“Ah, I’m so hungry now my friend. Do you think we should have eggs for breakfast this morning, or tea?” The first time I ever heard this question, I was perplexed. To my American ears, tea is a beverage most usually consumed between meals, not a food and certainly not a meal unto itself. To me, having tea for breakfast sounded like having no meal at all. Somewhat taken aback the first time I heard this question, I managed to half-stutter out an answer to my friend John who had just asked me it: “well, if we only have tea for breakfast, won’t we still be hungry afterwards?” But it was clear that my own question sounded equally nonsensical to John, since he just responded “no, why would we?” Still not knowing how we could be full after only drinking some tea, but wanting equally to be flexible and to go with the flow, I replied “Sure, tea sounds great!”
Sitting down to have our tea about thirty minutes later, my initial perplexity was replaced with new ones. I could see that we would not be too hungry after finishing breakfast, since John had served us each a tall stack of plain white bread slices on two thin plates. He had also filled large bright lime green plastic jug with boiling water, and between us he had prepared a bowl containing two plastic bags filled with powdered milk and large-granuled sugar. But where exactly, I wondered, was the tea? Worried about appearing rude or ungrateful, however, instead of asking this I simply watched as John poured boiling water into his mug, added a full spoonful of the powdered milk, and then four heaping tablespoons full of sugar. I imitated him by adding powdered milk and sugar to my mug of boiling water, though to his shock and evident dismay I constrained myself to only one spoonful of sugar. Even with that single spoonful of sugar I still felt like I was drinking a warm milkshake for breakfast. But hey, I love dessert at any time of day, and the sweetness of the tea helped balance the blandness (for me) of the tall stacks of unadorned plain white bread that John and I consumed together. By the end of our tea I was definitely quite full.
As I would learn in the following months and years living in southern Zambia for my dissertation fieldwork research, tea or tii as it is written in Citonga is more usually refers to a certain kind of meal than it does to the beverage per se. Specifically, it refers to a way of eating breakfast that includes consuming bread, either as rolls or as sliced white bread the way I experienced it with John, and a boiling beverage of milk and sugar that may or may not include the leaves of the tea plant or any of its derivatives. Generally speaking the more urban or middle class a family was, the more likely that the tii I consumed with them was to be made with the leaves of the tea plant. In more rural contexts, however, the tii I shared with local friends or hosts almost never contained any tea leaves. People there rarely if ever consumed tii outside the context the of the morning meal, though even this was usually not an everyday occurrence as tii would be alternated with other breakfast foods such as chips (i.e. French fries), eggs, or nsima (an African polenta also known as sadza, pap, or ugali in other areas).
Thus, in many ways my experiences of consuming tea with my Zambian friends and hosts was in many respects the diametric opposite of my experiences drinking tea (cha) with friends amongst the Chinese expatriate community in Zambia. Indeed, practically the only commonality between the tii consumed by my Zambian friends and the cha drunk by my Chinese friends was that both beverages contained boiling water. But whereas in rural southern Zambia this boiling water was filled with milk and sugar but frequently contained no tea leaves at all, the cha consumed in the Chinese community generally contained nothing but boiling water and tea leaves, with my Chinese friends reacting with horror to the thought of adding even the smallest amount of milk or sugar to their cha. Instead, the cha they drank highlighted and foregrounded the tea leaves themselves: unlike the tea I usually drank in America, the cha I shared with Chinese friends in Zambia did not involve any tea bags or similar devices to keep the leaves themselves at a remove from the drinker’s mouth. Instead, whole, loose leaves were added directly to the cup, where they added a distinctly tactile sensation to the experience of drinking cha as I would have to physically filter out the leaves with my lips while sipping the tea.
While some cultural and social forms tend to travel easily amongst these different communities in Zambia, in my experience culinary traditions such as the consumption of tii or cha represents one of the hardest barriers members of the Chinese expatriate and local Zambian communities tend to erect between each other. Though things like language, religion, or even traditional medicine are sometimes shared amongst these groups, I never saw an expatriate from China consuming Zambian-style tii or a Zambian sipping Chinese-style cha. Since the consumption of both tii and cha can represent explicitly social experiences of sharing with others, the usual unwillingness of people from either community to join in the tea-drinking practices of the other is striking.
(Justin Haruyama is a Ph.D. candidate in UC Davis’s anthropology department, with a designated emphasis in critical theory. Justin is interested in the social interactions between Chines expatriate and local Zambian communities as they come to interact in contexts of work and religion in southern Zambia. Justin is the recipient of the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad fellowship, the National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant in Cultural Anthropology, and the UC Davis Mellon Indian Ocean Worlds dissertation research grant to support his continuing ethnographic fieldwork in Zambia.)