I’m quick to define myself as a “coffee–person,”—ubiquitous on college campuses, usually pitted against the “tea–types.” Coffee is my lifeblood, but I have to admit that tea has a special place in my heart (and palate) as well. There are so many memories, so many past tenses, that I’ve forged through each of these two beverages.
To talk about my relationship with tea, I have to first talk about my relationship with coffee: I started drinking it in high school, trading off morning coffee runs with my friends, depending on who had enough of a margin before homeroom to pick it up. Venti blonde roast with cream and two sugars remained my mainstay for two years; now I take my coffee like my mother does, just a splash of cream or milk, whatever’s handy—I think my mom was relieved when I began my marriage with the beverage; it meant I was definitely her daughter.
Despite my family’s loyalty to coffee, even in high school, I flirted with the taste of tea. During the school day we weren’t allowed to make off–campus runs, confined to the beige halls and whatever we could procure from within. We made a habit of buying boxes of tea—pomegranate green tea, enough sweet fruitiness to obscure the bitter—keeping them in our lockers alongside microwaveable thermoses. We’d sneak off during class to the cafeteria microwave and brew a cup on a too–long bathroom break. Lingering by the microwave in the never ending two minutes it took to heat the water, we filled the time with idle chat in hushed tones. In those two minutes of our ritual transgression, tea became conspiratorial—those lime–green paper packages transforming into a secret we got away with over and over again. As time has worn on, those relationships have faded, but pomegranate green tea will always remind me of those furtive microwave trips, of laughter and divulgence and sneaking around, of my best friends.
In college, I keep an assorted selection of herbal teas in my room. Drinking certain blends always conjures up tea–stained memories: an Americanized blend infusing lemongrass and yerba mate transports me to Buenos Aires, to the languorous haze of my six months abroad. Mate is strong, and biting, with tenfold the bitterness and density of flavor than its green and black tea peers. I have an almost full bag of yerba mate left over in my room from Argentina, and my mate (the gourd itself) sits decoratively on a shelf. The ritual of steeping the leaves brings me back to a sun–mottled patio in Montevideo. A hostel worker passed his mate and a thermos of boiling water around as he lectured on the differences between Uruguayan and Argentine mate: the way you pour the yerba in the cup differed, and he liked to add some lemon to spruce it up. I loved this part, when the beverage became the vehicle to get to know someone better, to learn from them, to make genuine and rich connections with people I’m likely to never speak to again. And sometimes, too, the beverage becomes the vehicle that brings you together with the people you will learn from and grow from and love the most.
Maybe that’s why, every week, I open up my double–sized quad bedroom to my residents for “tea time.” Being an RA for freshmen means more than just offering free food, or maybe it’s that the free food means more than just nourishment: it’s an excuse to be in a room all together at once. They filter into the room at different intervals, and their tea selection gives me a little glimpse into their night: the ones who have a long night of homework ahead choose green tea, and the ones whose throats are afflicted by quad germs choose lemon. Sipping tea with a group of my residents reminds me of the warm conversation and laughter I shared with my own freshman hall. We used to spend hours in our GA’s room during his “tea time,” satisfying our freshman desire to simply be in company. Back then, we were obsessed with this “stress–relief” tea that included kava, an ingredient known for it’s possible intoxicating effects. I’m grateful that I’ve grown since then, grateful for all the lessons I’ve learned (including the realization that all those tea bags we burned through only had negligible amounts of kava), for all these past tenses that make me who I am today. But when I sit with my own residents—who are thoughtful, bubbly, rambunctious, ambitious, confused, curious, a little reckless, and plenty funny—I am grateful, too, for the present tense.
It’s funny to think back on now, the things you hold on to as you build friendships from scratch. Watching my residents get up to fill and refill the kettle reminds me of the friendships built on an entirely unreasonable and indestructible belief that tea could get you high, of passing around a mate in sunny parks and the phantom flavors of Argentina.
I will always be a coffee person, but coffee is for the ups and downs, it’s for the mundane, for making it to class on time, for writing a term paper. There’s not a day I go without it. That’s the thing, though—tea appears in those moments of feeling life, of knowing people well if only briefly, of sharing the world for a piping eight ounces. Or maybe it’s that tea begets camaraderie, acting as an excuse to occupy the same figurative and literal spaces as those around you, to be more wholly present. While I have my yerba mate sitting in my quad dorm room, the box of assorted herbal teas and my electric kettle reign the present tense.