After five months it was time to head back to Qingdao and wait for my flight home. There was really only one place for me to stay – Wheat hostel, where I spent my first three weeks. Remember huge? His name is Maizi, which means “Wheat”.
Maizi saw me enter, came into my room and asked if I had eaten. I said no and he told me to come and eat with him. I said ok and put on my sheets, when he waved his hands and told me to put down my sheets, I can do that later, and come and eat. I walked into the kitchen and they had laid out a massive bowl of rice and egg with microshrimp, then they left me with their daughter, and we spent the rest of dinner alternately glancing at each other in silence while we ate.
I was invited up to the third floor, to the perfect room. He had all his tea supplies set up and we spent the next three hours drinking tea from all over China. Finally, after these five months, I had come back to be able to talk to Maizi. We had so much in common. We discussed the different Chinese territories. We talked about how Yunnan province alone has 32 languages. He told me about his travels through Xinjiang province, my one regret on this trip being that I never made it there. He put on middle eastern music from the western territories and we talked about the pictures on the wall behind him that he took along his travels.
We talked, we drank tea, he smoked. He pulled out a special tea, tea from Yunnan province in the southwest of China, it’s rare and expensive and we got to talking about the history of tea and how it spread. Tea comes from China, and it was mainly because of tea that China had the highest GDP of any sovereign nation for most of history. When Marco Polo and other merchants walked the Silk Road (which Maize has walked on two separate occasions) tea was introduced to western Europe, where it exploded. Tea was in such high demand, that when China closed it’s borders to England, British spies snuck into China, stole tea seeds and planted them in British controlled India, which is what Chai is – Chinese tea leaves grown in India. Unfortunately, the Indian terrain just isn’t the same. He could tell that I was interested, and I told him how much I liked to drink tea, so he said that tomorrow he would take me to a special place in Qingdao to buy some. I told him I didn’t have a lot of money, he waved his hand back and forth and said that he knows the place to go. Then we really got to talking. The fact that I could now communicate seemed to humor him and he began by asking the question that I’m asked very often, how many guns do I own. I told him I didn’t own any, and he looked at his friend and laughed and asked why not? Don’t all Americans own guns? Then I was asked why I think American culture spreads so far? Our movies, our music, his friend was wearing a Columbia sweatshirt, so much from our country spread out across the world. He said everything is so big for us, even our military is so big. I said that the Chinese military is also big, and they both stopped and looked at me, and Maize said, “You don’t know, you’re American. I know, because I’m Chinese.” I responded with, “I think our countries have a lot in common and a good relationship.” His friend said, “Yes I hope so, I hope so, but I don’t know the future.” In over five months traveling through China, this was the first time the blanket had been lifted up for me, just to peek under, just for a moment, just a few seconds, a few sentences, and then Maize, cigar in hand, pointed at the beer by my feet and asked, “How many beers can you drink?” and that was that.
The next day I was in a cab with him, going to a part of the city I never knew existed. We passed by the old German district, German style buildings with Chinese roofs, and soon arrived at a street market. Walking through, Maize ahead scuffing his shoes and swaying back and forth as he walked, I felt the eyes on me again; a few weeks in Beijing and then a touristy part of Qingdao made me forget about the stares, but this district doesn’t get many foreigners.
He led me into a warehouse whose entrance was hidden behind fish and fruit stands. This building looked like a mall that had been abandoned half a century ago and then repopulated with tea sellers. Each room had a different business, specializing in either green tea, red tea, Pu Er tea, tea pots, some were separated by region, and some had other accessories. We walked into most, the sellers would look at Maize, and then slowly turn and look at me, wondering what the hell this odd pair was doing. One man had a nice Chinese frog style jacket, a long necklace with horns coming out of it as he rotated two walnuts in hand while he tried to haggle us, but Maize knew his tea, and demanded a good price with good service. He talked them down, down, down, and then would walk away. I asked him how much one packet was, he told me, and I commented on how cheap it seemed. He stared me straight in the eye and said, “we want to look some more” but really his eyes said, “shut the fuck up and let me handle this.” And handle it he did.
We each bought a packet of Black Tea from Hunan province and, bags in hand, the sellers knew we were serious. Each shop we walked into, we were invited to sit down and try different teas. Teas from the Southwest, Northwest, Southern coast, fermented teas, White tea, Green tea, Red tea, Black teas, all teas. In each one Maize would open up their inventory, they would hand him a metal plate which he then filled with raw loose leaves, held it up to the light and commented on the quality.
And in this course I spent my final days in China. Each evening I walked in the front entrance and a cook or cleaning lady would let me know that Maize wanted to see me upstairs, and as I walked up the stairs there would be music playing and his cigar smoke would fill the air. My final night, when I arrived, he handed me some pistachios and commented on how the pistachios were American, the cigar was Cuban, and the tea was Chinese.
We spent most of our time talking about the different trips he’s taken across his country. We discussed the enormity of western Chinese territories like Xinjiang province. He taught me traditional Gong Fu tea ceremony. But a lot of the time we just sat there in silence. Sometimes for an hour at a time. He would smoke his Cubans or his pipe, the whole room would fill with smoke and ancient Chinese music, I’d crack open some pistachios, and we’d drink an insane amount of tea.