Nonfiction Feature: Tea Training by Zary Fekete

I wave to the security guard as I approach. He smiles and takes out a little stool for me to sit on. I reach into my backpack and take out my latest purchase. It took me a while to find one just like his, but I finally found one at the big market behind the mall: a Chinese tea thermos. 

Since moving to Beijing six months ago, I have been impressed by the differences I see in the people walking and moving all around me in this city of 22 million people. There are thousands of different hair styles, clothing choices, personal phones. But one thing seems common to almost everyone—they all drink tea.

Tong Lei is the security guard who sits in front of my neighborhood compound. He serves as a kind of neighborhood watchman, handyman, and conversationalist all in one. I had my first conversation with him one week after moving into my apartment. He noticed that my bike chain was hanging loose, and we managed to understand each other through gestures. When I tried to pay him after he tightened it, he waved me off with an oh, you gesture. I brought him some chocolate chip cookies the next day. Our friendship began.

I moved to Beijing to teach English at a university downtown, but, like most foreigners here, I also hoped to learn some Mandarin. I take regular language classes, but the most important part of language learning has proven to be having one’s own language helper. For me, that’s Tong Lei.

The first few weeks were mostly filled with small talk about the neighborhood, about our families, about where his home town is (a small town in Anhui province). That was all my language could handle. But I felt like we had crossed an important language threshold when we started to talk about tea.

Tong Lei is forever sipping at his tea thermos. At first, I brought it up because I had just learned the Chinese word for tea (cha or 茶). I wasn’t ready for his response. He settled himself on his stool and thought for a moment. Soon he had launched into a long monologue, 95 percent of which I couldn’t understand, except for his repeated use of the word “cha.” 

After letting him finish, I responded with my most used Chinese phrase, “I don’t understand.” 

He thought this was very funny and slapped my knee. But from then on, he always brought up his tea. He measured his weekly days by which tea he was drinking… and why. Green tea for moods. White tea for teeth health. Weekends were dedicated to oolong tea. He spoke about oolong with a kind of careful reverence, claiming that his father had been cured from a long illness because of its medicinal value.

When he first told me he grew his own tea, I was intrigued. I asked if I could try it. His face changed slightly. He stared off for a moment and then asked me if I could be free for a chat after he finished work that afternoon.

I met him at the gate just after five, and we began to walk through the neighborhood. The apartment buildings nearest to the subway stop were the newest and best kept. Block by block, the buildings became shabbier. After about 10 minutes, we were walking through back alleys that weren’t paved. We finally came to a stop outside of a small concrete shed.

Tong Lei told me that this was where he lived. He stood for a moment quietly and then beckoned me to follow him. He brought me to the back of the grounds where the dirt sloped suddenly to a sunken pond ten feet below, its surface oily and studded with trash. It was one of countless water collection troughs that dotted the city, usually on the outskirts of a built-up residential area. The water was a dumping ground for a variety of trash that couldn’t find a home in the trash bins of the apartment complexes we had just come through. Tong Lei pointed to the far side of the pond where there was a small gathering of plants. 

“That is my tea,” he said. 

I realized why he hadn’t wanted me to try it. It grew very close to the black water of the pond.

I asked him if I could look at the plants. We walked to the other side of the pond, and soon I was surrounded by soft tea leaves. He stood next to me quietly and touched the leaves as he spoke. He said the plants were from his father’s garden. For the next few minutes, we walked back and forth between the rows. Birds flew quietly across the pond.

By the time we were walking back to my neighborhood the sun was low in the sky. I told Tong Lei I could find my way back, but he said he wanted to join me. We didn’t talk much, but the silence felt comfortable.

When we arrived at the gate to the neighborhood, I turned to him to say goodbye. 

“We will practice Chinese again tomorrow?” he said.

I held up my thermos. I said, “With tea?”

After a pause, he nodded and smiled.


Zary Fekete has worked as a teacher in Hungary, Moldova, Romania, China, and Cambodia and has been featured in various publications including Zoetic Press, Bag of Bones Press, and Mangoprism. He had a debut chapbook of short stories released in early 2023 from Alien Buddha Press, and a novelette (In the Beginning) was published in May by ELJ Publications. Fekete enjoys books, podcasts, and long, slow films. He currently lives and writes in Minnesota. 

You can find him on Twitter: @ZaryFekete

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