Two students share tea essay contest prize

A "chai wala" (tea vendor) pours tea in an urban market in Ranchi, in Jharkhand state in eastern India. Photo by Jessica Ames, Tata-Cornell Institute.

Siddarth Sankaran '21 (computer science and economics) and PhD candidate Annie Sheng (anthropology) have each been awarded $250 as co-winners of a student essay contest linked to the October 26-27 conference "Tea High and Low: Elixir, Exploitation, Ecology."

Student attendees were asked to respond to the following questions: How did the discussions at this conference change the way you understand the world of tea? What, if anything, has prompted you to reflect more deeply on the cultural, religious, economic, or ecological aspects of tea as a globally consumed commodity?

Submissions were limited to 750 words. The winning essays are reprinted below.

Honorable mentions went to Doreen Gui '21 (civil engineering), Bolin Huang '19 (mechanical engineering), and Stephanie Sek '19 (hotel administration).

The multidisciplinary conference was co-organized by Daniel Bass, program manager of the South Asia Program, and associate professor Jane-Marie Law of the Department of Asian Studies.

It was jointly presented by the South Asia Program, East Asia ProgramSoutheast Asia Program, and Comparative Muslim Societies Program. Principal sponsors were the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies and the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

Additional support came from the Johnson Museum, Cornell Botanic Gardens, Tata-Cornell Institute, IP-CALS, the Religious Studies Program, and the departments of anthropology, Asian studies, and history.

The Caffeinated and Intellectual Highs Through Immersion in the "Tea High and Low: Elixir, Exploitation, Ecology" Conference

Annie Sheng, Ph.D. candidate in anthropology

Annie Sheng in tea field
Annie Sheng in a tea plantation in Maokong, Taiwan

Having spent years in Japan researching and teaching (and drinking bottomless cups of green tea in beautiful ceramics); conversing with tea growers in Maokong, Taiwan; spending time with a host family in Indonesia house/restaurant (and being constantly served es teh in the process); and sipping masala chai in India and in the desi diaspora spaces in the U.S., I imagined that I perhaps knew slightly more than the average Joe (note, not "cup of joe") when it came to tea. But, only after attending "Tea High and Low: Elixir, Exploitation, Ecology" did I realize my knowledge gleaned from so many years of active drinking and associating with tea connoisseurs only scratched the steamy, translucent surface of this hot beverage. At the conference, I was blown away by the endlessly fascinating subject of tea, the plethora of knowledge and intrigue surrounding its adoption – as well as insight in the realm of the beverage's history, production, consumption and meaning to society.

The museum and botanical garden transformed into founts of caffeinated knowledge –
pouring forth ecological, social and economic analyses of 1) the leaf as a horticultural topic to 2) drying, processing and distribution of leaves to 3) the beverage in its comforting, liquid form.

Entailed were significant investigations on exploitation (in terms of policies and management of higher powers) (Liu, Besky, Jegathesan), development of teas as national symbols (Lutgendorf, Hellyer, van der Meer) and ecological impact (Dey and Hung) – as well as roundtables on economy and environment – surrounding this modest drink.

It was evident through the presentations that tea can be considered a product both global and national in conception. Its trade and promotion was (in history) and continues to be global. I found it interesting that Yokohama (a city I lived in) was an area in which Chinese-style green tea was refined by mostly women through Chinese know-how (Hellyer). Chinese merchants were the purveyors of knowledge of tea processing and the tea trade at ports. This mention of women, accompanied by striking imagery, touches on the compelling topic of gender and tea – women were producers working in tea processing in Yokohama (Hellyer) and in Sri Lanka (Jegathesan); and in the case in India and elsewhere (Lutgendorf), women were presented as the consumers that would be prime promoters of tea in a familial/communal environment. Women made food purchasing decisions in households, and the inception of tea into women's consciousness and spaces meant wider societal proliferation. Tea as global commodity meant prices being susceptible to global economic events (a.k.a. catastrophes) such as the Great Depression (Lutgendorf, van der Meer, economics roundtable), which catalyzed greater promotion of local consumption both in Indonesia and India's "thirsty throats" – eventually promoted as modern and national. In Indonesia, low-quality Chinese tea flowed to Indonesia and was associated with the foreign, with its imbibing alongside Quaker Oats cookies but eventually became a commonplace beverage (van der Meer). 

Also discussed were how tea was localized to fit perceptions/tastes – production of
Chinese-style green tea involved adding "Prussian Blue" to cater to an American market that preferred an aesthetically pleasing (and expected) green-colored tea (otherwise grey or white) (Hellyer), whereas in India, a local favorite, masala chai cropped up as adaptation, in which herbs and spices were put into a pot and boiled together with the tea (Lutgendorf). 

There was also striking competition when it came to promoting tea – while Andrew Liu
discussed the 19th-century competition between Chinese and colonial Indian tea, Hellyer also emphasized how the introduction of Indian Ceylon tea to America involved denigrating imagery of Chinese as "coolie" and "dirty," with sweat dripping into the leaves during production as a means of turning people away from tea. Japanese tea companies also employed clean-dirty imagery, invoking "pure tea" as a means of carving out a space of cleanliness and purity as an overarching selling point to emphasize high quality (Hellyer).

The presenters highlighted the tension between modernity and tradition, with Po-Yi Hung's research on production of tea by ethnic minorities in Yunnan as entrepreneurs working with the state and shifting notions of tradition such as in India, with the idea of tea as once modern but now considered traditional, in face of newer cultural imports such as coffee- and soda-drinking (Lutgendorf).

One of the greatest delights, besides being immersed in the discussions of the
presentations, was experiencing the practice of tea itself – whether this meant tasting teas from Roji Tea Lounge or stepping into the tea ceremony space or conversing during tea breaks as people often do… over tea.

Tea: More Than Just a Drink

Siddarth Sankaran '21

siddarth sankaran headshot
Siddarth Sankaran '21

Personally, I have never been much of a tea drinker, but my parents are quite the
champions of this beverage. Starting back at home in Houston, I would always begin my day with a coffee while my mother and father would begin their morning making and consuming a fresh pan of chai. Previously, I had never really thought about the significance or reason behind my parents’ persistence for chai. I just assumed they enjoyed it because it tasted good and the caffeine gave them enough energy to get them through their respective jobs. Some of my extended family, who live India, also share this passion towards chai. And similarly, I never exactly questioned why my grandparents or aunts drank this tea. So to summarize, tea has always been a prevalent part of my life because my family around me has been drinking the beverage for as long as I can remember.

Now even though I have been surrounded by chai and chai drinkers for most my life, for the first time I have begun to think about chai on a deeper, more critical level. After listening to Philip Lutgendorf’s “Chai Why?: The Making of the Indian ‘National Drink’” presentation during the tea conference, I found myself seriously considering the significance of chai in India and within my family. It was very interesting to learn that the popularization of chai in India was directly correlated with the development of manufacturing, marketing, and urbanization in India within the 20th century. In addition, the growing presence of chai was tied to some of the societal changes within India such as the breakdown of the caste system and new lifestyles. Learning about chai’s integral role in of one of India’s most recent and important transformations helps explain to me why chai is so popular within India. I also feel some feelings of awe with the fact that a simple beverage was part of the process of helping India develop economically and socially. Using this knowledge, I now am thinking more critically about the reasons why my parents and extended family drink chai. In regards to my extended family, they have lived in India their whole life. So for them, the nationwide popularization of chai probably inevitably reached them and the practices of making and drinking chai became ingrained within their lives. Thus for them, chai represents India’s transformation and new social norms. Now in regards to my parents, they left India over 20 years to settle in the United States. Even though they do not live in India anymore and have become quite Americanized, they still drink chai. I deduce that one of the reasons my parents still consume this tea is because chai represents a connection to their homeland. After learning about the cultural and social significance of chai within India, I now understand that chai embodies a personalized connection to India. So I can now see that perhaps the abundant chai within my household functions as a way for my parents to still preserve their Indian heritage and experiences while living in a different country.

Overall, this conference helped me view tea in a different light. I am now aware of how
tea has played a part in culture, economic development, and social standards. This knowledge has also influenced my perspective on the reasons why my family drinks chai. All in all, I can say that tea is now more than just a beverage to me. Tea symbolizes valued culture and history to many people.