In Kunming I met a doctor from Zhejiang Province. He shed light on many details of Chinese life for me. I was a little surprised he was staying in a hostel and he was reading a book on making money. He explained that in China, even though doctors work 14 hours a day 7 days a week, the average doctor doesn’t make such a good salary. So many doctors have to take a second job or they do what he hopes to do: invest to supplement their income.
I thought the government took care of medical costs like in Europe. He said this wasn’t so, which is one of the reasons why Chinese families save for much. There is no health insurance. Neither is there the safety net that I imagined existed. At the same time, government funding for hospitals is minimal, so even in China, hospitals are essentially businesses that must support themselves by patient fees.
“What do you think of Chinese people?” he asked.
“I think they are very nice, outside of Shanghai.”
Tam, it turned out, now lived in Shanghai.
He was going out to buy tea and invited me to join him. I told him about my tea-room experience my first day in mainland China. He laughed. This would be a very different experience.
See, he wasn’t going out to buy a cup of tea; he was buying a year’s supply of it.
Tam said there are seven types of tea: green, red (what we call black), pu-erh, and four others we never got to. He was searching for pu-erh tea from the province we were in, Yunnan.
Like many stores and restaurants in China, the first tea shop we entered had no doors or windows. It was a completely open storefront. The walls were lined with shelves, the shelves held hundreds of what looked like thick round discs, maybe seven inches across, of compressed tea leaves. Each disc would last a family two or three months—and Chinese families drink tea like water. Tam was looking to buy five of these.
He discussed the different types of tea with the owner and selected one to his liking. Then we sat down at the front of the store at an intricately carved wooden stump, fashioned out of something like redwood. There were two other men in slacks and sport jackets already drinking tea at the table. The owner prepared a sample of the new tea for all five of us. The first couple of times though he prepared the tea, he poured five cups of it, and tossed out all five cups of tea on a cloth on the table. Tam explained, the first couple of rounds are just to clean out the tea.
Tam was much more informative than my scam-artist friends in Shanghai. He said it was customary to finish the cup of tea in three drinks, savoring each sip and letting it play around your tongue before swallowing it.
The five of us must have downed six or seven rounds of tea, the others conversing in Chinese, often laughing (something I had witnessed very little in my time here) until Tam said he’d like to try—or the owner offered, I’m not sure—a different kind of tea.
So we repeated the process all over again, this time with a more bitter variety. Tam asked me what I thought. I told him I preferred the taste of the first tea, but something about the second tea felt “healthier” going down. He insisted they were equally healthy, but neither was smooth enough for his liking, so we moved on.
We did the same thing at two other tea shops, each successively higher-end than the last. The first discs were in the $20 range. The last tea shop sold discs for hundreds of dollars, but the most expensive one we sampled was about $70.
I can safely say I more than made back what I lost in the tea scam in Shanghai. In fact, I may have drank more tea that night than in my entire life.
Hmm. Tea has caffeine. I blamed it on the room, but now that I think about it, that might have been why I couldn’t fall asleep until the bus ride to Dali the following afternoon.