“Ee geot mashi opso, keuja?”
“This tea doesn’t taste good, right?” was what my mother-in-law was asking. Oh, how I hated that keuja, the “right?” rhetorical question tagged onto statements of cultural import that I generally disagreed with, sometimes acutely.
When I was in a peace-loving mood, I answered “Eung, keuja,” “Yes, that’s so,” in agreement with her. To be truthful though, the assertion that I was in a peace-loving mood is probably challenged even by this answer. I wasn’t assuaging my mother-in-law; I just wasn’t deliberately provoking her. A truly compliant daughter-in-law should answer in the honorific form, “Neh, keureotsumnida,” which also means, “Yes, that is so,” but said much more politely. Perhaps it’s because the polite answer has so many more syllables or because I felt crammed into an opinion that wasn’t my own that I had such a hard time choking it out. In any case, though, I wasn’t in a peace-loving mood that day. I was in an I-am-who-I-am mood, and I didn’t feel like agreeing with things I didn’t feel.
So I answered, “Aniyo. Sujeonghwa mashissoyo,” “No. Cinnamon-ginger tea is delicious.”
For a brief moment, my mother-in-law looked as though I had slapped her, drawing her head back, stopping mid-step, and widening her eyes. But she recovered quickly, moving her legs faster to catch up. She proffered her cup to me, saying, “Choahamyun, mashiyo,” “If you like it, drink it.”
I took the cup with both hands—this at least was polite form—and happily drank the tea. Spicy warm cinnamon goodness tickled my tongue and the inside of my cheeks as it trickled back to soothe my then perpetually raw throat.
I had long had issues with tea perceptions. What is a proper cup of tea? I was brought up in a tea loving family, and the purists liked it plain while others like it with milk and sugar. Still others insisted on loose leaf tea suspended in metal mesh balls that seemed more appropriate for catching potato bugs or spiders than trapping a wad of soggy leaves.
I had been excited the first time I headed to Korea. Among the many new things I anticipated experiencing, I looked forward to a culture that adored tea. Little did I know that the tea they adored was mostly green and not black and that I had ridden in on a wave of trending coffee, the instant kind. My family had to ship my favorite tea from home.
That afternoon, shortly after arriving back home after drinking Omoni’s sujeonghwa, Omoni disappeared. She reappeared several hours later with two large black vinyl shopping bags. “Sujeonghwa kachi mandeuro. Chingu keureuchieosso,” “Let’s make cinnamon-ginger tea together. My friend taught me how.”
So together, we soaked two large branching ginger roots in water while we scrubbed about seven foot-long, big-toe width sticks of cinnamon. After filling a three-gallon pot two-thirds full with water and setting it on the stove to boil with the cinnamon, Omoni sat down together on the hard living room floor to scrape the skin off the ginger with a spoon while we watched whatever Korean drama was showing that day.
Once the ginger was scraped, we sliced it in thin pieces and dumped it into a smaller pot that held perhaps three-quarters of a gallon. We boiled both pots forty minutes or more. The water in the small pot became golden while the water in the large pot became dusty brown.
Omoni frowned as she scooped the water out of the large pot with a Corel mug and dumped it back in. “Chingu malseum saenggang mul nomyun cha bbalgang sek dwaelkoyayo imnida,” “My friend says it will become red when we add the ginger water,” she told me doubtfully in Korean. “keuja?” “right?”
“Cheonan molassoyo,” “I don’t know,” I answered in Korean. “Keunyang noholja.” “Let’s just put it in.”
Using a small wire mesh strainer on a stick, we fished the ginger out of the water and poured the golden water from the small pot into the dusty water in the large pot. We stirred. Voila! Brilliant crimson tea. We both took a sip from Corel mugs. Omoni grimaced and looked at me.
“Mashisso?” “Is it good?” she asked, as the older generation to the younger.
“Mashissoyo,” “It’s good,” I confirmed politely, as the younger generation to the older.
She dumped the remains of her tea down the drain in the sink and gestured to the three gallons of cinnamon-ginger tea boiling cheerily on the stove. “Manhi mashyo,” “Drink a lot,” she said as she headed out of the room.
And I knew then. Proper tea is not a kind of tea. It is tea offered with love. I sat down alone in that steamy kitchen and enjoyed the rest of my cup of tea, properly.