Friday, December 17, 2010

The New Girl at School

"Look what she's eating!"
They spoke in English but she could understand a little.

The two girls eyed her from afar, inspecting the contents of her half-opened lunch box. Her lunch, it seemed, had aroused their curiosity. But she knew this packed lunch was only an extension of who she was. They'd examined her lunch because it was the only way they could safely observe or judge her - the stranger. Or at least that's what it felt like.

Her ears burnt from shame. She glanced down at the box on her lap with dismay. Was it really so odd? So different?

A packet of Pac Man chips
A mini Snickers
Two ham and beetroot sandwhiches
A muesli bar
An orange juice poppa.

It seemed like a normal lunch. She began to chew self-consciously, tucking her folded legs under her blue school uniform and looking away to avoid the uninvited stares. It was odd how something as universal as eating fell under scrutiny when one was a stranger. A stranger.

Later, after much contemplation, she started to believe that maybe there had been a little too much food in there. After all, those other girls she'd met in class always used to complain about their fat thighs, their fat calves. They'd eat half as much as her and were much thinner. By the end of the year, she would have drastically reduced the food she ate for lunch. By then, she would only pack two crackers with cheese and a muesli bar. But for now, she went home and just told her mum, in French,
"Mum, can you please only make me one sandwhich tomorrow. Also I don't want a muesli bar."
Her mum was confused.

It was 1986. She'd just immigrated to Australia about a month ago and Grade 6 was a confusing world where one could see but not understand. English words became obsessions and every day was a new word.
They changed her name too. Because on the first day, the teacher had quickly told her that her real name was a boy's name.

"I had been expecting a boy," he reproached. "We'd best change your name so that the other school kids do not get confused."
Her auntie translated it all. At first it sounded like fun.
"What would you like to be called?"
"How about Laure? It's close enough to Laurence."
"It's too difficult to pronounce in English," protested the carrot-haired school teacher.
"What about Laura?" suggested her aunt.

Laura it was. In a matter of minutes, an identity can be changed. It's so easy. You just have to adapt.

They called her Laura. She'd just turned 11. She was anxious and ashamed in those first 6 months. And she had a secret back then.

Because she long ached to try those cream buns with their pink coconut icing, the ones they sold every day at the tuckshop. But she'd held back, terrified about what would happen. She'd remembered how those girls had stared at her in the playground when she ate, and the way it had made her feel.

And then one day, it started. When no one was looking, she would hide. She would buy a coconut iced bun at recess and creep inside the toilets. There, she'd find an empty cubicle, lock the door and enjoy the bun, away from sight. It would happen many times. It was odd how something as universal as eating could become a source of shame when one was a stranger. A stranger.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Pu'er Tea

Tiger Leaping Gorge

In my novel, The Ming Storytellers, one of the sub characters, a fierce Tibetan tea-horse trader, makes the long arduous journey from Pu'er county in Southwest China, leading his caravan of mules loaded with tightly packed tea bricks. He trades Pu'er tea, long known for its medicinal and well-being properties and avidly sought by the Tibetans for flavouring their yak butter soup, in exchange for horses. Three times a year, alongside other traders and pilgrim monks, Sonam crosses the chamadao, across deep ravines, rope bridges, past ice-capped mountains, in freezing and often capricious mountain weather.

Cha Ma Dao

The cha ma dao, or tea (cha) horse (ma) way (dao/tao) traverses spectacular mountainous terrains in China's Yunnan province, overlooking deep gorges, roaring with torrential waters. One of its legs begins in the Pu'er county and passes through Dali, the mountainous canal city of Lijiang, across the vertiginous Tiger Leaping Gorge and into Tibet, all the way to Lhasa.

Lijiang - resting and trading place for the tea-horse traders

It is the 15th century. The trade is highly regulated. Only licensed traders can take part in it and the government, managed by the emperor's provincial eunuchs has a strict monopoly on the horses gained. License checks are performed at several checkpoints along the road, including Deqin. Horses are primarily destined for the Ming army, to aid the emperor's relentless quest in warding off the Mongol invaders of the North East. Still yet, horses are loaded in the hulls of gigantic lateen sail ships to be traded in the Arabian and South Indian lands, alongside Ming silks and porcelains.

Pu'er tea was, and still is, highly regarded. It is often expensive. Much like wine, the quality of well-prepared Pu'er tea improves with age. This tea also has many health benefits, perhaps better documented by ancient physicians whose records may have been lost after thousands of years. Today Western science is still discovering the health properties of Pu'er tea. But so far they include:

  • Reduction of blood cholesterol.
  • Anti-carcinogenic properties - Pu'er tea has antimutagenic and antimicrobial properties possibly slowing or preventing the growth of cancer cells
  • Counteraction of the effects of alcohol
  • Invigoration of the spleen to inhibit "dampness". According to the Chinese medicine model, this means Pu'er tea can be used to treat diaorrhea and edema.

Zhuan (Brick) Cha (Tea)
Not your ideal looking present but packed with goodness

Much like green tea, Pu'er tea is believed to help with weight loss either by an increase in metabolism or via the reduction of fat absorption in the small intestine.

While writing my novel, I had never really seen Pu'er tea. But on a recent trip to Singapore, I discovered Paragon's Canelet cafe on Orchard Road. While my first reaction was to ogle the Mont-Blanc and the other delightful cakes behind their generous glass display, I was soon drawn by Canelet's fancy tea menu.

Found in Paragon, Singapore

Canelet is one of the cafes offering Pu'er tea experience. This particular menu offered 5 year old Pu'er tea. Note that Pu'er tea can continue to ferment for many years and there exists Pu'er tea leaves that are over 1000 years old.

I wonder about these brave mountain men who long ago, journeyed through such a dangerous road, carrying their precious tea bricks to Lhasa. I do like horses, but in this case, I have to say the Tibetans had the better deal.