world tea expo & the japanese tea master

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In the coming week, I will be offering stories and interviews from the 2011 World Tea Expo, but today, at the end of a long week of travel for tea and pleasure (how could they be separate?), I want to offer the most salient moments of my visit.

The Expo was busy, with more than 200 exhibitors and approximately 6000 visitors thronging the large Las Vegas Convention Center last weekend. As with any trade show, there is a vibrancy and buzz, and at this special expo, a celebration of reuniting with fellow tea people. 

But in a flash, I was taken aback when the casual and jovial invitation to try tea was suddenly upended by an unusual sight.  A saddened Asian man stands with his eyes cast downward, as he holds out a tray of several small samples of two different kinds of tea.  He is motionless, almost like a mime, and if he were not so distraught, I would think he was doing something akin to performance art with a tray of tea. 

I watch him quizzically, as, barely meeting my gaze, he bows and gently moves the tray toward me in invitation.  I take a small cup of the pretty golden tea liquor and prepare to sip.  "Shizuoka tea," I hear him say softly. 

His eyelashes flutter and lift softly to me, revealing beneath them a tender glance that seems to question: "Are you going to drink this....still?" The news of radiation-tainted tea from Shizuoka, Japan's largest tea exporting province, has arrived just weeks before the largest North American tea trade show, and the spring harvest, which fetches the bulk of the year's revenues for Japanese tea farmers and exporters.

In his crestfallen gaze are tidal waves of sadness and plumes of anxiety. I read the horror of losing loved ones, homes, and perhaps the only means of livelihood his friends, colleagues, and family have known for decades.  

I absorb the meaning of his grief, and in solidarity and respect, I answer with a sure and intentional first sip.  I nod my head.  "O-ishi- desu" (It's delicious), I say to him in Japanese, and mean it.  "Tell the tea master, tell the tea master," he implores, while pulling gently on the jacket of an older man standing behind him.  When the tea master turns around, I repeat in Japanese:  "Thank you so much.  It really is delicious."

The old man drags his wrist across his glistening forehead and sadly nodding, he bows and says "Thank you so much.  Thank you. Thank you."  He is still bowing as he moves away though facing me, not knowing if I will cry first or if it will be he. His eyes are fixed on the ground.

Neither of us break the barrier of formality, but when he momentarily meets my gaze, I try to impart the only message I have for him in a soft glance rather than words: "I'm sorry." 

I take another sip.  "Yes, delicious, O-ishi kata desu," I say. And with a low bow, I leave both the tea master and the young man, who also in a bow and with downcast eyes, remains alone on an invisible stage, making an offering.
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Beautiful story, thank you for sharing!

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