There is a beautiful book by Allen Say (Tea with Milk, a children's picture book) where he writes about his mother, how she grew up in California drinking tea with milk, until her parents moved back to Japan, where tea is a bitter green froth with a cloud of powder at the bottom of the cup, not milky and sweet. It was one of the things that made her feel like a foreigner in a strange land, until she met his father in a department store elevator, another stranger in a foreign land, and married him. (Perhaps they moved back to California to start their life together, but I can't remember). I think of this girl, feeling lost in a new country, where she blended in (being Japanese) but never quite felt at home (being American), every time I drink my tea with milk.
When I was in high school I would come downstairs in the morning to find my father puttering around the kitchen with the espresso machine, a mediaeval torture device of gleaming stainless steel, to the accompaniment of the wild roar of the coffee grinder, the hissing squeal of the steaming hot water that let you know the machine was ready. I would make myself tea, and then there would be that dance you do around each other as you both reach for mugs (in the cupboard at one end of the kitchen), the pot of sugar (at the other end of the kitchen). At the table I would stir milk and sugar into my tea, read the newspaper, as my father would snort derisively. How can you put milk in your tea!? And sugar! he would say. You're Chinese! You don't drink tea with milk! It's not Chinese tea, I would protest. It's English tea! Which of course only drew another snort of derision from the other end of the table, from behind that morning's newspaper.
In Taiwan I would drink tea scented with jasmine (always a disappointment somehow, the fragrance more beguiling than the taste), or with the faintly dusty perfume of chrysansthemum blossoms, countless different kinds with magical names of distant places. It came in tiny cups, refreshed constantly, at every meal, endless cups of tea, clear dark amber with a few twiggy leaves at the bottom, all without milk. Sometimes, when I am feeling nostalgic I drink black currant tea and dream of the time I spent in Russia. And then there is, of course, the English afternoon tea, which as far as I am concerned is merely an excuse to eat hot scones with jam and Devonshire cream. Once I had afternoon tea with a friend in one of those posh London hotels, in a long room like a grand jewel box with soft lighting and fountains of flowers, with plates of sandwiches and cakes and cups of tea in translucent white cups.
But today it's cold outside, and I am not quite awake as I write hunched over a little tray-table on my living room floor. But there is tea, rounded out with the wild sweetness of honey, creamy with milk, hot and fragrant, to send me out into the day. Outside is all cold and gray and fringed with snow, but inside I am warm, and there is tea, with milk. Hello, world. It's nice to see you.