Discovering Chinese culture in a tea cup

Updated 2018-01-17 14:50:01

Hugh Henry (center) learns the techniques of picking tea leaves at a tea garden in Guiyang, Southwest China's Guizhou Province, July 24, 2015. (Photo provided to

Inspired by a can of tea given to him by one of his Chinese friends in 2004, Hugh Henry began to enjoy the unique flavor and culture of Chinese tea.

"I enjoyed that can of tea very much and never went back to coffee!" said Henry, an American who is fascinated by tea. "I want to encourage Americans to try to understand Chinese people and culture."

"Many people are drinking coffee in the US and sometimes we use coffee as a substitute for sleep. One can get addicted to coffee and become the slave of coffee. But I found that with tea, there is less caffeine, so you can enjoy the tea without the slavery of caffeine," he said.

Among aspects of Chinese culture, Henry found that tea provides a bridge to understanding China and making friends. "When I came to China, I wanted to be friends with Chinese people, to understand them, and tea was the perfect way to do that," he said.

"People in China drink tea from a small cup, they drink it slowly. It is a beautiful blend of art, science, fragrance, taste and friendship," he said. "I enjoy experiencing new varieties of tea, but I drink Duyun Maojian (a green tea produced in Southwest China's Guizhou province) almost every day."

In 2014, he became an English teacher at the College of Tea Art in Guizhou Forerunner College, a higher education vocational institution in Guizhou province. It suits him well both in pursuing his interest in tea and improving the students' language skills.

Henry is very modest while studying tea culture. "Though I've learned many things about tea, I feel like I've only scratched the surface - I find out from my Chinese students that there's much more to learn," he said.

As for language learning, Henry believes that practice makes perfection. "I say this to my students. If you want to improve your English, you have to make mistakes and you can laugh about it."

And he means it also for himself. Every time he hears a new Chinese word or a new sentence structure, he will try to use it in daily conversations.

"Whether you are a foreigner coming to China, or a Chinese wanting to learn English, learning languages is a social process, where you get embarrassed or make mistakes. Laugh about it and you move forward," he said.

"As teacher, I'm often correcting mistakes my students make in their English. But when I go out with my students to plant, pick, process and brew tea, it's their turn to teach me. They are infinitely patient when I don't hold the hoe the right way or don't roll the tea leaves correctly," Henry said.

His students often keep in touch with him. Some have gone on to be English teachers and reach out to him for professional advice. Others send him holiday photos from home during the Chinese New Year.

Henry has many experiences traveling the world. He and his family once lived in Germany and Japan and visited many other countries. But among all the places he has been, China holds a special attachment to him because of his mother and her family.

"My first impressions of China came long before I arrived here. My mother's earliest memories in life are when her family arrived for a two-year stay in Beijing in 1937, three days after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident."

"She taught me to use chopsticks and often talked about her experiences living in the Beijing Legation Quarter. Going to my grandparents' house in California as a child was like visiting a Chinese museum," he recalled.

Henry tends to live the Chinese pastoral life portrayed in Pearl S. Buck's novel, The Good Earth. The book, depicting the story of ordinary Chinese farmers, was extremely popular in the US during the 1930s and won a Pulitzer in 1932.

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