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Teatime in Darjeeling


1.
Every morning in Tokyo, as the tile roofs of the neighborhood houses come into view, I put the kettle on for Darjeeling tea. When the water reaches a rolling boil, I pour it over the dark, crinkly leaves of the Camellia sinensis var. sinensis tea plant. Like the Japanese paper flowers Proust writes of, the ones that bloom when put in water, a world unfolds as the leaves steep and the musky, floral fragrance rises.

The tea estates, which I first saw as a small girl when my mother brought her American husband and children to her hometown of Darjeeling, lie 6,700 feet in the Himalayas near the India-Tibet border. The long, even rows of emerald tea bushes undulate with the hills, dirt paths cutting through them like veins. The estate names read like a roster of champion racehorses: Margaret's Hope, Makaibari, Happy Valley, Rangaroon, Liza Hill. The teas include crisp and ethereal First Flush, harvested in spring; rough-edged Rain Tea, produced during the summer monsoon; fruity, coppery Autumn Flush.

Bringing water to a boil, waiting for the leaves to brew, pouring the tea into a cup and milk into the tea (only a drop, so the taste isn't diluted), I'm doing what my Tibetan family has done for over a century. The earthy notes of the amber liquid conjure the wool-and-camphor smell of our Darjeeling house, the odor of butter lamps and incense in the altar room. They make me feel connected to the land itself: 28,000-foot Mount Kanchenjunga, soaring over the town; sacred Observatory Hill, where our family feasted at Losar New Year; the dusky waters of the Teesta River, where my grandparents' ashes were scattered.

2.
I was born in Spain, when my father was stationed at an American naval base in Andalusia. I spent my first two years there, lived with my grandparents in Darjeeling while my parents got settled in Nepal for an assignment with the Peace Corps, and then moved to the States when I was three. For twenty years, I didn't visit India or think much about it. Not wanting her children to feel different from the other kids--and thrilled to leave behind the old country--my mother made no effort to educate us about her culture of origin. She was determined to do things à la American, as she liked to joke. She did cook curries and call me "darling" in the British accent she acquired at convent school in Darjeeling, but she'd put aside the long Tibetan chuba dress in favor of slim wool suits and swing dresses, pencil skirts and capri pants. She went all out at Christmas, decorating a tree with twinkling lights and homemade gingerbread men, filling the living room with presents. At Easter there was an egg hunt, and on Halloween, trick-or-treating in the costumes she'd stayed up night after night sewing. My intellectual psychiatrist father, whom she met when they were medical school classmates at Columbia, objected to these pursuits as mindless adherence to social convention, but I sided with my mother because I loved the presents and egg hunts and costumes.

The best part, though, about not having to wear Tibetan dress or celebrate Losar New Year in February was that no one knew I was half-Tibetan. In 1960s and '70s New Jersey and California, there were relatively few children of Asian descent, and I lay awake at night wishing for blond hair and blue eyes. It was bad enough that I had to endure taunts on the playground of "Ching, Chong, Chinaman!" I didn't need people finding out that I actually came from some strange place they'd never heard of...