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The point of no return for me? Yeah. That was when US Customs thought I was trying to smuggle a suitcase full of weed through the airport disguised as tea. The moment where I knew that I would come back to Taiwan to live here was right around the time the drug dogs were jumping up on my legs to sniff my crotch.
My first trip to Taiwan was more than three years ago during the summer of 2009. I came on a scholarship to study Mandarin, Chinese. When I arrived, I was a diligent student of language and culture, spending several hours per day reading over my textbook and trying to supplement my studies by reading newspapers. I could soak up Chinese vocabulary like a sponge and completed all of my assignments on time.
I was a diligent, earnest and hard-working student.
Then, I met Sejin.
Sejin is a Korean friend of mine who studies tea. As it happened, he was spending the summer in Taiwan improving his Mandarin skills and we were in the same class. Sejin and I shared an interest in teas, and Sejin had been in Taiwan for a few months already by the time I began my studies.
Consequently, Sejin knew most of the good tea spots around our university, NCCU, and graciously spent a few weeks introducing them to me.
I am eternally grateful to Sejin for introducing me to the tea of Taiwan, such as the best high mountain Oolong teas like Alishan, Lishan, Fushoushan, Dayuling and so on, but boy, his introducing me to tea turned me into a terrible student!
By the end of my first summer in Taiwan, I was skipping class to sneak off to teahouses around my university. I was spending all of my scholarship money on Oolong tea and zisha clay teapots, living from check to check like an addict.
Photo Credit: Matthew Hine CC BY SA 2.0
When I left to go back to the states, I had collected so much tea that it literally filled my carry-on suitcase to the brim. US Customs saw my carry-on suitcase full of small green plant matter go through the luggage scanner and detained me on suspicion of ferrying marijuana across international borders.
To their credit, I would probably also have been suspicious of a white person carrying a suitcase full of loose leaf tea.
I argued with TSA agents for over an hour, trying my best to assure them that the kilos of green in my suitcase were tea, not weed. Hell, I even offered to brew them a cup of Alishan High Mountain Oolong tea to let them sample the product for themselves. I had a zisha clay pot handy, I told them, and all they would need to supply was some fresh mountain spring water at a boil. Or a soft mineral water, like Evian. And did Mr. and Ms. TSA happen to have some Evian handy?
They declined and promptly unleashed a horde of drug sniffing dogs over me and my luggage.
I lost an hour or two to drug dogs and pat downs, but those customs agents missed out on tea the likes of which I guarantee they have never had before, the very best tea that Taiwan has to offer. At that moment, I knew that I had to come back to Taiwan and live here, learn more about its teas and its culture, while spending more time with the people who had been so hospitable and welcoming to me.
I returned to Taiwan in November of 2011, chasing memories of my personal white whale: a Muzha Tie Guan Yin Oolong tea that tasted like cotton candy and strawberry hookah. I drank said tea, the only perfect 100 tea I have ever tasted, in the teahouse near the university where Sejin and I had studied together.
Back that first summer in 2009 when I first learned about Taiwan’s teas, I tasted this Muzha Tieguanyin around 4pm, before a dinner of spicy instant noodles. After my dinner of instant noodles, I had a scotch and brushed my teeth (scotch and toothpaste are both very heavy flavors), and went to sleep for a solid eight hours. When I woke up the next morning, that fateful muggy summer day in 2009, the full flavor and mouthfeel of the tea was still so strongly present in my mouth that I didn’t even want to brew a morning cup of tea. I felt like I was still drinking tea from the night before! That Muzha Tie Guan Yin was like Mitchum deodorant, “so strong you could skip a day.”
I haven’t had another 100 point tea since that day, but I’m confident they’re out there. As I have learned through getting to know the tea industry in Taiwan, Taiwan produces some of the best teas in the world. While the Spring 2013 harvest of Muzha Tieguanyin was not, in my opinion, as outstanding as the Spring 2009 harvest, I now have taken my previous studious habits and applied them to exploring all of the teas that Taiwan has to offer, and love life as a foreigner in Taiwan’s tea industry.
I get to wake up every single day and taste some new exciting tea from Taiwan or another interesting country, and there isn’t a week that goes by where I don’t reflect on the experiences that Taiwan has introduced me to. Although I haven’t been detained again by customs for carrying around too much suspicious looking tea, I’m pretty sure it will happen again one day. As long as I get to continue experiencing the tea, people and culture Taiwan has to offer on a regular basis, that hour or two I will lose to customs again someday in the future will be well worth it.
Edited by Olivia Yang