Ultimately, I have Qingdao University to thank for opening the doors to tea culture for me. If not for my freshman year of college Chinese language intensive trip to China, and summer of study at Qingdao University, I would never have met Weiwei, who has the most incredible ability to taste tea of almost anyone I know. I would even venture to say that she has the best palate for oolong in the world.
Such an incredible person, you would expect to be old and wizened, pouring tea for disciples at a temple wafting with incense. Not Weiwei. When we got off the bus from the airport, jet-lagged and stumbling about, the first thing we did after an assembly filled with awesome video clips on the culture of Qingdao, and introductions by the head of school, was to line up in the courtyard across from a line of hesitant and tentative-looking students who were to be our summer Chinese tutors after classes.
It felt like being lined up to be picked for high school sports teams. They would call a name, you would step forward, and they would call your tutor. My name was called, and paired with Weiwei Ren, whose friends all laughed at her for being paired with a guy. I knew that she was different when she started swinging her purse at her laughing friends, whacking them and scurrying off.
It was an extremely hot day, one of those rare occasions in Qingdao where the sun cut through the fog and mist. We were supposed to meet in the courtyard on the pavement, but Weiwei suggested that we sneak off to the lake where it was cooler and practice Chinese dialogues. I thought we would get in trouble, but she refused to read from the textbook in the courtyard, so away we went.
After a week or two of reciting straight from the text, getting my pronunciation corrected mercilessly, and repeating exercises, I told Weiwei, “this is boring. Can we practice actually speaking Chinese?” Weiwei threw down the textbook.
“Finally. This is a terrible book you are using. Total waste of time. You think you are bored, think about me.” We spent the rest of the summer talking about literature, our favorite calligraphers, etc.
Towards the end of the summer, as my Chinese was getting better, we could actually have real conversations. That is when I discovered that Weiwei is one of the only people I have met in China with an acute sense of irony and sarcasm as a critical part of her humor. It probably wasn’t good for my Chinese, but we would start using incorrect grammar for the sake of humor.
For example, the structure verb + si le is an exaggerated and slightly melodramatic way of saying you are tired of something. The literal meaning is “I something to death”. Things get interesting when you break the rule and put in a noun (which you can do in Chinese normally because of flexible verb / noun states. I would meet with Weiwei and say zhongwen si le, meaning “I am Chinese language(d) to death.” In any case, Weiwei quickly picked up on this and other new ways to use Chinese grammar, leading to funny situations where she would us a phrase around somebody else and have them give her quite a look.
Since tea was not an issue the first year I visited China, Weiwei would always look for excuses to skip tutoring and take me to her favorite Ma La Tang stands, where vendors served up a spicy rice noodle soup that Weiwei had a quest to find the best version of. I knew nothing of Weiwei’s more serious quest for the best Tieguanyin until the next year.
When I got back to Qingdao to study tea formally, the University wanted me to keep taking Chinese classes and assigned me a much more boring tutor. I spent a whole session teaching him what a “square” was in English so that I could call him a square and dare him to go to the arcade for some Dance Dance Revolution, but he wouldn’t go for it. I quickly sought out Weiwei for help. She was rather surprised to hear that I was researching tea.
“My best friend’s auntie is a tea farmer,” Weiwei said.
“Where, in Fujian?”
“What, no. Just an hour out of town in Laoshan Village.”
“They grow tea in Laoshan Village?” I asked.
“You didn’t know that? Of course. Where did you think the green tea in town came from?”
With that we were on our way to the bus stop to go out to Laoshan and meet the He family for the first time, a story I have elaborated in full in the article “An Afternoon in Laoshan Village.” This fated connection would never have happened if not for meeting Weiwei. After that experience, and subsequently learning that Weiwei loved tea like nothing else, I would invite her to the tea markets with me to sip tea while I interviewed different vendors.
One day the topic of conversation got to Tieguanyin at the local tea market and Weiwei perked up. It turns out that Tieguanyin is her absolute favorite kind of tea. She had an experience as a child being given the most incredible cup of Tieguanyin imaginable, from her father who collects the absolute best teas as a hobby. Who knows how good the cup she tried as a five year old was. The memory has made it the perfect cup. Because of this memory, Weiwei has a mission to find that Tieguanyin, to recover this piece of her childhood. Of course, she will never find what she remembers, but it has fueled a drive that gives her the most discriminating palate I have ever seen. We would drink Tieguanyin that I found mind-blowing and Weiwei would simply shrug and say that it was at least drinkable without having to be washed down with water, but that it was nothing special.
When I started Verdant Tea, I knew that Weiwei was the person to help make it happen in China. I would trust my life to her palate. Since that time she has grown immensely in her understanding of tea, and international logistics. From taking a crash course in Dancong when I became interested in the stuff, to working with Wang Yanxin to find a Jasmine that they could be proud of, Weiwei is the curator that narrows the collection to several hundred before a final curation and cut here in Minneapolis to the few teas that end up for sale.
There are many great stories of Weiwei’s that I can’t go into detail about, but I can share a few favorites, like the time that Weiwei actually actually got a recording of her dad telling her it was OK to get a license and start driving, and using it to force his hand even though he was asleep when asked. Or, the time that I called her and heard people speaking in heavy Qingdao accents in the background until I said it was me. Then she told her friends they could stop, because apparently she had run off to Chengdu for a week and was trying to trick her parents into thinking that she was staying with friends in Qingdao closer to home. I also like that whenever Weiwei gets a call that she doesn’t want to deal with, she will crinkle a piece of paper in the speaker saying “what, sorry I can’t hear you” or “my phone is out of batteries.”
I would often tell her that she was going to get herself into trouble some day, but she is way too charming. She is such a genuinely nice person beside it all that she has a way of earning the trust of every farmer we work with. She knows how to listen, and how to drink tea respectfully.
Besides being a well-traveled, slightly mischievous tea master with a knack for finding the best growers and suppliers in the world, Weiwei has a dream to travel through all the remote provinces of China teaching Chinese in the little villages. She goes rock climbing whenever possible (even the time she was climbing Huangshan at night and fell, breaking her leg!). She also hopes to visit America soon, provided she can get a visa.
If anyone has comments or questions for Weiwei, you can leave them here. For now, she is able to check the website in China, and is having fun showing all of our tea friends the website and all the compliments people leave about the tea.
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