One interesting thing I encountered on this trip to Beijing is that nobody seems to know where I’m from. That in itself is not so surprising, but the fact that they all think I’m foreign is what is surprising.
It started with my flight over to Beijing. The woman next to me, who is a middle aged Chinese lady with no virtually English ability, was greatly surprised when I helped her with food since I speak Chinese. She thought I was from Brazil (how??).
Then when I visited the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, people there all didn’t know where I was from. They variously thought I was a mix, or of some other nondescript nationality. Nobody thought I was a Han to start off with, and only grudgingly did so after I assured them. It’s very strange.
The people in tea shops also didn’t know what to make of me, although for the most part I think they thought I was Chinese (I suppose they assume non-Asian wouldn’t know much about tea, and since I spoke decent Mandarin, I can’t be Korean or Japanese). I told one teashop that I’m from Hong Kong, and another that I’m from Shanghai. The one where I told them I’m from Shanghai said I didn’t speak at all with a Shanghai accent and don’t seem to be Shanghainese at all. The one where I said I’m from Hong Kong said I look foreign. Great.
The only person who was more or less correct in identifying me, actually, was at the Confucian teahouse (yes, this entry does have a little to do with tea). How did she achieve what everyone else failed to do? She identified me as someone “from Guangdong or maybe Fujian province” because I immediately put away the “wenxiangbei” when I was given the whole set of teaware. Smart girl.
Wenxiangbei is the cup that is narrow and tall that you often see sold in pairs with a short, round, large mouth drinking cup. In fact, they’re rarely sold separately since a wenxiangbei on its own is rather useless. What you do, for those who haven’t seen it done, is to first pour the brewed tea into the wenxiangbei, then you cover it with the drinking cup, then you flip the whole thing over carefully while holding them together. No tea should be spilled because their sizes should match (thus the reason they should be sold in a pair). As you lift up the wenxiangbei the tea will be transferred into the drinking cup. Then you can stick the wenxiangbei up to your nose and inhale — ahhh, fragrance from the tea. Then you drink the stuff.
As far as I can tell, it’s a Taiwanese practice to use the wenxiangbei. I’ve never seen anyone in Hong Kong use the thing, and I don’t remember seeing it either in Fujian where I went many years ago. I suppose perhaps Beijing tea aficianados have taken up the habit, thus the server’s ability to say I’m from a certain region (the ordering of aged Puerh probably gave a little away too). I don’t like to use the thing because it adds an extra step in the tea making process, and in the hands of those not practiced, such as friends who don’t always drink tea, it can result in spillage. It also lowers the temperature of the tea faster.
Most importantly, however, it doesn’t serve a real function. The fragrance you get from the wenxiangbei is the exact same thing as you’ll get from either the gongdaobei (literally, the fairness cup, which is the large vessel you use to hold the brewed tea and to pour into the small cups) as well as the drinking cup itself. Sniffing from the dried gongdaobei or the drinking cup gives you the exact same smell. The wenxiangbei is mostly a presentation thing. For those of us who are more into the taste of the tea than the looks of it, it’s not very important. That, and maybe because Taiwan oolongs are better smelling than they are in taste.