Giving Up Coffee for Tea

If there is anything that I would like to thank green tea for, it would be none another than how it helped me to give up my coffee habit. Here’s what happened.

 

I spent my teenage years in 90’s Singapore, and at that time we had just started to experience the invasion of the American-style coffee chain. Almost twenty years later, Starbucks and Coffee Bean are still popular on this island. It was a revolution from the older generation’s kopi, a cheap, crude blend that was sipped in the streets and markets. Like any impressionable young person, I succumbed to the fashions of the time and became a regular with ice-blended coffee. Its creamy and sugary texture had me hooked and the coffee in the drink seemed to be more of a condiment. Certainly there was some resistance to this trend of seemingly up-market coffee shops. A fellow eighteen year old schoolmate complained that it reeked of ‘Western decadence’, but since I did not like this boy’s haircut very much, so in typical human fashion, I ignored him and dismissed his view as folly.
    
Ice-blended coffee was losing its novelty about two years later. Having fallen into the gloomy days of national service, my taste buds felt more familiar with bitterness instead of sweetness. This was when I ‘upgraded’ myself to Café Lattes. Another two years later, as a European studies student in an American university, I had become more adventurous and had moved on to Cappuccinos, and eventually to Expressos. For those who are unfamiliar with coffee, I was essentially reducing my milk and sugar intake in favour of more caffeine in the cup. By my second year, I was onto Double Expressos.
    
Hot and potent coffee had become a necessity in the cold, wintry days of Illinois. In the spring and autumn, chilly winds could occasionally blow in from the nearby Great Lake, which is so huge that it ought to be more honestly named as ‘sea’. They disappear into the horizon and are pitch-black at night. During the winter, the snowfall could reach up to a foot high on the streets, and we all shared experiences of trudging through dirty snow over slippery roads. Our university professors were professional; they kept themselves away from us as much as they could without breaching their obligations. One of my Economics professors was even Japanese: Professor ‘Pine Mountain’ had a messy haircut and had his doctorate from the prestigious Tokyo Imperial University. Apart from never showing an inch of a smile, he told us something like this:
    
“There is no need for you to worry about your final grade if you have done poorly for your midterm examination. Everyone finishes with a good grade in this course, because those who have gotten otherwise usually drop out of the class.”
I am sure you can understand why I needed something like coffee to keep me awake while I was absorbing all this information around me.
    
However, most of the coffee that was readily available in my part of the US was simply terrible. Even my Italian teachers complained. I am sure the Japanese people would have complained. Not only did it taste terrible, it was consistently served in a poor manner: usually with a plastic or disposable cup from a very forgetful barista. One made me repeat my order three times, but it was difficult to complain, because she was black.
    
Faced with a growing appetite for good coffee and a growing frustration at its inavailability, I was lost in limbo; I just grabbed whatever coffee I could find outdoors and complained to myself how bad it was. I knew that this could not go on forever. Of course I could have bought a mini-expresso machine, but I could not see myself wasting time keeping the machine clean. It was expensive and bulky and it would be a burden whenever I moved to a new dwelling.
    
A tea ceremony master was giving a demonstration at a room in the university hall. It was organized by one of his students. He was from Kyoto, but was now an American citizen. I was curious, and that was the first time I encountered the Japanese tea ceremony. He explained the various health benefits of green tea, but most importantly he said:
“I used to drink coffee too, but when I discovered how it makes our bodies lose nutrients, I stopped drinking it.”

He made it sound really easy, and I was impressed. Having seen his fine white hair and gentle body movements, I believed that he was genuinely capable of such self-restraint. He was also a Noh performer. He was of small build, which was a big relief from the oversized bodies that surrounded me everyday. His mouth was small and could shut properly, and was not the type that opens incessantly to broadcast hot air. My meeting with this cultivated Japanese man was in 2006, before the American-led global recession of the last few years.

Having been thus edified by this man, you would not believe what I did. When he offered me the first bowl of green tea, I turned it down. He had passed around the bowl to the other students, and I refused to share the bowl for hygiene reasons. However, I decided to seek out the tea store on my own and proceeded to procure all the necessary utensils.

For the last four years, I have been drinking maccha-type green tea everyday for my breakfast, and I often carry some with me whenever I travel abroad. I do not drink coffee anymore, except for an occasional cup where the coffee is particularly famous, such as in Vienna.

It is really possible to give up coffee for green tea, but you don’t really have to do it. I just wanted to tell you how nice it is to have green tea in the mornings and afternoons.

Darren Shi
May 2011