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.

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