About the Author

Jennifer de Bruijn is a Zimbabwean on a mission to convert her fellow American students to tea drinking. She likes playing with motorbikes, airplanes and pistols, although unfortunately she doesn't have much time for any of that at MIT. She is a member of the class of 2012, and plans to be an engineer, but is still trying to decide between Civil and Aero/Astro engineering.

We Don't Have Time for Tea

by Jennifer de Bruijn

The other day I had yet another misunderstanding with my roommates, but this time it was of a serious nature. They didn’t know what an electric kettle was. If you realize what that implied, then you’ll understand the gravity of the issue.

It all started when I blithely, yet seriously, announced that we should get a kettle for the room, so we could make tea, coffee or cocoa whenever we felt like it. Strangely, they seemed to think it wouldn’t be very convenient. “We’d still have to go downstairs to the kitchen to use the stove,” Jillian said. How, I wondered, is a stove involved?

Americans live faster and make more out of every waking moment, which consequently has produced one of the most successful countries on earth. It may therefore seem to be a silly question to ask, but is this a good thing?

Upon being questioned, she explained to me, in the simple terms she has become used to using for my benefit, that one has to put the kettle on the stove to heat the water. Incredulous at what seems to me a very old fashioned way of doing things, I tried to explain the concept of a kettle that is plugged directly into the wall. Light seemed to dawn and she exclaimed, “Oh, you mean a coffee maker!” Further attempts at description eventually prompted Sandra to remark, in the tones of one recalling a rare and obscure device seen at a grandmother’s house a long time ago, “Oh, I think I might have seen one of those once”. This was, needless to say, a little discouraging. Americans, it would seem, do not recognize the importance of tea in daily life.

"Teatime” is stereotypically an English event, but it is in fact a little ritual also held dear in the hearts of many Zimbabweans. It occurs twice a day, at around 11am and then again at 4pm. As the hour approaches, someone fills and switches on the kettle and gets out the cups, milk, sugar and biscuits. (I must briefly diverge here to mention that when I use the term “biscuits” I do not mean American biscuits. I refer to any small, sweet, baked object, which would go well with “a cuppa tea”, such as cookies or brownies. I have yet to discover the equivalent generic word in Americanspeak, due to the fact that Americans do not observe this repast.) When the kettle boils, a teapot is filled and upon the cry of “Tea’s made!”, everyone in the vicinity will abandon their tasks to flock to the table. On busy days, the event may last only twelve minutes, but on some lazy Sunday afternoons (also something unknown here) guests may come round for a couple of hours of tea and chit chat.

All this talk of tea may seem a little unusual, but in fact it is a symbol of the cultural divide between America and other countries, such as England and Zimbabwe. Americans live faster and make more out of every waking moment, which consequently has produced one of the most successful countries on earth. It may therefore seem to be a silly question to ask, but is this a good thing?

To be completely honest, I must admit, at this point, that all my time in the United States so far has been spent at MIT, so I may have a slightly skewed viewpoint. It is a common conception that the pace of life at MIT is faster than elsewhere, or so I’ve been told. At a place where it is possible to have a schedule that doesn’t even allow for lunch, I suppose it is hardly remarkable that the thought of tea doesn’t even cross most people’s minds. I think it should.

Teatime is not, as some people may think, a time waster.

There is much to be said in favor of a midmorning tea break. It is a chance to catch one’s breath after a rushed morning that quite possibly started off with a brisk healthy jog all the way across campus, inspired by the fact that one was late for class. It is also a chance to boost blood sugar levels (which may be particularly low if breakfast was neglected due to the aforementioned haste) with a small chocolate chip cookie. Teatime is also a social event, where one takes a moment to chat with friends, catch up on weekend news and remember that we’re not as alone as we might feel when we scurry through the university corridors. It is a time period useful for checking the day’s “To Do” list, adding or removing activities in the light of recent news and revised time expectations. Of course, there is the drink itself, just the right kind of healthy pick-me-up. A good, hot, strong cup of tea can be a very refreshing drink, with the remarkable ability to revive one without leaving a nagging feeling that one has been taking drugs, in the way coffee does. Afterwards one sets off with fresh determination.

I realize and am coming to accept that, among American college students, tea will probably never be very important. However, I was really sad to learn that it is not important among American families either. “Doesn’t having to use the stove make it more inconvenient to make tea?” I asked Jillian on that day. “Americans don’t have time for tea” was the reply. Unfortunately I have observed this myself when visiting an American family over a holiday weekend. Each member of the family is involved in different, all-engrossing pursuits, which will occupy them for the whole afternoon. In my family we also spend our time in different ways, but we tear ourselves away from our activities at teatime and congregate as a proper family. We can talk together about what we have been up to, and other members can give their opinions or advice. In a way, it promotes a more cohesive family unit, since each member is up-to-date with the changing daily small problems and successes of the other members, and can provide support or praise when it is due. A lot can happen in a day, and if the “team” only meets once or twice, small incidents will have been forgotten and will never be shared. So there will be just that little bit more that we never know about each other.

You pause to feel the breeze, to sniff the pollen in the air, and to admire the dappled shade.

Tea-time is also a perfect opportunity to thrash out problems in a group environment. It is a casual setting when one can bring up any issue for discussion, and many fascinating conversations can result. Teatime is not, as some people might think, a time waster. In fact teatime helps people share knowledge, broaden awareness and add just that little extra variety to life.

I was shocked to discover that some people consider teatime a tradition imposed by the British and an unhealthy addiction. It may be so popular because it is tradition, but traditions have a way of dying out if there is nothing to be gained from them, whereas teatime, on the other hand, has been adopted enthusiastically in places such as Zimbabwe. It is now as much a part of a native Shona man’s life as an Englishman’s, and both would probably be equally upset if anyone were to try to take it away. As to tea being an addiction, I have to admit that perhaps it is for some people, but then so are air and water. And no one thinks it is bad to require oxygen regularly. Most people have something which helps them enjoy life, and why not tea? In America people seem to have chosen coffee instead, but coffee can very definitely be considered addictive. Many people consider it bad to drink coffee several times a day, but no one has ever considered it bad for your health to have multiple cups of tea. Three cups a day (not forgetting the all important tea-with-breakfast) is a minimum, and people often have more than one at one sitting. In fact, when someone refuses a second/third/fourth cup, the common reply is “I know someone who’s had three/four/five and survived!”

The afternoon tea break is often a more prolonged event than the morning break. Back home on sunny days, we would often migrate outside to repose around a garden table in the shade. It serves much the same purpose as the morning break, but is more relaxed. You pause to feel the breeze, to sniff the pollen in the air, and to admire the dappled shade. Sure, if you wanted, you could get in an extra half hour of work instead, but in an ideal world, most of the country would be on its break at that time and there would be less incentive to spoil the occasion with work. Instead, why not watch the baby woodpeckers learning to fly from the tree overhead? Instead of always rushing to get something else done so that you will have more time to get more things done, why not take a moment to appreciate what you have achieved? I can guarantee that everything that needs to be done will be, and you will be happier because you have taken a moment outside of busy time to remember to live.