At age 23, I drowned at the bottom of a teacup. Dissatisfied with the strange lack of emotion I experienced in most of my relationships, I had decided to move to South Korea. I crossed two oceans in a series of metal containers, a journey that collectively took 40 hours and 20 minutes, and found myself living in between a mountain and a river, in the middle of nowhere. Unlike the acquaintances I had made in the 30 plus hours between my arrival in the country and my shipping off to my “new adventure”, I was not lucky enough to be placed in a city. Instead, I lived in a countryside off-shoot, about 15 metres away from my work place and 32 minutes by uncomfortable bus ride from the nearest Daiso. The presence of Daiso, I learned, was the best way to measure how urban your location was. The more, the bigger, the higher – the better. Without realising it, I had deposited myself into an intimate relationship with distance. Suddenly, clearly marked barriers dictated each of my interactions.
I spent my first year in Korea teaching at elementary school. Jeon Hee-yeong was the woman assigned to look after me and co-teach my fifth grade classes. We had a somewhat strained relationship. She was a conservative, middle-aged, Christian, mother-of-four who had spent most of her life living in the countryside of Gyeongsangnam-do, the southern-most province of Korea, famous for its rough dialect. When I arrived, she pulled me warmly into her life. However, me being a young, obstinately independent, art school graduate with little desire to be invited to church gatherings, we struggled to find common ground.
Hee-yeong Saem, as I affectionately called her, attempted to show me attention the only way she knew how: by placing herself in the role of my mother. A mother was not something I particularly needed. In fact, I had just left a perfectly good one about 13709 kilometres away. My move to Korea was a stubborn attempt at becoming entirely independent. Up until that point, I felt, much of what I achieved in my life seemed to have fallen into my lap because of connections, or following pathways that had already been forged by my older sister. This was the first time I was living without any financial help from my parents. On a more symbolic level, this was the first time I was constructing myself unheeded by what came before me. Although I could see Hee-yeong Saem’s best intentions, I had no interest in getting placed, once again, into the role of a needy innocent. Especially by someone who was supposed to be my co-worker. Despite our good feelings towards one another and our genuine desire to get along, we missed each other on many levels.
Obviously language, too, played its own hand in our troubled repartee. My Korean was, at that time, in its infancy and her English was broken and stuttered. Eventually, we discovered the best way to communicate our well meaning to each other was to make each other tea. In the fifth grade teacher’s staff room, there were no mugs. Much to my environmentalist horror, only white paper cups were used. Freely and often, new cups were filled and discarded, even if only for a small sip of water. In these cups, we would toss boracha teabags, or tisanes brewed from lotus root, and press them into the other’s grip with double-handed polite recognition. Our heads were bowed and deferring. It was at these times, and these times only, that we actually got on. We would tell each other stories and have ridiculously broken conversations about politics (or, rather, I would get wrapped up in myself and present a lecture which I’m not entirely sure she followed).
Paper cup to palm (bite marks in the rim of mine, lipstick stains on the rim of hers), we transcended our many differences and lost ourselves in the world of the other, spun by words and hand gestures, far away eyes and untranslatable onomatopoeic sounds. She told me about her childhood. A time when living in the countryside of Korea truly meant living in the countryside. Plains, paddies and forests had not yet turned into highways, factories, convenience stores and apartment buildings. Thirty odd years before, she ran in the hills, catching bugs she would force her father to eat, searching for a dokkaebi’s egg, trying to wrap her hand around the petal of a cherry blossom as it floated to the ground (successfully doing this supposedly meant you would get married to your first love).
One day, brown barley tea in white “eco” cups (not quite as eco as, say, a reusable mug), she told me about her childhood journey to school. She had to walk through a farm and over a forested hill. Somehow, she always got distracted and wound up being late. Squatting to watch the ants busily making trails, dragging leaves three times their size; sitting by a lake, carefully, quietly, to watch a great crane take flight and soar just over her head.
To cheer me up during the ominous misty mornings of autumn, when an inescapable blanket of white settled itself thick and heavy over the earth, she told about the dragonflies. Resting on the lined plants of rice paddies, their wings damp and cold from the fog, the dragonflies could not fly. Each morning, they waited for the sun to rise high and drink the moisture from their wings, shivering softly. Forging her way through the opaque air, only vaguely aware that she should be arriving at school on time, she would lift their delicate bodies and rest them inside her padded coat. Her body would warm theirs and dry their wings. Their shivering would become fluttering. Finally, when their will to escape reached its urgent peak, she would open her coat and let them fly up and away from her. Around her they would swirl: a soft storm in a white world.
I listened to her stories in silent wonder. In my life away from work (15 metres away, to be exact), my kitchen sink overflowed with dirty dishes and water dripped onto mouldy mugs from a tap I did not have the energy to close. The world of calculated distance Korea presented to me had left me anxious. My mental health reached an all time low. It seemed to me that everything about me had dried up. I got lost in a dark place inside myself and I could not find, climb, crawl or claw my way out. In attempt to stave off disaster, I drank tea in litres and built up an army of unwashed teacups.
I struggled pathetically with a weight and a fear I could not put a name to, nor rid myself of. At all times, I had the acute sense of spinning uncontrollably toward a future of endless nothingness. The parts of me which I had always trusted began to evaporate, leaving me with raw empty spaces and dotted outlines. So, I began to fold myself into corners of sunlight or wrap my hands around a cup of tea and try to disappear into the places where my skin met the hot ceramic surface. My life cold, I searched for warmth anywhere I could find it.
At this time, something that gave me mild relief was drinking rooibos tea from home (carefully packaged in ziplocked plastic and transported with me across both the Indian and the Pacific Oceans). I drank it strong and unsweetened, scalding hot so that it would burn my tongue. Anything to give me some physical sensation to hold onto in the uneasy sea of abstract shapes that was my mental illness. A South African’s love of rooibos is something natives from other countries cannot quite understand. Although I’ve tried to share this drink, a small piece of my beginning, with friends from Korea, England, America and Canada, more often than not they dislike the flavour and place the drink aside. They miss the message with it: I’ve boiled myself and I’m giving myself to you to drink. Undressed and steaming. Look at me. See me.
So, when I felt I had lost myself, I began the expedition for my recovery with cups of rooibos tea. Look at me. See me. I looked. I hunted for myself at the bottom of each mug, but found only soggy tea bags, stained red. I completely lost sense of my reality. Instead, I floated somewhere next to my left ear. The feeling was pure emptiness. There’s no way to clearly explain the desperate need for a support. It can never quite be placated. I searched desperately for someone else to give me a shelter from my own pain and sorrow. For someone else to pick up my heaviness and tell me that I was okay. For someone who would do all the work on me that I really should have been doing on myself, but did not have the energy for. I felt I was wasteland, a place where flowers could no longer grow. I was a shadow onto which things were imprinted, unable to leave an impression myself.
In my quest for something to home myself in, I started an ill-fated relationship with a man who loved me like a photograph – a two dimensional thing. One of the reasons I’m so entranced with tea is because of its many contradictions. Its history and symbolism, on both a political and a personal level, are intricately complex and layered. It cannot be pinned down as one thing. I like that ambiguity. I guess I relate to that; that difficulty with being tied to definitions. Yet, I loved a man who loved me for my definitions: female, sexy, educated, dancer, foreign. And I felt my complexities (difficult, painful, unnamable) struggle into invisibility.
Every day, I fell through an endless starless universe inside my head. I wanted to share it with him, my chosen home. Show him my insides, my imperfection and my humanness (grubby, ugly, obsessive, loving, gentle, generous). But he did not want to love me past face value. Dating a man who did not try to understand me only made my struggle with depression and anxiety worse. Although, perhaps it is too much of a condemnation to claim he did not try at all. Perhaps it is better to say that in trying to understand me, he merely found the effort bothersome. Anxious to keep him, I forced myself to perform brightness. Desperately checking and double checking that I was a light, happy thing in his life. It drained me, completely, of the little I had left of myself.
I began to drink more tea. Leave more dishes in the sink for him to frown disapprovingly at. Tea became a euphemism (it was something he would never drink with me if I offered). He stopped asking me how I was, exhausted by my repetitive answers of “not good, not good today” and instead asked me what I was doing. So I told him I was drinking tea. It became a kind of joke (“Oh, drinking tea again?”), a cute trait of mine. An easy to accept and lovable thing. A cruel joke. While we spoke, the dark flavour of my rooibos became weakened and salty, mingled with silent tears (oh I’m just drinking tea). And finally, I, myself, dissolved into the hot water, another remnant left at the bottom of an unwashed mug in the sink.
Serena Paver is a writer and choreographer who grew up in South Africa, underneath a somewhat famous mountain. This began her interest with shadows and what hides in them. She received two degrees from Rhodes university, before running away to South Korea, where she lived for two years. Perhaps good things come in twos. In her spare time, she enjoys drinking tea