Reflection on Portfolio

I think one of my favorite pieces in my portfolio is the “Reflection on Tea Poetry”. I say “favorite” because I am not certain that it is actually my best work. I do know it is my most daring work, however. I like this piece because I really explored the nature of one of the poems we read in class. I discovered much more in that poem than I expected by using the “method” on it. I am not certain all of the ideas I had are entirely valid, but I was excited by what I found. I spent extra time writing my reflection because I was so interested in the subject matter, and I think I was able to portray my ideas about the poem clearly. I think what makes this a good piece is my attention and care to explaining each idea and the thought behind them.

The piece I struggled with was the “Reflection on Chanoyu”. There were a few reasons I struggled with this one. When I first started writing it, I was excited about what I planned to discuss, but by the end I didn’t think I had achieved what I set out accomplish in that piece. Also, I don’t think what I wrote is very clear. I think this is partially due to the fact that the subject I tackled was too large to cover adequately in a 2-paragraph reflection (as is, it’s 5 short paragraphs). Also, I think I may have tried to draw too much of a connection between the FYS and my anthropology class. I had to spend so much time trying to explain the significance of anthropological terms that I was unable to really explore their significance in the context of Okakura’s article, which is what I wanted to discuss. If I was going to rewrite this reflection, I would need to choose a small part of my original topic to discuss. That would probably give me enough subject matter to explore without overloading the reflection with unnecessary information.

Overall, I think my portfolio is in decent shape. I have completed everything that is supposed to be in the portfolio, and I have taken time to edit and rewrite certain pieces that needed adjustment. The one thing I think I should work on is the length of my pieces. I didn’t realize until I went back to review my portfolio how much I had written. Most of my pieces are twice as long as the prompts said they should be. I do not think I used empty words—I think everything I wrote has substance—but most of my pieces are still too long.

Pride, Arrogance, and Trade

 

It is fascinating to observe the complexities of the relationships between the English and the Chinese and how racism, pride, and trade play into those complexities.

Both the Chinese and the British viewed each other as inferior. The Celestial Empire was at its peak, and many nations, like England, wanted to do trade with it. China did not make this easy for their trading partners, however: China was self-sufficient, there was nothing it needed, and the only thing it wanted was silver. It seems the English took some offense at being told they weren’t that important, but they swallowed their pride because tea was so valuable to them.

The Chinese also seemed to perceive the English as more simplistic than themselves, or at least this is how William Almack perceived it. This, however, may just be an indication of how the English felt generally disrespected by the Chinese.

The English viewed the Chinese as inferior beings, as well. They understood that China held the upper hand in their trade relations, but it seems to have rankled them. They did not appreciate the way the Chinese rejected the goods they had available for trade. Also, the English perceived the Chinese as inferior at an individual level, based on what William Almack wrote. He discusses how there are very few “good” Chinese and describes the Hong merchants, with whom the English engaged in trade, as having “very long faces” when being threatened with death. Also, while he always addresses his English colleagues as “Mister [name]”, he only addresses the Chinese he interacts with by their name.

Both of these countries were proud nations and jousted for the upper hand in trade. It seems there was little love lost between them as partners in trade as well as between their peoples. It makes me wonder about the conflict that erupted over the opium and whether, without opium, these two nations would have come to blows at some point anyway.

Tea in Britain

 

Tea has become known as the ultimate British drink. The British are notoriously picky about their tea, and tea was so popular that it became more than just a drink: it became a meal, as well. But before it became so popular, it was a delicacy for the elite. When tea first came to Britain, it was very expensive. In 1740, long after tea had become known in England, tea sold for anywhere between £37.4 per pound (Bohea) and £125.5 per pound (Hyson.) About a century later, tea was selling for anywhere from £12.3 per pound (Bohea) and £28.4 per pound (Hyson.)

Tea had grown so common and inexpensive, in fact, that one person in 1757 said, “. . . beggars are often seen . . . drinking their tea. You may see labourers who are mending the roads drinking their tea; it is even drank in cinder-carts. . . .” What caused tea to become so inexpensive? There were several factors that influenced its price, but one major cut to the price of tea occurred in 1784, when the duty levied on tea was reduced. Hyson tea, the most expensive variety I observed, dropped £6 between 1784 and 1785, and its price continued to drop over the coming years by a pound or two per year. Bohea tea, which was generally the cheapest tea, dropped in price by £6 as well. Congou tea, a very popular variety, dropped in price by £11. The price of all black teas dropped by £35, and the price of all green teas dropped by about £115.

The British East India Company was responsible for the price and distribution of tea because the company had a monopoly on the tea trade for long period of time. It was very interesting to learn that this company wielded more power than any other commercial organization in history. They were able to acquire territory, form alliances, maintain an army, declare war and peace, and dispense justice. This company really was the display of Britain’s might. I would be interested to learn more about the company and its history.

A Tea-Tasting Thank You

Dear Yu Fei,

I’m writing to you as rain thunders down outside my window. To my right is a stack of notebooks and textbooks, and to my left is a steaming mug of tisane. I know better than to call it tea, now, thanks in part to you. I also understand that my mug—tall, wide, and deep—is a very American way of drinking tea (or tisane).

It was fascinating to learn about the tea traditions with which you are familiar. I was particularly intrigued by how teas are classified as either warm or cool teas. I did not know that there are teas which should be drunk during one season and avoided in another. It is very interesting that cool teas come from smaller-leaved plants in Northern China whereas warm teas come from larger-leaved trees of Southern China. I did not know that there were such detailed levels of distinction regarding tea plants, and it makes me curious to explore these differences more.

I enjoyed tasting all of the teas you brought in, and I did like some more than others. My favorite tea was the oolong. I thought it had a very mild flavor compared to the other teas, and I was surprised by how sweet it was. Its flavor reminded me the most of unfermented plants. I enjoyed that there was very little bitterness.

I was very surprised, in contrast, by how bitter the green tea was. I thought it was more bitter than the black tea, which is not a trait I typically associate with green tea. It smelled and tasted smoky, and I heard many of my classmates comparing its scent to the scent of tobacco. Meanwhile, the black tea was somewhat bitter but had a flowery element that reminded me of the flavor of jasmine tea. I enjoyed the black tea more than the green tea, I think, and it was very interesting to note that green tea can be more bitter than black tea.

And lastly, there was the dark tea. I have always known it as pu’er tea. I enjoyed this tea quite a bit, and I also thought it was a unique mixture of flavors. It smelled and tasted somewhat woody, which I do not recall encountering in this type of tea before. It had a mellow flavor but a coarse aftertaste. It was tangy, which I enjoyed more than I would have expected. I have had pu’er before, but I seem to recall that the variety I tried was milder than this one.

Thank you for taking the time to come in, talk to us about tea, and particularly, brew tea for us to try. It was enjoyable and fascinating, and I feel like I learned quite a bit from it. I will never look at my American-style mugs of tea the same way again, and I hope I will be able to explore varieties of tea more in the future.

Thank you again,

Caya

Reflection on Chanoyu

There are several aspects of the tea ceremony in Japan that I found interesting. In the end, it was Okakura’s text and its reception that I found most fascinating. Okakura’s text is as much an attack on Western influence in Asia as it is praise for Asiatic culture and Japanese culture, specifically. Okakura claims that tea is the embodiment and pinnacle of Japanese culture. And though Okakura was not the first to write these things, he seems to be the most well-known for it.

What interested me about Okakura’s work was the effect it had on Western and Eastern audiences. These effects reminded me of terms I learned in my anthropology class in a unit about linguistic anthropology: perlocution, performativity, and direct and indirect indexicality. Perlocution refers to the actions that result from a person’s words, which are usually persuasive or convincing in some manner. Performativity is when the act of speaking or writing words causes them to become true. One example of this would be an officiant at a wedding stating, “I now pronounce you man and wife.” Once those words are said, the couple is officially married. Indexicality is the event of one sign pointing towards another in a way that relates the two. For example, a band on the ring finger of the left hand directly indexes marriage, and it indirectly indexes closeness with a romantic partner.

How does this all apply to Okakura? Before Okakura wrote The Book of Tea, Westerners may have indirectly indexed tea with Japan because it was well-known as a popular drink in Japanese culture. However, Okakura’s book had a perlocutionary effect: he persuaded Westerners that “Teaism” was far more important to Japanese culture than they originally knew. Tea was not just popular in Japan; Okakura convinced Westerners that tea was the most important aspect–the pinnacle–of Japanese culture and art. This would create direct indexicality between tea and Japanese culture because Westerners would immediately associate tea with Japan.

I may be reading too much into this, but I think that The Book of Tea may have been performative as well as perlocutionary. Okakura persuaded Westerners that tea was a major aspect of Japanese culture; Westerners would believe it to be true. They accepted that tea was the pinnacle of Japanese culture, which makes this a performative action. Okakura said it, and it became so.

It is less clear whether the book had performative action in Japan, but it must have had a perlocutionary effect because it was a success in Japan, as well. Several Japanese intellects agreed with Okakura, including Komiya Toyotaka and Hirsamatsu Shin’ichi, and they also wrote about tea’s role in Japanese culture and society.

“So What”

I read the textbook for my writing class, Introduction to Creative Nonfiction Writing. The text brought up an issue with the reliability of memory which I have been curious about but haven’t pursued in depth. There was one particular segment that caught my attention, written by Lisa Knopp in her essay, “Perhapsing: the Use of Speculation in Creative Nonfiction.” She wrote:

“At some point, writers of creative nonfiction come to a road block or dead end in our writing, where we don’t have access to the facts we need to tell our story or to sustain our reflection with depth and fullness. If only it was ethical to just make something up, we might think, or to elaborate a bit on what we know.”

This section bothered me because it touched on this issue of memory that I have been thinking about. I decided to use the So What method on this to get to the bottom of why this particular section was problematic. Here is my process.

  1. Memory is unreliable: it is a proven fact and can make writing personal stories very difficult.
  2. Prevents accurate recollection: sometimes I am uncertain if I am remembering an incident correctly. Other times I discover other people have a very different recollection of an event than me.
  3. Prevents accurate accounts: if I am uncertain my memory is accurate, how can I be certain my account of an incident is factual?
  4. How much “truth” is true? This goes not only for myself but also for everything I read. How can I know I am reading “truth” that is factual? Particularly when it’s difficult to check the writer’s sources, as it would be when someone writes about personal memories?
  5. Ethics of writing from memory: is it ethical to write from memory at all? Readers may feel duped if they discover a nonfiction account wasn’t actually factual. However, if we don’t write from memory, will anyone tell their stories? It may not be worth holding everyone to a standard of absolute factuality.
  6. Moral obligation of writer: if I decide that writing from memory is necessary for people to share their stories, where do I draw the line between allowing for memory’s faults and duping the reader?
  7. Audience’s response: I suppose the real question is what will make the reader feel like they are being tricked by a “nonfiction” account.
  8. The truth versus the spirit of truth: Writers cannot write accurately from memory, but they should still be held to a standard of truth. Perhaps the way to do this is to write in the “spirit of truth”, as close to actual truth as the writer can get.
  9. What is my duty to my reader? My duty to my reader is to provide them with an interesting story that is not fabricated and, if I am uncertain about the accuracy of my account, will not trick the reader into believing every word I write is factual.
  10. How can I achieve this? I can include a disclaimer of some sort, or use words that indicate uncertainty, just as Lisa Knopp introduces in her essay: I can use words like “maybe,” “perhaps,” “possibly,” or phrases such as “I can’t remember clearly,” and “I’m not sure this is accurate.” Hopefully this would help my audience understand that I strive to be as faithful to the truth as possible, and if I don’t remember the truth, I write in the spirit of it. This may even lend me some credibility with my readers since I am being honest about the flaws in my recollection.

I am not certain I used the So What method correctly on this part of the text, but I feel like it allowed me to work through my questions about the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction and the moral code behind writing creative nonfiction. It allowed me to understand what Lisa Knopp wrote from her perspective as a writer rather than my perspective as a reader. The question of ethics in nonfiction was an issue I had wondered about but hadn’t explored, and I have wondered throughout the course of my creative nonfiction class how to approach the flaws in my recollection of stories that I wanted to write about.

Perhaps I can even use the So What approach on my own writing if I ever feel like I am crossing the line between ethical and unethical writing. We discussed something like this in FYS Tea this past week: creating a reverse outline for something we already wrote. I think this will be very helpful and intend to use it on my next academic essay.

Event Response 2: Danez Smith

Tonight, I attended the reading given by Danez Smith. Danez Smith is a queer, black American poet who uses the pronouns they, them, and theirs. From the  first words they spoke, everyone in the audience was captivated. They seemed to speak from a place of such openness, friendliness, honesty, and warmth. This is not a tone that was shared by the other writers who have spoken as part of the Living Writers program. The other writers were friendly and honest, but they retained a level of reserve that Danez Smith did not maintain. I think Smith’s approach is very interesting and well-suited to their style of writing and performing.

Smith’s performing is also unique amongst the other writers who have come to campus. They are a performance poet, and they read their poetry very often at poetry slam events. They really do perform the poems. It is clear that many factors are considered when they prepare for a performance: articulation and pronunciation of words, vocal volume, tone of voice, facial expressions, use of bodily gestures including everything from kicking feet to head tosses. Smith performed each character in their poems differently. They played themself, but they also played family members, friends, acquaintances, people they had never met, and even the Christian God.

The poetry itself reflected on a variety of topics, including love, sexuality, police brutality, the president of the USA, racism, and history. They were fascinating poems. Each was unique and vivid in its own right. The poems were all very relevant to today’s society, as well, which prompted Danez Smith to say, “I wish [my poems] would stop being relevant.”

One of my favorite snippets of a poem was, “slug, slime, slick of a man.” I thought this phrase was interesting for several reasons. First, it is an interesting way to describe a person—it creates a very specific image which, in the context of the poem, is somewhat flattering. Devoid of context, however, it sounds unflattering. Secondly, it has a rhythm to it because of all the single syllable words. In my writing class this semester, we have discussed the rhythm of words quite a bit, and this helped me to understand how that works. Lastly, the intentional use of words that all start with sl- is an interesting pattern which I think lends structure to the phrase. It emphasizes both the rhythm of the phrase and draws attention to its meaning.

It was a fantastic reading, and I am so glad that Muhlenberg has a Living Writers program. I have gone to every reading so far this semester, and each time I have been introduced to intriguing writers who I had never heard of but am now anxious to explore.

Event Response 1: Ben Lerner

Tonight, I attended the reading given by Ben Lerner as part of the Living Writers program. Mr. Lerner is a poet and a novelist who has won a number of prestigious awards and fellowships. He has published several books. He shared some of his poetry and prose from two of his novels: the first, 10:04, and the second The Topeka School, which has not been published yet.

Mr. Lerner answered questions after the reading about his creative process and decisions and advice he would give to young writers.

Regarding the creative process, Mr. Lerner made it clear that this is very individual and can be very frustrating. He seems to take a good deal of inspiration from his personal life and experiences for his novels as well as his poetry. Often, he will take specific details that intrigue him and build off of them. For example, Mr. Lerner is intrigued by the art one sees in medical offices—purposefully cheery and bland—and the responses this art evokes in people. He uses this as a point of reference in his book 10:04, where the main character spends significant amounts of time in medical offices for a potentially deadly heart condition. It allows him to characterize the protagonist more clearly.

I think this is a very interesting strategy. First, writing is easier when the writer discusses something in which they are interested, so utilizing small fascinations like these would be useful. Secondly, including mundane details and characters’ reactions to those details could tell an author or reader something about the characters’ personality and/or state of mind. I do not know how helpful this would be in academic writing, since its use is intended for creative writing, but it might be something to explore more thoroughly if conducting fieldwork or research of some sort.

Mr. Lerner also discussed a strategy he uses to get himself out of writing ruts. If a piece is written in first person, he will rewrite part of it in third person to gain perspective from a different angle. He stated that this helps him separate himself from his characters and gives him a new outlook on how the piece could be presented. Again, I am not certain about how widely applicable this strategy is to types of writing other than creative writing, but it would be an interesting trick to explore. If nothing else, it would allow the writer to see if their writing is clear and concise and perhaps get them past the dreaded writer’s block.

Tea Tasting Review

It was fascinating to try different teas of different qualities and types, and it showed me a lot about my taste in teas. First of all, I had forgotten how brassy and bitter black tea can be when not combined with a tisane. I tried both PG Tips and the Tregothnan Blend, and while I enjoyed having them in small quantities, I do not think I would be able to drink an American-sized mug of them, particularly because I do not enjoy tea with sugar, honey, or milk.

However, the Lapsang Souchong was surprisingly delightful. It smells overpoweringly smoky before it is brewed. The leaves are rolled and stiff like the Tregothnan Blend. Once brewed, the tea still smells very smoky, but it smells full-bodied, in a way. It smells like the smoke of burning a campfire at my home, which would be made up of pine and cedar branches. In contrast, it does not smell like the smoke from a grill or from a wildfire. The liquid is a light golden-brown, almost the color of amber. I was nervous about tasting it because of the smoky scent, but the flavor is startlingly mild, milder than either PG Tips of the Tregothnan Blend. There is a faint smoky flavor, but it does not make the tea bitter. Instead, it is a little malty and earthy. I quite enjoyed this tea.

The other tea I really enjoyed was the Long Jing. It is a green tea, and its leaves looked surprisingly different from the black teas. It is a pale green in color, and instead of looking rolled, the leaves looked rolled and somehow flattened. They had a stiffness the black teas did not have, and the closest comparison I can think of is the stiffness of a tortilla chip. The leaves smelled mild and fruity before brewing. Once brewed, the liquid was a pale greenish brown. It smelled mild and a little brighter than the black teas: unfermented, basically, and closer to the scent of alfalfa than to the scent of fermented tea. This tea was certainly my favorite. It tastes mellow, a little malty, and a little fruity. I could understand why jasmine is confused with green tea for the first time because it smelled and tasted relatively similar to jasmine tea.

Overall, it was a very interesting, informative, and fascinating class. I hope to be able to explore more teas on my own time.

Reflection on “The Book of Tea” Chapters 1 and 4

I tried paraphrase x3 on this sentence: “The tea-room is made for the tea-master, not the tea-master for the tea-room. It is not intended for posterity and is therefore ephemeral.” Or, as I paraphrased it, “Each tea-room is built specifically for one tea-master, and it is not intended to be shared. A tea-room will not be left for following tea-masters and will no longer be used when the tea-master passes on.” I think this sentence brings up a very interesting relationship between private belongings and community belongings.

Tea, as Okakura puts it, is the “national identity” of Japan. This makes it community property, so to speak, because it is something in which all or most people who identify as Japanese take part. Also, tea is considered an artform in Japan, just like flower-arranging, painting, or other domestic arts. Art is also something that is often shared as a type of community property—for example, statues or sculptures in public spaces, art museums, or performances of various types.

However, this may create a binary with the sentence I analyzed or at least generate questions about the idea of ownership. The sentence I analyzed states that tea-rooms are created for a specific tea-master’s use. In a sense, therefore, the tea-room is the tea-master’s property because the tea-master dictates how and when the room is used. The tea-room also belongs to the master because it relies on his or her “artistic requirement.” However, both tea and art are viewed as community property by the Japanese. Where does this put the tea-room, then? Is it private property or community property? Can it be both? I don’t have an answer to either of those questions, but it is interesting to speculate on how this binary might exist in Japanese culture and other cultures around the world.