a cup of tea?

This is the last of a series of 12 articles published in the Adventist Review 

“Where can I get a cup of tea?” he asked, winking exaggeratedly. Must be a nervous twitch, I thought as I pointed down the road and said, “Try the blue stall under the big tree.” His request was strange when tea stalls are plain to see along the roads of Nepal. It took several inquiries about tea before I realized there was something more to tea than tea—especially since all the lost tea drinkers seemed to have a nervous twitch.

Tea here is synonymous with gratuity. Someone does you a favor, you slip them some money. And the favor can be as simple as helping you find the bus station or as complicated as getting an ultrasound machine out of the airport customs office.

“Tea” is a contradiction to my clear cut, no-nonsense Adventist way of doing things. When everything is either black or white, life is simple and uncomplicated; every action redeeming or damning. So I want nothing to do with tea–the sleazy kind you pass under the table or the caffeinated kind you slurp.

Lessons learned from my upbringing in a typical, cloistered Adventist campus play my conscience all the time. But reality is that here in Nepal nothing gets done without at least a tiny sip of tea (If you know what I mean). Last year I met a director of Southern Asia Division who has two different business cards. One reflects his position as Brother So and So, Director of Something Good and Pure; while the other insists he owns a tractor company. The card he presents depends on who he is having tea with. He neither moonlights nor gets two pay checks; The two business cards and the lie are connected to his sincere work for the Lord—It’s just that there are places and situations that he can have access to only as the owner of a tractor company.

These low-key, Mafia-like dealings shatter my Adventist black and white, do’s and don’ts system. To add confusion to my already rattled conscience I think of my Ethics class in College where we discussed (without coming to satisfactory conclusions) grey situations –like telling one lie to protect the truth or taking one life to save many. And I think of Mission Institute where we learned about conceptualization and how morality is often intertwined with culture and that missionaries need to be flexible without being intolerant. And I ask myself “Whose standard should guide me? Is there room for compromise? How can I be ‘Christian-ly’ different when I’m easing into their way of doing things?” So many perplexities in so many shades of grey when I step out of my black and white world!

My husband has taken to tea drinking—both kinds. He does it with ease; yet I know he doesn’t like tea—either kind. So I asked him how and why he did it. In his observations and explanations I found understanding.

Tea—the drink—is weak, milky, and extremely sweet. It is offered when you visit a home or an office. To refuse the beverage would be an insult. You can’t claim to be lactose intolerant, diabetic or even just too Adventist. Talking business over a cup of tea binds two people with a shared purpose. Tea—the gratuity—works the same way. You would offend a Nepali by calling  it a bribe.  It’s a gesture of confidence in the person and assures smooth transactions in the future. Nepalis never forget the people they’ve had tea with. You become friends for life (or until you stop having  tea with them).

“Tea is all about building relationships,” was Roy’s closing phrase. “And without relationships, YOU will never get anything done and THEY may never get a glimpse of Christianity.”

I hear many tea drinkers say of my husband: That Christian is a man of his word. A trustworthy man. An honest man. A fair man. May he live a 100 years.

Of me they say nothing. All I get is a wary smile.

What is right, what is wrong? Don’t ask me. One thing’s for sure—”Missionary-ing,” even in Jesus’ day, was done in a very grey world. As for me, even with Roy’s explanation, I continue having trouble seeing the value of compromising my standards in the grey area of tea drinking.

Oh for black and white again where everything is clear!

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2 thoughts on “a cup of tea?

  1. This is a difficult point for a westerner to grasp under normal circumstances Fylvia. As an administrator I was confronted with the reality of dealing on the sub-contient with the need to get things done, and get them done on time. I had no conscience issue paying money to keep things moving but I drew the line at paying to do something which would bring reproach to the organization because it was shady. I learned that this situation is not confined to the sub-continent either as I moved to the East and had to do business there for ten years.

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