Today, I'll be looking for something a little more budget-friendly. As a stay-at-home dad, I do most of my tea drinking alone, so I want an individual teacup, referred to as a chan na (禪那). Chan na is Mandarin for Dhyana, a Buddhist term for the meditative levels or states of mind that one achieves on the path to enlightenment, alluding to the contemplative nature of drinking tea in a solitary fashion. I want my chan na to be on the bigger side, for I tend to enjoy larger cups of tea than the standard thimble-sized ones that many locals use.
What's more, I want the cup to come in a set, and I want that set to be compact, as I don't have much free space in my house. I want the set to include a gaiwan (a lidded cup for dispensing the tea), but I don't need a teapot since I am content brewing directly in the gaiwan. Last but not least, I want something that is calming and feminine in appearance, in the hope that it can balance out the excessive yang energy that I'm frequently overwhelmed with as the father of two high-energy toddlers. And finally, I want something to honor the life of our second child, our daughter Lavender, who will join us on our trip today.
Besides all the things that I do want in my new tea set, I also have a clear idea of what I don't want. I don't want something that is purely functional.
I also don't want something that is or looks like it has been mass-produced, and I don't want something that is just a copy of a classical Chinese style. Don't get me wrong; China, the mother of porcelain and ceramics, produces some of the most exquisite and elegant pottery in the world. A lot of the finer pottery produced in Taiwan are just perfected copies of famous styles invented in the Tang Dynasty, Song Dynasty, and so on. On the flipside, I don't want something that is purely decorative.
It's a 11 a.m. on a Monday morning when we arrive, so the shops are just opening and the Old Street is delightfully free of visitors, but the sun is scorching hot. Emily soon grows bored and starts complaining after the first two shops, but she is totally aware that I am in ceramics heaven and need some time for this. A tea set is something that I will use every day, and that I will build an intimate relationship with. My selection will have an impact on my mood in the days, months, and hopefully, years to come. “Now you know how I feel every time we go clothing shopping!” is my only response to her. We agree that she will take Lavender for a stroll so that I can resume my quest without distraction.
About halfway down Jianshanpu Street, I find the first tea set that meets all of my criteria upon inspection. Except the price. At NT$7000 (US$215), it is more than twice what I was hoping to spend, and so I reluctantly move on. A few more shops in and I spot the second contender. A soft pastel Lavender (my daughter's name!) tea bowl and gaiwan rest delicately atop a matching rectangular ceramic tea plate that is no more than 20 centimeters long. The material is silky to the touch, and the cup fits perfectly in the palm of my hand. A simple flower design adorns the lid of the gaiwan, plate, and interior of the cup. In short, everything about the tea set is unique, at least in comparison to the hundreds (thousands?) of tea sets I've already looked at today.
Within moments, I am approached by one of the women working in the shop. I just overheard her having the same conversation that I always hear clerks having with each other in Taiwan when I enter a shop: “It's a foreigner! Which one of you wants to go speak English with him?” And so the woman nervously welcomes me, but breathes a huge sigh of relief when I start asking questions in Mandarin, knowing that I won't get much information out of her if we continue this conversation in English. She yells back to her coworkers, “He speaks Chinese! Don't be scared la!” upon which the others gather around me and begin asking me questions about who I am and why I'm in Taiwan. Despite the shyness of younger generations, the Taiwanese are famously nice, especially to visitors.
Upon my inquiry, it turns out the set was made by a female artist based in Taichung. Everything about it is perfect, so now comes the deal breaker: the price. At NTD1800, plus an immediate “discount” that I don't even have to ask for, it comes to NTD1600 (USD50), which is well under my budget. But still, I have learned from previous experiences that every time I buy something (usually in haste because I generally hate shopping), I find something better, or the same thing for cheaper, down the street, so I tell them I'm going to think about it (which in Mandarin, just like in English, comes across as a polite “no”), and continue on with a promise of returning once I find my wife and daughter.