed. About my home, my education, my student debt, everything I’d been planning for, all for naught if I ceded to the bizarre request of this man so intelligent in the cosmic flow of life he had become insane. Harbour security approached.

“Don’t fail me, no!”

My gaze dropped. I gave one final look to Brent, his eyes shaped in anguish as I turned to harbour security.

“I’m sorry about my friend. He’s a manic-depressive. Just let him play for a couple more minutes, and I’ll get him out of here.”

The officer filled his body with a contemptuous breath. He feigned concern. “Oh, uh. I’m sorry about your friend, but…you realize this is a restricted area.”

“Yes I realize. He just wants to touch the steering wheel. He has an overactive imagination. I’ll get him out of here.”

Brent could hear the transaction, despite how hushed I tried to be. He lifted one leg slowly after the other over the small security fence and walked down the plank, me and harbour security staring in unison, mouths wired shut.

We picked up our bikes and rode home in silence. His disappointment never left our interactions. He spoke more and more about damned Whitey, which my newlywed, a white woman, didn’t much care for and she soon dismissed the man as a calloused reverse-racist.

The Whitey he spoke of was the one who came first. The one who came in a time when gods walked among men and chained our imaginations, allowing only approved visions to flash across our screens. I see Whitey in dreams, even now after my newlywed has gone, my education is worthless, and my home is broken. Even now after I’ve crossed the ocean, the proper way, with a passport, through security.

My imagination is an albatross still hanging in my closet. I know it’s still there because every friend I’ve told this story to tells me the same garbage Whitey painted in blood across our screens.

They don’t see the irony, that I’m not the hero of this story. They point out the reckless, impulsive foolishness of the dreadlocked bassplayer. What a crazy man. You did the right thing. I’m glad you didn’t go with him. You would have gotten in serious trouble. It’s fun to think about, but in reality you would be a thief. There’s no mercy for thieves.

There’s no mercy for vagrancy.

There’s no mercy for criminal acts.

There’s no mercy for gods walking among men.

la mortessa

Posted: August 31, 2015 in stories


Illustration from brightbaekart.tumblr.com, drawn by the talented and powerful Bright Baek.

There was once a woman named Fia who loved reading. She loved reading so much that she read every approved book, even though in the thirteenth century, no book was approved for a woman to read. It didn’t matter to her. The rules were not strictly enforced in the South. In the North they would have burned her as a witch. In the South, folks just told her, “In the North you’d be burned as a witch.” Her response was to shrug her shoulders.

After finishing reading every approved book three times over, she was bored. So she read an unapproved book. She wouldn’t have, but reading was already prohibited to her, so the prohibition didn’t strike her as being very important.

The book she read had three parts. The first part was about a king who learned to turn things into gold, but ended up turning everything into gold and died alone and miserable. The next was about a woman who enslaved herself to a king after learning how to turn hay into gold and died miserably slaving away at the king’s behest. The third part was a instructional manual on how to turn things into gold.

She finished reading the book, and she was bored again. So she tried turning some things into gold. She did it until she had a great, giant pot of gold, so heavy that her mule could barely carry it. While she thought it was interesting that she was able to make gold, she recalled the stories about kings who really liked gold. It seemed that kings were irretrievably drawn to the substance, although it inevitably lead to misery and death. So she halted her travail and set out to bury the treasure below a tree, high up on the hill of Buscliagini, a land now forgotten by the chronicles of history.

She had kept, however, a small portion of the gold and descended into the vale with it. She walked into the osteria to buy a meal. You can well imagine that the innkeep eyed the unaccompanied woman askance. He said nothing, but delivered her meal in hopes that she would eat quickly and leave.

The vale was not lively, owing to the fact that so many were lost to la pestilenza. A group of three burly, well-known heroes entered the osteria and released their hilts, dressing a square table in the centre of the room. They called for three fiascoes and let their weight drop into their wooden chairs ruefully.

The burliest cried out to no one in particular, asking who had brought la pestilenza to the vale. Fia replied, “la mortessa.”

The men, noticing Fia for the first time, approached her and asked where they could find this mortessa, for clearly they could not understand her dialect. Remembering the stories of how gold led to misery and death, she told them the location of her treasure. The heroes vowed to kill this mortessa and return with his head on a lance, thus saving the town from la pestilenza.

The heroes started in to ravage Fia, as was the customary treatment for unaccompanied women at the time. Before they could lift her skirt, the innkeep mentioned that if the men should want to catch la mortessa, they would need to make haste. The heroes agreed and asked the woman to kindly wait for them to return so that they might ravage her after they saved the vale. She gave them her word.

She waited all night, but the men did not return. She waited a few days after that, though the innkeep insisted that she leave. She did not listen to him because she was accustomed to doing prohibited acts, and also because she vowed to always be true to her word. She was fed well, for her small bag of gold was valuable enough to buy many meals.

After one week, she announced to the innkeep that she would be marrying him in order to await the heroes who were scheduled to ravish her. At first, the innkeep refused, but when it became apparent that Fia didn’t intend to budge, he called the vicar in to perform the ceremony.

It is written elsewhere what happened to the heroes. Should you want to find a moral in this story, I am afraid to say I am rather lost on it myself. As soon as I discover it, I will loudly proclaim the answer to this mystery in the local osteria should you be there to hear it.

Part of the reason I’m so cynical about these newfangled products and whatnot is because I grew up in my grandparents’ home, and they had some pretty conservative ideas.

Like eat your damn peas.

And stop shufflin them feet.

And walk like a prince or you’ll get treated like trash.

That kind of conservatism. The kind that was based on giving and getting respect, supporting local, mom-and-pop grocers, listening to and respecting your elders and NUMBER ONE, ABOVE ALL, EATING WHOLESOME FOODS.

Always choose fruit over candy. Never buy a packaged product when a fresh one is available. Chocolate bars do nothing for you. Pickle everything. Fast-food isn’t food. Learn to cook. Forget to eat out. Dessert isn’t necessary. Vitamins and minerals are. Don’t watch TV all day. Go outside and play. The world is your gym and your determination is your gym pass. Swim. Run. Climb. Cycle. Make friends. Play.

This wisdom had followed me into adulthood and I think often about how fortunate I was to have grandparents like mine. While my friends ate junk food and instant meals, I was in heaven, though I had no idea. I thought all those kids were lucky to get fast food and preservative-laden, heart-stopping, likely-to-survive-nuclear-holocaust edible garbage. I didn’t realize that the diarrhea-inducing pondscum they were eating was collateral damage from a dual-income family who had no choice but to throw quick meals at their loved ones before rushing out the door in order to keep up with their subdivision suburban mortgages and SUV car loan payments.

The truth is, my grandparents were TRULY conservative- they were conserving all they could! They had only one car, a tiny, fuel-efficient vehicle. They rarely used indoor heating. Their pension income may have been low, but their consumption was also quite low. They truly embodied the doctrine of non-materialism, a doctrine which is a dirty word in many 21st-century discussions on economics.

In Korea, I’m pampered. There are these guerilla gardening grannies who will take fertile land in the hills and just plant stuff. Then they come down to the open market and sell everything from grains and beans to fresh fruits and vegetables.

With plenty of westcoast seaweed and kelp, there are enough b-vitamins and iron to forsake most traditional protein sources. If you just cook at home in South Korea, you have the option to eat a healthier and more economical diet than many places on earth.

There’s only one problem. No one is a peninsula entire of itself. Industrial pollution still affects us all, the quality of the food we eat, and in turn the quality of the lives we lead.

There’s nothing conservative about environmental destruction. Or supporting Monsanto. Or opposing climate science and the post-carbon movement. That’s just ignorance.

Who would have guessed that what’s good for the body is good for the environment, and vice-versa?

My grandparents would have. They’d have told me that was good old fashioned common sense. I think they’d be proud that I was interested in keeping things wholesome. I think they’d agree that we deserve better.

Better than what?

Proctor and Gamble






General Mills


We’re reasonably smart monkeys. We have the Internet. Just stop using what these guys are making as best as humanly possible and encourage others to do the same.