By Ariana Chomitz, group leader on The Experiment’s program in Korea
How do you drink tea? Does your process involve a microwave and a teabag? Maybe you’re a bit fancier, and use a teakettle and loose leaves. Perhaps there are some of you who don’t drink tea at all, not seeing the point of life beyond coffee.
No matter what your take on tea is, I would be surprised if any American could pull off their first traditional Korean tea ceremony without a misstep. At our Buddhist retreat, a three-day foray into the misty mountaintops of Buseoksan Temple marked by 4 AM wake up gongs and a vegan diet, our introduction to tea ceremony etiquette was only one of the many cultural challenges that Team Experiment Korea navigated.
The head monk of the temple presides over the elaborate, three-cup tasting ceremony. Some elements are relayed through a translator; the three cups, small enough to nest gently in our fingers, are appreciated for the color of the tea first, the delicate taste second, and the sensation of it gliding over your tongue, throat, and stomach third. Some elements can only be mimicked; we try to match the way that the monk grips the cup in his right hand and supports the bottom with his left.
Other norms are so ingrained in the Koreans that it doesn’t occur to them to put them into words until we Americans violate them. We are corrected when we drink before the eldest in the room and when we bend at the waist to offer a tray when polite body language would have us kneel. Although these faux pas are mildly embarrassing, they don’t offend our Korean hosts; we are expected to learn by doing and by making mistakes along the way.
Korea is a particularly good place for young travelers to fledge because it is decidedly foreign without being counterproductively overwhelming; to generalize, it’s one of the “easiest” Asian countries to start in. Koreans — or at least our friends, host families, and all strangers up to this point — place considerable social value on education and hospitality, creating an ideal backdrop for The Experiment to blend in easily. Korea’s recent economic and political successes make it not only materially easy to acclimate, but also an important place for today’s globally minded student to understand.
That being said, there are things about Korea that seem familiar at first — quaint cafes, the metro system, ordering food at restaurants — until we realize that they require completely different rules of engagement than what we would expect at home. While these “tea ceremony moments” would normally shock our American cultural sensibilities, leaving us longing for the familiarity of home, Experimenters take advantage of the opportunity to ask, mimic, and participate, learning about themselves and others as their journey progresses.
Our Experimenters learn to adapt when Korean classrooms eschew discussion in favor of lectures, and to be humble when they trip up over basic Korean phrases written in the Hangul alphabet. Like their counterparts elsewhere this summer in New Mexico’s Navajo Nation, the French Alps, and Tanzanian villages, these Experimenters remain vigilantly curious, bringing their questions to the locals — not their group leaders — for clarification. They learn to understand the responsibility they hold for their actions and, finally, realize their own strength with growing confidence as they overcome new obstacles and let go of their need for familiarity and comfort. Ultimately, we are learning that no matter how you drink your tea, it is always a ritual to be savored.