The Sands, and Teahouses, of Time

When love bubbled over with my first Chinese boyfriend in a Taiwanese teahouse, I tried to hold on to that sweetness through the teahouse he left behind (image from Wikimedia Commons)

That Taiwanese teahouse in Zhengzhou, with its weather-beaten wooden facade and rickety sign, faded away beside the signs and storefronts splashed in reds and yellows and blues on the Western end of Weiwu Road.

It didn’t sparkle like the clothing stores on Huayuan Road, where beautiful apparel and even more beautiful salespeople glimmered across the pearl white floors, to a technopop soundtrack. It never shook with crowds like the outdoor vegetable market, where stacks of caged pigeons squawked right opposite the tractors filled with the freshest watermelons in the city. It couldn’t even out-class the luxury of those Beijing-style fabric slippers sold just down the street, in silky pinks and reds and blues fit for an Empress.

But I loved that teahouse more than any other place in Zhengzhou for one simple reason — I fell in love there in 1999.

Love didn’t come fast, or easy. For the first few months when I worked out at the gym just across the street, I passed it every single day, without even a glance or nod. To me, it was just another anonymous place that could have been a pile of sand, for all I cared.

But then I did care, once Yao came into my life, in all of his sleek, sexy and sullen James Dean perfection, dressed in a black leather jacket as dark as his mysterious melancholy. When my heart raced after our first dinner together, I thought it was just another adolescent crush. Embarrassed, I wanted to just box my feelings away like all of the Barbie Dolls and little girl hairclips of my past.

Then he took me to that teahouse one Sunday afternoon. Over two Taiwanese bubble teas, the truth bubbled through to the surface of my own heart — I loved him with an uncontrollable depth that plunged far beyond the bottom of my tea cup. And, I began to realize, so did he, because he overflowed with confessionals that he had never before poured over with anyone else.

Not long after, our our passions percolated over into romance — a real boyfriend/girlfriend love that translated into steamy weekends at his apartment, hand-in-hand walks around the gardens of Zhengzhou University, and the occasional afternoon out at the Taiwanese teahouse, his favorite in the city. Bubble tea never tasted so sweet.

But not even tea lasts — or boils — forever. Yao left for the UK to pursue his dreams of higher education, English league soccer, and the Manchester sound. He left me with a promise of reuniting in the UK — and the memory of him, enshrined in that teahouse across the street from my gym. That teahouse stood like the protectorate of our relationship — as long as the teahouse remained, so did Yao and I.

And we did. Through January, February and March, we remained, though a virtual presence that survived through phone calls, e-mails and the rare postcard.

But in April, the teahouse disappeared. One day, I emerged from the gym, and looked across the street for that rough-and-tumble shack, and only found a pile of sand as yellow as the Yellow River. Just the day before, the teahouse had stood proudly across from the gym — and, just like that, it was gone. Nothing. Just a pile of sand.

I couldn’t even bicycle back to the school where I taught English, instead pushing my bicycle solemnly down the street. How could this have happened? And how could it have come so fast? Why no sign, or boards, or even any visual warning of the impending doom? I just couldn’t understand.

In the end, I lost more than the teahouse — because Yao and I watched our relationship crumble to the ground weeks later.

After Yao and I broke up, I hated the pile of sand more, especially when I saw bulldozers sullying my past with the business of the future — yet another anonymous storefront, selling something to someone. I wanted so desperately to drink my sorrows away with the sweetness of a bubble tea, alone, in that little Taiwanese teahouse that was no longer there. Now I never would.

I never quite forgave Zhengzhou for destroying my last daily reminder of my love with Yao, but was the better for it all. Nothing lasts forever — not life, love, or even a teahouse serving bubble tea. And maybe China, with its breakneck pace of development, offers a sobering lesson in impermanence with every pile of sand left behind, and memories swept away.

How has the pace of change in China affected you?

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