tea stories: Goh Tae-Yun

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 treasure to this day. I have gotten much use out of it, brewed many pots of Pu-erh. But I never saw the Professor again.

Later, Sun-yi would arrange for me to stay at a Buddhist temple, Geumsan-Sa, where Goh Tae-yun 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 if 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.


tea stories: Insadong and the tea underground

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”).

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. Let me tell you about my first experience with this precious cup.

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. 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’ll 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. The water became lighter. And somehow… wetter. Yes, this tea was wetter than water. The whole experience confused me.

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 it to 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, or discuss their personal problems over hard alcohol, 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

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 attended 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’d 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! (Hold on!)”

The helper turned slowly. “네? (yes?)”

“Uh, I..다도 좋아합니다 (I like tah-do)
His eyes narrowed. “네?” (yes?)
“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,” (No,) replied the helper. “이거 외국인 한국어 말할 수있다.” (This foreigner speaks Korean)
Tea mother looked confused. “정말?” (Really?)
She turned to me. “당신은 한국어 알 수 있습니까?” (Do you speak Korean?)
I nodded. “네, 조금. 한국 이년 에서 왔어요.” (Yes, a little. I’ve been here a couple years.)
“알겠습니다,” (I understand,) 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.”

I returned to the tea hall after a few forkfuls of the fish and noodle dinner. There the coordinator waited with tea mother. She told me how much 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 our community of foreign English teachers.

As one of my favorite photographs boldly proclaims, if tea can’t fix it, it’s a serious problem.