Angela Chen

China

Skincare, boba, dark academia, Emma Woodhouse kind of girl! Befriend me & I will brew you tea!

Message from Writer

“And by winding ways not without green pastures and still waters, we shall rise insensibly, and reach the tops of the everlasting hills, where the winds are cool and the sight is glorious.” —James Martineau

Chrysanthemum Tea

December 6, 2019

Late November last year, Nainai was rushed to the emergency room for heart failure. 

Before this, I suppose, we lived in normalcy. But very quickly, the familiarity of our crème-walled complex, the warmth of fall, the popping of oil and salt and pork after four in the afternoon—all of it froze, cracked, and turned into cough syrup, the under-seasoned soup of the hospital canteen, and the chill of something unpleasant, impending.

Oh, yes. I hated December.

On an early winter’s day that year, Mama sent me on an errand for chrysanthemums. It was highly inefficient—she could’ve ordered off of Taobao with ease—but no matter, I suppose. Mama’s gut feeling, from her ridiculous superstitions to her outlandish medical intuition, is often irritatingly strange but always rewarding in some roundabout way. That and Nainai’s sore throat—for these reasons, I went out city-bound into the cold that evening.

A new, dreaded season was taking wing. In the metro station, people milled around with some destination or another in mind—faces lit by the stark underground lighting, but never joy. We wedged ourselves into the glutted train. The automated, chipper voice of a woman tells us to hold the handrail and get off our phones, advice everyone disregarded with an appalling indifference. I sucked in a breath. It was packed. It smelled like sweat and perfume and pollution carried in from above. I held this breath, cast my eyes downwards, and the engine whirred like clockwork; such was the energy of Shanghai, stripped of fiction, any day of the year.

By twilight, Nanjing Road was artificially illuminated and fatally cold. At the mouth of the station, some wretched northerly gale tore through all three layers I was wearing that day like a single volley of arrows. I was numb in a second. Around me, the city formed a great briny of expectant faces, apparitions propelled by their own inertia, heedless of matters that did not concern them. It was a grand, remarkable sight, yet so cold, so distant. If I told a passer-by my nainai was sick, that I’m unhappy, would they stop to reach back? Would they even bat an eye?

All show, little feeling. All cold, little snow.

Scratch that. No snow. Another complaint of mine.

I passed into the pedestrian zone, buoyed by the crowd, searching for a familiar storefront. The place Mama gets her tea leaves from, Fangjia Puzi, was charming. Warm air, steeped in herb smells, greeted me when I trundled in from the snowless blizzard, shedding my coat like thick skin. It was quiet, almost empty, with aisles of tea leaves, white fungi, jujube, mung beans. A middle-aged Chinese man in a beige jumper sat at a low table with a tea-making set, reading.

“If you want anything, let me know,” he said in a dialect.

“You have chrysanthemums?” I asked.

“Yep. Second row to your left.”

I turned and saw it. Dried-up chrysanthemum buds packaged in clear plastic, stamped with the store’s circular, rust-red logo.

I showed him the pack and paid him thirty kuai before he said, “I have some of that brewed already, you want a taste? And here—” he tossed me a tube of hand cream, “have some. You looked chapped.”

I nodded, surprised. “Thanks.”

“I like this brand of moisturizer,” the man mused. “Smells like my mother’s vanishing cream.” He poured some tan-colored tea from a clay pot and handed me a glass. I thanked him. “Anyway, why do you look so sad?”

I blinked. “Ah. Nothing, really.”

“Must be the weather, I think. It’s been icy lately. It’ll pass.”

The tea was warm, sourly fragrant—elegantly so—with a suggestion of tang. I still. Memories, golden pictures of the past, stirred slowly.

“But what if it takes too long?” I asked. I wasn’t sure if I was talking about the weather.

“Sometimes, we only wait and hope,” he replied. “Me, I stay indoors and make tea. It’s very interesting, how chrysanthemums brew. They start so small, but they open up, and they take time and warmth. It’s almost a magical thing. A good lesson in life that you can make your own. Anyway, that’s what I like doing. Find something you learn new things from every time you experience it.”

I drain the last of the tea from the little glass and nodded. “That sounds good.”

“Well, not that I know anything,” he said smilingly. “Go be on your way. Don’t catch a chill.”

“Thank you, Shushu.” Uncle. I put by coat back on and stood. “Good night.”

“Aye.” He turned back to his book, and the amber lighting of his shop melted into the night scene of the pedestrian streets once more.

It was still hellishly cold, but I no longer felt so cynical, so disheartened by the chill and my own lonely worry against what I thought was such collective urban apathy. The feel, the taste of the delicate hot drink—it brought back times we’d make chrysanthemum tea when I was young and Nainai was okay, when we’d drop the petal balls with desiccated goji berries into the glass pot and watch the little things unfurl like sunbursts, loosening, metamorphizing. Nainai was content, her gray eyes at peace. Mama, beaming. Me, transfixed. The memory is firelight against the cold early-winter night, but what I suddenly found more solace in is the possibility that these memories can be created once more.

And suddenly, Nanjing Road’s lights no longer seemed so artificial. The misty smog against the night sky, the hopeful faces of the people, the crisp cold of the deepening winter—these things were quiet, new, oddly beautiful. There was no fanfare, but there didn’t need to be. I couldn’t wait to visit Nainai in the hospital tomorrow, brew her some chrysanthemum tea, tell her about the man. It wasn’t about what happened, but what could, will happen. Suddenly, to fear and hope, everything was new.

I smiled, slipped the chrysanthemum buds into my coat, and headed back to the metro, homeward-bound.

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  • December 6, 2019 - 9:12pm (Now Viewing)

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4 Comments
  • Anha

    you probably won't see this, but just in case you miraculously return, 2019 highlights are finally live, and you're in them!
    https://bit.ly/36qKapR


    6 months ago
  • Anha

    sorry i haven't told you how much i loved this. hopefully, this will be enough of an apology so other people read this and tell you how much they love this in my stead.
    http://bit.ly/2RRDtGH


    10 months ago
  • loveletterstosappho

    okay i read this and i cried it's masterful


    11 months ago
  • SuperKewlKiwi

    Simple, yet soulful .


    11 months ago