What my first tea ceremony taught me about being bold

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“What did you do when you were learning a foreign language?”, one of my students asked me. One of my recommendations was to have experiences in the language you are learning: you get to interact with the language in an authentic way, plus it makes for a great memory. When I studied Japanese in high school, a tea ceremony was one of those experiences. We would be taking a field trip to our local Urasenke Chanoyu Center and enjoy green tea, not from a teabag, but in its foamy, whisked, powdered form, matcha. I wasn’t much of a tea drinker then, but I relished in the opportunity to exchange the classroom for a walk through midtown Manhattan and use what little Japanese I had.

In the days leading up to the field trip, I learned from an upperclassman who went the previous year about the guest of honor’s seat. The person sitting in this seat would be addressed and served first. I was not a person who naturally sought the spotlight, but my eyes became locked on this opportunity. I didn’t know much about it, but I knew I wanted that seat. I prepared for my mission following the guidelines, making sure I had a nice pair of socks and remembering not to put on any perfume. I was already one of the select few of my classmates chosen to go on this trip. I was determined to be chosen for the guest of honor’s seat as well.

We shed our shoes and walked through the narrow hallways leading to the tea ceremony room. Directly across was a little garden and waterfall. I asked the host in Japanese for permission to take a picture of it. He was delighted to hear me speaking in Japanese and granted my request. A notable win. Still, my mind lingered on my main objective. The time came when the host asked who wanted to sit in the first seat and be what I now know is the shokyaku. My hand was up in the air before the last word of his question had a chance to drop in the atmosphere. I handily won, as no one else indicated interest.

Sitting on my knees in this coveted seat, I brought myself to attention as I was coached on my role. I would not only be addressed and served first, but I would also be demonstrating to my classmates what to do. Everything was quieted as the host signaled the start of the ceremony. I became absorbed with the intentional movements of the hostess a few inches away from me. Though she had done this many times before, I sensed that everything from the flowers to the utensils were arranged with this particular group of high school teens in mind. She unhurriedly scooped the matcha powder into a bowl and added the hot water. The sweeping of the whisk against the bowl punctuated the silence in the room.

With a turn to the right and gentle steps forward, she lowered the bowl and secured it at its target, in front of the border of the tatami square I sat in. We bowed in mutual respect before she moved back to her post to go through the checklist of guests waiting to be served. There was no passing around of anything: she brought the tea over to each person one-by-one. She did the same with the small plates of sweets. When she appeared near me again, I knew it was showtime. I tried to channel the same grace as I lifted up my bowl, rotating it 3 times clockwise before quietly sipping. I glanced around as everyone else followed my lead.

The tea ceremony would have been a great experience regardless of where I sat, but what would happen if I hadn’t raise my hand? Probably awkward silence, followed by someone eventually saying, “Sure, I’ll do it” and with that “eh” their way to the guest of honor’s seat. Instead, because I did not hesitate or second-guess, because my sights were set on what intrigued me, this experience was all the more special. I am reminded of this today, as I still raise my hand for amazing professional opportunities. Sometimes that leads me to me standing out, as my interests and approaches don’t follow a typical path, but I’d rather stand out than stand in regret.

2 thoughts on “What my first tea ceremony taught me about being bold

  1. I’ would rather stand out than stand in regret . Those are some powerful words,, which is so admirable. I can’t wait to read the next post.

    Like

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