Friday, April 13, 2012

Tea Party - 茶话会 (Cháhuàhuì)

“A Proper Tea is much nicer than a Very Nearly Tea, which is one you forget about afterwards.” ― A.A. Milne

I am sitting in my Monday class on Managing the Environment to Support Young Children's Learning. We have a guest speaker who is enthusiastically showing a slide show of pictures from her center. I look at my watch, and calculate that if I leave class in fifteen minutes, I will be able to make it to Pearl River Mart to pick out a nice tea set for the next day's party before the store closes at 7:20. I hate missing class, but my compulsion to buy this tea set at Pearl River Mart takes precedence over my desire for perfect attendance. Confident in my choice, I quietly pack my books and leave the classroom with as little fanfare as possible. Down in the basement of Pearl River Mart, it is easy to become completely distracted by their enticing knickknacks and odd merchandise. I find a painted metal toy with four hens that peck feed when you twist the base of it. My search for my mother's birthday gift is over. I have seventeen more minutes to pick out a tea set for eighteen. There are several inexpensive pre-packaged sets with a teapot and four little cups. I want saucers as well, and realize that I need to find individual wares. On the other side of the packaged sets are a huge selection of painted cups and saucers, reminiscent of teacups used in Chinese restaurants. Some have dragons painted on them; some are jade colored with Mandarin letters. I quickly choose three different styles of six, and then rush around searching for the respective matching saucers. With my remaining six minutes, I quickly decide on just purchasing one teapot. I realize I need to ignore my budget for this spree- I can't leave the store without the goods. As an afterthought, I bring my now very heavy basket next to the cash register, and run over to the food section so I can pick out a box of tea. I need something fragrant and different from the Pu Er tea I have at home, which I will use for the children as well. I find a box of 100 Jasmine Green tea bags for $3.99, and grab it. In front of the cash register, at 7:15 P.M., a man rings up my numerous items, and a woman wraps stacks of the saucers in local newspapers. They are talking very loudly and agitatedly in Cantonese. I apologise in English for bringing so many items up five minutes before they close. The woman says it's fine, as she continues yelling at the man. It looks like no one has bought these particular cups and saucers in a while. The next day in Ms. B.'s prekindergarten class, I come in quietly and set my large yellow canvas Pearl River Mart bag down next to the sink. As I unwrap the little cups and saucers, the children watch me from the rug. Ms. B. is talking about a special surprise that Ms. Tamar has for them today. I say good morning, and ask the children if they know what we are going to be doing? Kelly, who has a great imagination, says, 'We're going to have a tea party!' I ask her how she knows this, and she points to the bag and says, 'Cause you bought the stuff at the store!' I felt very proud of the children for being the curious, eager little souls that they were, and couldn't imagine a group more deserving of its own tea party. As I rinse out the little cups and saucers in the sink, the assistant Ms. D. tries to take off the price stickers. I am struck by what great team work this class has- an atmosphere of helping one another and working together always permeates the environment. I didn't need to ask her to help me, she simply saw that I needed help, and there she was. It reminded me of the studies I'd read on collectivist cultures. I made my way over to the children who were waiting for me on the rug. As I sat down in front of them, Ms. B. walked over to help Ms. D. arrange the tables in one long rectangle. They found my assortment of table cloths I'd brought from home and covered the tables with them. To my amazement, this all seemed to happen automatically- how did they know I had brought table cloths? I greeted the children, and reiterated to them that we were going to have a tea party today. Jackie, a tiny girl with a head full of cornrows and barrettes couldn't contain her excitement. In a surprisingly loud voice, she says, 'Because we never had a tea party before!' I smiled at her, and considered this. I asked the group, 'Have any of you ever had a tea party before?' Some of the girls said they had with their dolls. One girl said she had a tea party with a friend. I brought an actual tea bag out, and walked them through the steps of making a cup of tea. They focused as though watching a dog giving birth. Their comments revealed that for some children, tea was a part of their daily lives; but for most it seemed, this may have been their first exposure to the concept. I then opened the little tea bag and poured the contents into a white plastic dish and passed it around to illicit some feedback from the children on the sensory components of the plant. Some of their descriptors included dirt, seeds, raspberries and soil. This was pretty impressive for urban four year olds, who are likely not coming into contact with any of those things on a regular basis. After the lesson, we gathered the children around the table. Each one had a little teacup and saucer sitting in front of him, and a few animal crackers on a napkin. Each child took a turn pouring himself tea from the pot, and then passing it to his neighbor. One child noticing that his saucer was pink and his cup was jade, said to me, 'Excuse me, mine's don't match my tray.' Another little girl asked me if she could dip her cookie in the tea. A different boy, noticing that his friend was shifting the table cloth, told me: 'He's moving the blanket.' One very quiet boy was leaning back drinking his tea with his pinky raised in the air. He looked like a cup of tea was part of his morning ritual. At an age where routines, rules, and rituals are such crucial elements in teaching about classroom community, maybe tea parties should have more of a presence in the early childhood curriculum.