Saturday, February 26, 2011

Connecting over Chai

Many of you might have picked up along the way that "chai" is a type of tea. Starbucks sells "Chai Tea" on their menu.

After I began learning Russian, I learned that the word "chai" (чай) actually means tea. Hence, I find it redundant to talk about chai tea.

The following is taken from Michelle's blog, another missionary in Kyiv. (emphases mine)
Then I was asked if I would like hot tea. I said yes automatically and immediately hot water appeared from an electric kettle and I quickly dunked a tea bag in my mug and began to drink the tea without thinking. I made no connection whatsoever that the hot drink was going to make me even more uncomfortable than I already felt. I didn’t even think about asking for cold water which would have been much more refreshing. You see, I live in Ukraine and in Ukraine tea is not just a drink, it’s a ritual that nurtures relationships. And if you want relationships with Ukrainians, you drink tea....

Tea in Ukraine is another concept entirely. If you are invited to drink tea with someone, you are being invited into a relationship. A mandatory mutual experience to get to know each other or if already friends, a way to catch up on each other’s lives and get to know each other even better.

By assimilation, I quickly picked up the tea ritual without too many difficulties. I learned that wherever I went, tea would most likely be served. Friends would offer it in their homes and I needed to have a supply of different teas on hand in mine to offer when friends came to visit as well.....

To prepare tea for a friend and know exactly how they like it made, big cup, small cup, green tea or black, weak or strong, how many spoons of sugar, well, that is a sign of true friendship.

So if you are visiting Ukraine, and someone offers to share a cup of tea with you, don’t wrinkle your nose and suggest McDonald’s. You just missed the point. You were invited into a relationship and no matter how hot it is, drink your tea and make a friend.
Every Sunday after the morning service, tea and cookies are available at church. Often people mill about the hallway, chatting with one another. As I think about this custom, it has held true at every church I've visited in Kyiv (all 3 of them).  Whenever we are at Obolon, we sit and drink tea with the people there, before we leave for lunch or home.  So many times during my trip in summer 2008 we'd sit and drink tea and talk with the pastors.

Side cultural note:  I've never seen anyone carrying a travel-type mug for coffee/tea on the streets or on public transport.  I do see people buying small cups (about 200 mL) of steaming hot coffee/tea from kiosks on the street.

Sometimes I gladly accept the offer of hot tea because I've just come inside from the FREEZING COLD outdoors!  When my roommate and I were in Vinnitsa in November, we drank 4 cups of tea in one day (before 7pm) -- one was at breakfast with Natasha, another was to warm up after walking, another was at House of James with Vitalik and his wife, and our last cup was back at the church. 

Truthfully, sometimes I decline the offer of tea. Because the tea is hot, the drinker must sip it slowly, and that requires more time.  If I'm thirsty, or if my throat is dry, I want to drink something right down and not wait for it to cool.

One Sunday I was offered tea, but we were leaving before I could finish it. I felt terrible not being able to finish it and having to pour it down the drain. (I'm not sure why carrying it with me wasn't a viable option...) More often than not, my friends and I will head out as soon as church is over for lunch at McDonald's or some other place.

Yet, this time that is required for drinking the hot tea is time that is spent savoring conversations with others. I may not understand 100% of what people say to me, but what is important is that I am there with them, being invited into their lives, and that I am willing to listen and to allow them to enter into my life.  I suspect that this will be a cultural habit that I will continue even after I leave Ukraine.

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1 comment:

  1. So true... never really thought of it, but as I've read your friend's assessment of "being invited for tea = friendship invite," I realized that it's true - even though sometimes it's a travel mug of coffee / tea that's shared, but the concept remains the same...

    And it sucks when one wants tea and there's no one to share it with...