Mixed Love: A JoySauce column about interracial/intercultural relationships within the Asian diaspora experience, and how these unique love stories make our lives fuller, funnier, and more interesting.
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I watched as my teacher Hiromi repeated the action of wiping the lacquer tea vessel clean with a red silk napkin. She returned the smooth, round container filled with powdered tea to where she’d picked it up moments before. As she lowered the bamboo spoon into the green matcha powder, she cleaved into the perfectly formed mound of dust, carving out a sheer cliff. Not a single granule of tea clung to the side of the ebony wall of the container.
When it came my turn to practice in front of the sensei, I entered the tatami room on the wrong foot. My hands slipped and a napkin came unfolded. A drop of water splashed onto the bamboo mat. My face burned with shame when Hiromi scolded me in front of two students for not improving. Six months later, I ended my apprenticeship with her. I told myself that the presence of Hiromi’s young children knocking over trays of sweets in the tearoom distracted me. That the bus ride from my apartment to her house on snowy nights was too tedious. These things were true, but I also had a habit of quitting situations that I found imperfect.
I’d been drawn to Japanese tea as a practice of perfection. As an Asian American, I’d felt far from any Asian artistic or spiritual tradition. This felt even more conspicuous at the Buddhist college where I’d enrolled to study poetry. But more than that, as the daughter of immigrants, I’d internalized that I’d never be good enough when held up against an older brother, a first-born son. I’d never be a doctor like him, so I pursued translating classical verse, obsessed over poetry line breaks, and set my sights on serving a perfect bowl of tea. But even as I aspired to be more, part of me was sure that I would not succeed. Love was only given to those who possessed this virtue of perfection. So in a sense, I’d also given up on the idea that I could be worthy of love.
Each time I knocked on the bamboo door of the campus teahouse seeking the resident teacher, the same man with bright blue eyes slid open the door and invited me inside.
Despite having abandoned Hiromi as my teacher, I found myself missing the practice of tea. I learned about the tea teacher at Naropa, the Boulder university where I studied poetics, and hunted her down. But each time I knocked on the bamboo door of the campus teahouse seeking the resident teacher, the same man with bright blue eyes slid open the door and invited me inside. I was unready to meet the steadiness of his gaze and retreated. After several months, I let my curiosity get the better of me and visited the tearoom on a day when the teacher was finally at hand. The instructor was the wife of a Jewish rabbi. A former cardiac nurse, Shoshana filled the teahouse with the joy and warmth that infused her heart. I recognized the man that had greeted me so often before as one of her regulars. We hadn’t bumped into each other on campus because he studied in the psychology program, while I kept company with writers. His name was Kort.
When I was tasked with preparing tea for Shoshana, he ushered me into the narrow kitchen space and showed me where to find the bowls, matcha, and everything I’d need to make tea. He watched as I sifted tea and loaded up the small container with carefully measured scoops. Outside the kitchen, we heard the voices of guests arriving. May I show you an easier way? he asked. He expertly filled and molded the mound of tea in the center of the container. Like a mountain, he said, as he took a single layer of tissue and expertly dusted the excess powder coating the walls of the caddy. The verdant hill of powder looked so precise, as if human touch had never had a hand in its formation. This was his first gift to me, so that I could greet the teacher with greater confidence in my heart.
The verdant hill of powder looked so precise, as if human touch had never had a hand in its formation. This was his first gift to me, so that I could greet the teacher with greater confidence in my heart.
One Wednesday, I was assigned to serve tea to him as head guest and arranged the tools as I had learned from my first teacher. The tea scoop faced upwards, laying across the surface of the tea container. The bowl held a damp square of white cloth on which a bamboo whisk rested. Encircled in black thread, the handle of the whisk was punctuated by a simple knot. I’d made the ends of the cord point upwards, instead of lying flat—picturing Hiromi’s arrangement. When the tea student casually mentioned this detail, my face turned red. My ceremony was off, like me.
I told my friend Heather that she should consider pursuing the tea student. He was handsome, kind, and nothing like our poet counterparts. He drank tea and ate vegetarian food, with the occasional exception made for sushi. Heather was a 29-year-old Catholic virgin from Oak Park, a fancy Chicago suburb. We were out one night in Boulder, when we bumped into him at a pub with his parents, who were visiting. Why don’t you go out with him? she asked.
I considered my answer. I’m sure you’d be a better fit. I’d recently come back to Colorado from visiting a man that I had loved. Jonah was a self-trained artist living on the streets of Jamaica Plain. Since I’d left Boston, his situation had deteriorated. He self-medicated his bipolar disorder with street drugs, and sex, which was something that I had confused with him for love. Other former love interests included a lapsed Catholic who didn’t want to have a serious relationship with me because I wasn’t Christian. Then there was the bisexual German who claimed my virginity. Peter seduced me and disappeared from my life. Six months later, he resurfaced on the streets with a new Asian girlfriend. I chose terrible men. Or maybe they chose me. They were reflections of my sense of self-worth at any given time. Given Heather’s healthy regard for herself, she would do better than I had. She could pick a man who could appreciate that she was pure.
Despite my best efforts to bring them together, I found myself taking the tea student home with me, after a night of drinking wine together and listening to Brazilian jazz ballads at a bar on Pearl Street. In the morning, I cooked what was left in my refrigerator. I served him scrambled eggs with soy sauce, over Japanese short grain rice, with pickled cucumbers and the seaweed paste my mother had sent me. I was sure he’d think it was weird that I didn’t eat cereal. He still remembers that meal, because I didn’t hide who I was from him.
I was sure he’d think it was weird that I didn’t eat cereal. He still remembers that meal, because I didn’t hide who I was from him.
Frustrated with studying translation and contemplative practice, I moved to Chicago and enrolled in art school. He moved to Japan to work towards earning his tea name at the ancient tea school. When he returned a year later, we picked up our relationship. But not where we left off. While we were apart, repressed memories of my brother harming me, as a young girl, awakened. I wasn’t equipped to deal with this trauma. And in a new place without a support network, I became entangled with someone that exploited my vulnerabilities.
Chris was 10 years older than me and the best friend of a Buddhist priest in training who I’d befriended in Boulder. Against his wishes, Chris’ wife opened their marriage. He bragged openly about their kinks, his Asian porn collection, and faked having to go into sex shops when we were out together to “buy props for a play” that he was stage managing. It was how he tested the boundaries. When he finally acted on his desire, he knew that I was at a low point of self-loathing. Being his sexual partner felt violent, like having someone take out their rage on me. Our non-consensual arrangement ended when I left town and joined the tea student in Dallas.
Kort knew that I had changed but I couldn’t explain why. He stuck by me through counseling, meditation retreats, and Ayurvedic treatments prescribed by healers to reset my system. I had wanted our love to be true from the start but felt that I needed to fix myself before he could choose me. I played the role of girlfriend for years, until I finally agreed to marriage. I pushed that off, convinced that I’d be happy being a girlfriend forever. But deep down, I didn’t believe that the love that comes with a singular commitment was something that was ever intended for me.
He had come through for me long before we married. Turned towards me even while in Japan. Though I had forgotten myself, and him many times.
And yet he had come through for me long before we married. Turned towards me even while in Japan. Though I had forgotten myself, and him many times. When years later we conceived a child and lost that child, and conceived again, we finally talked about trauma. How we would grieve the thing that our love made real for a brief time. And what we would do if trauma should visit us during labor. He would hold that circle of safety for me, as he had once in the tearoom. We would push through the thing that filled me with a fear larger than death. We attended birthing classes where less courageous expectant fathers passed out cold, wrote our birth plan, and prepared to welcome our child in the safety of our home. As a healer, Kort wanted that too and read up on what he could do as an acupuncturist to relieve my labor pains.
In those last weeks before our son arrived, I trusted our wholeness. We attended a full moon-viewing tea ceremony offered by a friend. I was too round to comfortably kneel in a tearoom and wandered through the gardens alone beneath the light of distant stars. We had not served tea to others in a long time. But caring for others in his acupuncture practice had filled my husband’s heart in the same way that making tea had given him joy. This same sense would pervade his experiences of being a father.
For me, beauty and perfection had been twin energies that I had poured into my own practice of tea, and writing. Somewhere along the way, I discovered too that each of these forms has its own quality of emptiness, to be made meaningful by the practitioner. I regarded the full moon, thinking of how a vessel becomes filled. The empty bowl, broken or unbroken, can hold something other than perfection. I had learned this from my partner. I could fill that vessel with love.
Published on February 11, 2023
Words by Shin Yu Pai
Shin Yu Pai is the current Civic Poet of The City of Seattle. She has published in NYTimes, YES! Magazine, Tricycle, Seattle Met, South Seattle Emerald, ParentMap, Seattle’s Child, and other publications. She is the host, writer, and producer of The Blue Suit, a podcast centered on Asian American stories from KUOW, Seattle’s NPR station.