On instagram a few years ago, I was looking at a tea profile and immediately felt a sense of familiarity that dated back. After massaging my brain, I realized I knew them as an online personality from Blizzard RTS gaming that I used to play… An extraordinary random and tangential connection to something that really has nothing to do with tea. However, how coincidental is it actually?? If you’ve been around the western tea scene enough to learn about some of the participants, you’ll know it’s an eclectic group. Over the course of my tea journey I’ve been fascinated and occasionally befuddled at the other interests from the serial hobbyists.
Within the western tea scene there are all sorts of hobbies and passions. There’s a disproportionate amount of professors and PhDs in a variety of fields. Many of these interests are in other topics that have some sort of congruency to tea. Wine, whiskey cigars, or anything in the general culinary world makes some sense. Others might have some similar cultural elements, i.e. related to Chinese culture. But others are totally unrelated, like yarn, ink pens, bonsai, archery, haiku, etc. One of the most famous threads on pu’erh tea is done on a forum of wet shaving?? This mix of interests is so varied and leaves me half smiling and half scratching my head.
All Alone In The Online Western Tea Scene. We are Outsiders.
The online western tea scene differs in many ways to the scene in Asia, specifically the isolationism of it. A few of us probably go to tea shops on occasion but even for those that live close to a decent one (hard to find in the west) it’s not always a regular habit. And for those plugged into the online tea community, the tea that can be purchased online often trumps what you can get locally.. Despite living in an urban center with Asian stuff, Seattle, I rarely buy pu’erh locally. I find my own interests in general are better served buying online.
In some ways lacking exposure to dedicated lifetime specialists to tea can be a detriment. We don’t get to observe experienced brewers regularly and can settle into different, unusual and occasionally bad habits. We also can’t discuss tea in the same way. Tea can be a social drink and doing it predominantly alone is a departure from Chinese tea drinking culture. Discussing online is nice and can be important but it’s definitely not a 1 to 1 replacement to drinking with others. (Drinking with others is also nice and fun to do. I wholeheartedly recommend it!)
Most of the western tea scene is composed of inherent outsiders. There aren’t many people that were born into tea, most came into it much later. Despite a growing teenage interest in tea in places like reddit, the majority of my western tea experiences, online or otherwise, are with adults who only started drinking tea seriously in adulthood.
It’s also uncommon to find people that come into tea looking specifically to start a business. While many of the vendor shops are now run by people who initially were hobbyists, most people are at least initially drawn to tea with curiosity and passion rather than a desire to monetize.
I am Chinese-American, but firmly identify as an outsider when it comes to tea. My relatives came to America around a century ago from Southern China and opened up a traditional Chinese medicine shop. This has a seemingly obvious overlap with tea. But that part of my heritage was almost entirely gone even before I was born. When I started drinking tea seriously, it was from Denny’s introduction, who has had a far bigger influence on my tea journey than my Chinese roots. The only real tea-centric gift I got from my family, was a bunch of tea cups.
There is Value in an Outsider’s Perspective
In more than a few ways, being an outsider is not good. As noted above it can be quite isolating. Lacking a formal or insider’s perspective might make people slower to pick out things that are taken for granted and would be otherwise taught by just going to a teashop a handful of times. But thinking outside of the domain is also good and can provide valuable perspective and innovation. Our outside view may be a hindrance when trying to efficiently learn the basics of tea brewing, like how to use a gaiwan.. But for some of the different, more complex parts of tea, i.e. tea storage in the west, using outside interdisciplinary interests can have some positive advantages.
David Epstein’s fantastic Range argues that generalists have provided value in a culture that has forced people towards extreme, early specializations. One example he looks at is from a pharmaceutical company, Eli Lilly, that posted online chemistry problems that they could not solve internally. Despite significant internal push back from those that didn’t want to publish it publicly, they eventually did. The results were surprising in a few ways. Eventual solutions didn’t necessarily come from expert chemists or insiders, but from unexpected sources, like a lawyer who worked on chemical patents.
Epstein argues “our (humans) greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialization. It is the ability to integrate broadly.” He goes on to cite Netflix which is typically seen as an outsider to the long tenured big studios. Choosing which movies to invest in has always had a high degree of uncertainty and is inherently high risk. Traditional studios typically use movie’s traits like genre, stars, to decide.. Rather than focusing on these characteristics, Netflix based their recommendation algorithm on trying to figure out who you are like and/or similar to rather than looking at what you might like..
Too much insiderism can lead to group think and bubbles where people are highly specialized but where their creativity is inhibited. There can be tunnel vision where we’re restricted to the tools in our field when there may be better ones outside of the immediate domain.
Being Outsiders in Tea
There’s nothing wrong with specialization of course. Or if you have an insider’s view of tea, this comes with quite a few advantages! But using other areas of interest to expand or look at tea outside of the traditional focused training also has real value. Fields with similarities like wine or whisky have obvious overlaps in aspects such as evaluation and terroir. These aren’t one to one crossovers with tea, but knowing how certain concepts are thought about in adjacent fields is complementary towards tea exploration.
Another realm of burgeoning creativity is storage. Think of some of the creative storage solutions like Marco’s hotbox that have come out of the west. These weren’t by seasoned drinkers but by people forced by necessity to deal with different conditions than more traditional pu’erh hotspots.
The internet has shrunk the world so we can communicate in all sorts of ways that were not possible 20 years ago.. I, for one, am glad to be a part of and connected with a diverse group of weirdo hobbyists exploring, learning and appreciating tea both alone and together.