One Cup of Tea At a Time
Article by B.J Hollars, Leader Telegram May 2021
Were it not for Bob Dylan, Xin Obaid of Wujan, China might never have come to America. As a young woman, Dylan’s music moved her deeply—one song, in particular.
“Which song?” I ask, seated across from 59-year-old Xin in MingXin Chinese Cultural Exchange and Tea House, her one-room, one-table business located inside Artisan Forge Studios. “I don’t know the title in English,” Xin says, reaching for her phone near the tea tray. She types a few words into the web browser, then turns the phone my way so I can see for myself. “Ah, ‘Blowing in the Wind,’” I say. “A classic.” “I don’t even know what he talks about,” Xin smiles. “I just liked the sound.” She liked Dylan’s story, too.
How in January of 1961, the 19-year-old burgeoning folk singer left college, packed his bag, and struck out for New York City to take a chance on himself. “I didn’t know a single soul in this dark freezing metropolis,” Dylan wrote in his autobiography. “But that was all about to change.” A version of this line could’ve been pulled from Xin’s own life story.
In February of 2010, she, too, packed a bag and left the world she knew, uprooting her
life as a successful magazine editor and blogger to travel 7000 miles from Wujan to
Dylan’s home state of Minnesota. Though Bob Dylan may have inspired her to make
the trip, another man urged her to buy the plane ticket. The man was an avid reader of
Xin’s blog, and after several email exchanges, he encouraged her to visit him in Eau Claire.
Prior to her correspondence with the Eau Claire man (who, spoiler alert, would soon
become her husband), much of Xin’s knowledge of America came from popular culture.
In the early days of planning her trip, she sought out contact information for the three
Americans she knew best: Brad Pitt, Leonardo di Caprio, and, of course, Bob Dylan.
Finding them all unavailable, she decided to make the trip anyway. After all, there was at
least one man, she knew, who would make plenty of time for her.
For 10 days, Xin and her future husband got to know one another by way of the Casio translator passed between them. They soon learned of their shared love for Chinese literature, and their own loved blossomed as well. Anxious to give this fledgling relationship a chance, Xin extended her visit to three months. She was grateful to have met her new companion, though the language barrier prohibited her from enjoying a wider social circle within the community. That changed over a cup of tea with local resident Cathy Sultan, whose time spent as an American abroad in Lebanon allowed her to more fully understand Xin’s feelings of isolation. They spent an afternoon sipping tea and conversing by way of the Casio translator, over which time they became fast friends. While the translator assisted their conversation, it was the tea that provided the perfect ingredient for their cultural exchange.
Over the next decade, Xin continued to forge new friendships, one cup of tea at a time. Sometimes she’ll approach perfect strangers, other times, casual acquaintances like me. Always, Xin’s question is the same: “Would you like to share tea with me?”
Xin opened the doors to MingXin Chinese Cultural Exchange and Tea House in March of 2020—in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, and in a moment in which anti-Asian hate was on the rise. Rather than shy away from conversations, she invited people to learn more about Chinese culture. The tea leads to talking, Xin explains, and the talking leads to a deeper understanding of culture. While Americans are familiar with the term “breaking bread,” in Chinese culture, “drinking tea” serves much the same purpose. The ritualized sharing of sustenance creates the conditions for meaningful connections.
Throughout our chat, Xin prepares our tea as if by muscle memory: spooning the hibiscus red tea leaves into the gaiwan—a small porcelain bowl soon filled with the tea pot’s steaming water. The tea leaves are infused in the water, at which point Xin pours no more than a few red-tinged ounces into each cup. Lifting the cup to my lips, I taste a flavor that far surpasses the pre-packaged teabags I’d grown accustomed to. There’s a hint of ginger. Flower. Something a little tart. Delicious as it is, Xin reminds me that the tea serves as but one of two key ingredients for a successful experience. The other ingredient is the person seated across from you.
“If you could share tea with anyone, who would it be?” I ask. “Maybe Brad Pitt?” Xin laughs. “Anyone,” she says. “Anyone at all.” It seems the perfect answer, and further confirmation of Xin’s tea house mission: to take a stranger and make them a friend. And she’s made many.
Xin’s tearoom, Cathy Sultan says, “introduced Eau Claire to the wonders of tea and Chinese art and culture.” Though not everyone is receptive. Over the past decade, Xin has endured a pair of microaggressions here in Eau Claire: the first involving a man who, upon learning that she was from China, refused to help her with a parking meter, and a second involving an instance of exceptionally rude customer service that left her in tears. If she’d had a cup of tea to share, perhaps such incidents might’ve ended differently. But the tea only works when both parties are willing to take a seat at the table. As Xin confirms, these negative interactions are the exception rather than the rule. Nevertheless, those of us whose privileges shield us from such encounters should not be so quick to dismiss them. Only by taking a good hard look at ourselves, and our wider community, are we able to root out such cruelties.
What we say and do—and what we fail to say and do—can make the difference between the world we’re striving for and the one we’ve got. Returning my cup to the table, I thank Xin for a wonderful afternoon. “Please,” she says, “come back anytime.” Maybe Bob Dylan was right. Maybe the answers are blowing in the wind. Or maybe they’re just a teacup away.