Monday, September 17, 2012

How to Survive Tibetan Tea Culture

(I wrote this article in 2009, while staying in Tibet.  I had been approached by two Tibetans and one American. All three were baffled and deeply uncomfortable with the opposite culture's approach to tea.)
A traditional meal in Kham, with an unending cup of Ja Nakku at the corner of the table

I never realized this was a major issue, but now several people in the past two days have expressed to me how much stress Tea Culture causes between foreigners and Tibetans. I would like to share my brief guide to surviving Tibetan tea culture.

First of all, there are many types of drinks that fall into the tea catagory. Not all of them are actually tea, but the rules of Tibetan Tea Culture apply to all.

Chu Kolwa, ཆུ་འགོལ་བ boiled water. This will just be hot water that has been boiled for several minutes.

Ja Suma ཇ་སྲུབས་མ། Churned tea. This is the classic Tibetan butter tea also called བོད་ཇ་ bhoeja, Tibetan tea. Despite what foreign writers say, I have never had it with rancid butter. Dri (female Yak) butter just tastes much sharper than cow butter. The tea is made of a strong black tea, milk, butter, and a pinch of salt all churned, these days using a blender, and served hot and frothy.

'o ja, འོ་ཇ། Milk tea. More popular in eastern Tibet this is just tea and milk. In Kham they may add a little bit of salt, but more likely it will be plain.  It is also called Amja ཨམ་ཇ་ because of its popularity in Amdo.

Ja Ngarmo ཇ་མངར་མོ། Sweet tea. Black tea with milk and sugar. Popular only in major cities like Lhasa and considered a speciality. Probably Indian influence.

Ja Nakku/Nakpo ཇ་ནག་པོ། Black tea. Plain black tea, usually with a pinch of salt.

When you arrive in any Tibetan home, you will be sat down and immediately offered a cup of one of the above mentioned forms of tea. If you have only recently arrived in Tibet, ask for the Chu Kolwa for the sake of hydration.

Tea will be offered no matter how brief your stay in the house is. Do not refuse it unless you are with a Tibetan who refuses it as well and you both have a damn good reason. If you don't have time to sit and drink tea, don't worry. Accept the cup, take a few sips, and then ignore the cup and leave whenever you have to.

Tea will be offered with the words "ja tung" or "solja choe". Ja tung (Drink tea) is more common in amdo and kham, while Solja Choe (Honorific: consume some tea) is more common in Lhasa area, or in a home where they are trying to impress you. Accept the tea with both hands.

Your cup will be refilled any time you make a dent in it. This creates a lot of tension because in western culture, if we are given a cup of something to drink, we need to drink it to show our host that we enjoy it. Then the host may ask us if we would like another and we can feel free to refuse if we are full. We would never ignore a cup, because that would be rude to our host. In Tibet, this is not the case. Your cup will be refilled whether you want it to be or not. what you should do is drink slowly (you will drink a LOT over the course of the evening.) especially smiling and taking a sip whenever your host tells you 'ja tung'. 

Drinking slowly will make you appear to be drinking more. Whenever you feel full, simply ignore your cup. It will be refilled to the top and you can safely ignore it. Occasionally taking a tiny sip is a good idea, and if you drink slowly you can pace yourself and drink more, but ignoring your cup is completely OK. Do not get frustrated at the constant filling, do not feel like you need to drink every glass to completion. You can feel free to politely say "no thank you" to a refill, but this will most likely be ignored. Your host will pressure you to drink more, nod in assent and then take a tiny sip and ignore the cup. This is OK.

Tibetans, in turn, are often frustrated in western homes. When offered tea, they are given one small cup and when they finish it, usually no one offers them more. One Tibetan man told me that when visiting western homes, he now carries a large thermos bottle that holds the equivalent of about three cups of tea! When sitting around, especially at a Tibetan restaurant in Tibet, with Tibetans, its a good idea to top off everyone's glasses every couple of minutes. If nothing else, it will show you as a good host.

Finally, do drink the tea! Butter tea can take some getting used to, so most Tibetans will automatically offer westerners some sort of alternative option. No one will ever take offense if you ask for black tea or hot water. Asking for hot water is especially normal. As for the other teas, I reccomend you try them. Butter tea is very refreshing especially in winter, but it takes getting used to. black tea and milk tea are very easy for the western palatte. But the big thing is drink the tea. Refusal is offensive and in Tibet the altitude makes hydration especially important. Yes, you will be peeing every five minutes, but its better than being extremely sick. Over time, you will learn to enjoy the constant flow of tea and the social situations it creates.

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