It is tea season in the village, and all around Hangzhou. Hangzhou is Mecca for green tea. This is where the famous Dragon Well Longjing Tea comes from. All of winter is forgotten and spring has burst forth. The first leaves picked before the Qingming (pronounced Chingming) or Tomb Sweeping Holiday is the most prized. These are the smallest and most tender leaves; this tea can fetch up to $1,000 per pound. This is the time when farmers make all their money.
Wide brimmed bamboo woven hats dot the countryside as women gather to pick the tea. They sing tea songs, and I sit mesmerized listening to soft atonal murmurs in the spring breeze. The tunes are broken up by staccato and high pitched screaming. It sounds like they want to kill each other, but laughter follows. It is unsettling. The Chinese are loud in almost all communication, but never to Westerners. The best pickers are supposed to be young virgins. I think it is because it gives the idea of purity to the tea. Maybe they are purer and less distracted, but if you ask me, I believe it is more about exploiting women, and that they are more coordinated. None of the women on the mountain here look too young, so maybe the culture is changing with mandatory schooling. I hope so. The age of sexual consent in China is marriage…period. Hymen checks are still done in the country side. After you are married a lot of messing around happens. It is accepted on all sides. Welcome to the Chinese mind.
Tea picking is hard work. Not so much backbreaking like hoeing or weeding, but fastidious, careful and focused. Only the new green leaves are plucked, they shoot out from little branches, a bright green. Tea leaves grow in a sort of trident when they are young. You have to nip the budding tea leaves, much like pinching the growing bits of the tomato plant in between branches to ensure the sap goes to the fruit. A really good tea picker can pick two kilos a day. That is a really good tea picker. I worked for an hour and a half and got about four ounces. The Ai laughed at my progress. The secret is to have your hands palms facing up with the thumb and index tips touching. If you can imagine a reclining OK sign, you will have it. They work with both hands and the plucking motion has a twist to it so that the little tea leaf bud comes whole with the three leaves intact. They strip a branch and move onto the next. When their hands are full, it is delicately placed into a wicker basket attached to their waist. It looks effortless. The idea is to have as little wasted motion as possible. The bodies hardly move but the hands are a flurry of activity. They seem to see the leaves that want to be picked. I look at an area and see lots of the bright green shoots, move over to the spot, and they all seem to have disappeared. It is frustrating, like trying to see what is in a fractal image. “No God damned it; I cannot see the cheetah running after the gazelle. All I see are purple and green dots.” I am told it takes time. Well, there is always tomorrow and the next day, until they decide it is no longer profitable to pick tea. Since my brother does not sell his tea, we pick all through the season, until the rains come in early May.