Family Connection in a Teapot

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In these days of social distancing and staying home, I think often of the cozy house in Darjeeling, India, where my mother grew up. I imagine the living room: Tibetan carpets, thangka scroll paintings of the Buddha’s life, the antediluvian radio that sputtered on and off without warning, the mole that sometimes wandered in, which my grandmother named Alice. I see the silver tea set and the Wedgwood plates filled with scones and Walkers shortbread, roasted chickpeas and rasgulla cottage cheese balls, peanut butter from California my grandmother kept under lock and key. I see my grandmother seated on the sofa in her long silk chuba, telling me stories about her life in Darjeeling and old Tibet.

Memories of teatime with my grandmother make me realize that, with many of us still largely sheltering in place because of the Covid-19 epidemic, now is an ideal moment to connect with family through tea. At home in Tokyo, I make a cup of Darjeeling tea every morning and FaceTime my mother at the Bay Area retirement community where she lives. Because of the lockdown, she can’t take part in her usual bridge games and excursions, so we talk about TV programs she’s watching; I read to her and she shows me the view from her window.

Over tea, I FaceTime my daughter, who’s working from home in San Francisco. Over tea, I have long talks with my son, back in Tokyo from university in the United States, and with my husband (we haven’t spent this much time together since we were dating 35 years ago). More than ever, I’m aware of how tea keeps me close to the people I love.

When I was a girl, I disliked tea. As a Tibetan-American growing up ethnically isolated in 1960s and ’70s American suburbia, I wanted to fit in by drinking chocolate milk and orange juice like the other kids. But when I went to Darjeeling to live with my grandmother after graduating from college in the mid-80s, I changed my mind about tea.

Every day at 4, my grandmother and I enjoyed teatime, twilight falling on the snowy peaks of 28,000-foot Mount Kanchenjunga, on the rows of emerald tea bushes stretching down into the misty valleys. Sometimes we went to the Windamere Hotel, which our family owns, for tea by the fire in Daisy’s Music Room: Victoria sponge cake, chutney-cheese and egg-watercress finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and raspberry jam, tea from the Castleton estate (and pink gins for guests getting a jump on the evening).

Our family’s tea history goes back to the 1800s, when my great-great-great-grandfather worked as an assistant to the Scottish physician and naturalist Archibald Campbell, who introduced tea plants to Darjeeling. Through the stories my grandmother told me over tea, I discovered that for our family, the fragrant brew was an integral part of life.

ImageThe author’s family having tea at Tibetan New Year’s in 1929.
The author’s family having tea at Tibetan New Year’s in 1929.Credit…via Ann Slater

I learned that in the 1920s, my grandmother rode her pony over a 15,000-foot Himalayan pass to Tibet and drank butter tea with the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. When my mother’s sister, Tenzing (“Tinker Belle”), eloped with a dashing British officer, my uncle caught up with them on the airport tarmac; over tea, she was persuaded to wait a year and — if her feelings hadn’t changed — get married properly. Every winter, the family went on pilgrimage to Buddhist sites around India, carrying a traditional churner to make butter tea (“People were frightened,” my grandmother laughed. “‘What is that you all are carrying?’ they’d ask. ‘A Tibetan cannon?’”) When my mother left for America at 19 to study medicine at Columbia, my grandparents bid her farewell over tea at the airport, weeping as they dispensed last-minute advice.

What I loved most about teatime was the space it created not only for storytelling but for forging a bond with my grandmother. When I was a girl and my grandparents visited us in the United States, my grandmother would reprimand me for being a “cheeky” girl who needed to stop speaking her mind. But over tea in Darjeeling, we got to know each other in a new way. She told me stories I never would have heard otherwise — about herself, my mother, our ancestors — and I felt a sense of belonging that had eluded me as a girl.

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Ann Slater having tea with her grandmother in 2002.Credit…via Ann Slater

I started taking my children to Darjeeling when they were small. One of their favorite activities was teatime, not only because my grandmother spoiled them with as many cakes and cookies as they wanted, but because they loved hearing the family stories and telling her about their lives. My grandmother gave us packets of tea to bring home to Tokyo; along with the tea, we brought back her stories, an ever-expanding sense of who we were as individuals, as part of a family, and as the next generations.

In Tokyo, I would have tea with my children, the table set with Japanese blue-and-white dishware and Hello Kitty plastic cups instead of Wedgwood china and gleaming silver. The kids helped me knead dough for scones and picked flowers from the garden for the table. Then we’d eat and talk, our conversation unfolding freely and delightfully, without agenda. I heard about their friends and teachers, and told them stories about my childhood.

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A view of DarjeelingCredit…via Ann Slater

When the Covid-19 crisis began, I remarked to a colleague that spending more time with our families would bring us closer to them. “Maybe,” she said, at home in a tiny apartment with her husband and daughter.

Worry and cramped conditions, the demands of doing our work online, and the lack of outside contact may make us feel something more akin to solitary confinement than family togetherness. Through teatime, our home environment can become about connection rather than captivity. We can share a poem or a family story, the dream we had last night; we can talk about how we’re feeling. We can ask the people we love, “How are you?” and really want to know the answer. We can revive the art of conversation, putting aside our devices and not only speaking but listening.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 22, 2020

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      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

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With my son unexpectedly home now, I’m aware we might never have this kind of time together again. When the pandemic is over, life will once more catch us up and he’ll move forward into adulthood. My mother has grown old; someday I won’t be able to FaceTime her, won’t be able to see her waving to me and saying, “Bye, darling!”

Through teatime, I can take hold of these precious days, just as when my children were small, and when I was a young woman drinking tea with my grandmother.


Ann Tashi Slater is a Tibetan-American writer based in Tokyo who recently finished a memoir.