Camellia, staring out the tiny nine by twelve-inch double insulated window of the airplane, saw nothing but large white fluffy clouds bouncing back beams of joyous sun into the cab. She wished she was as happy and carefree as the clouds they flew over. She felt more like angry bashing thunderclouds, lightning bolts clashing against each other in fits of rage.
She was eighteen years old and still being forced to visit her extended family in India over the summer. This was her last summer of freedom before her exciting college journey begins, and she can’t even spend it with her friends in San Diego. Going to parties and bonfires, getting the chance to finally kiss Braxton Matthews, all the shopping she could be doing with her girlfriends…that life was now 8,000 miles behind her. Instead, she will be sitting on some rickety chair on a nearly dilapidated porch all summer with Nani and Papi, staring at endless rows of ugly green shrubs and the cousins who pick off their leaves. There isn’t even cellphone signal in Darjeeling.
She bounced her forehead sullenly off the window, wishing it would open and suck her out. Her mother elbowed her sharply.
Camellia huffed loudly, pulling her earbud from her ear. “What is it now, Amma?”
“Watch the attitude,” her mother hissed sharply, “and stop hitting your head against the window! Are you not happy to see Nani and Papi and all your brothers and sisters?”
“They’re cousins, Amma. And frankly, no. They won’t even speak English to me. They make jokes and laugh right in front of me.”
“Then speak Bengali!”
“I don’t know how.”
“All these summers you spend here and you still don’t know your native tongue! Sometimes, I regret having raised you American. You spoiled, spoiled girl.”
“Sorry your greatest displeasure in life has been raising your daughter.”
Camellia jabbed her earbud back into her ear and cranked up her screaming metal music, drowning out her mothers’ remarks. The look of sore disappointment and head shaking was enough to get the point across.
Her ears began to pop as the plane slowly descended out of the bright, cheery clouds. She could see the tiny dots of color along the hillsides growing slowly larger, but not by much. The dots of color became little houses stacked on the hillsides. These same colorful houses would be seen throughout Siliguri as they’d drive along the narrow, winding roads towards Darjeeling.
Two and a half hours of driving six thousand feet up the hillsides in a comically small green jalopy, feeling like clowns in a tiny car with oversized luggage, they pulled up to the familiar blue house overlooking a green shrub farm. Nani and Papi were waving from the porch steps. A few heads popped up from different spots in the field as the noisy car rambled down the dirt road. They were carrying large woven baskets full of leaves on their backs. A few waved, setting their bags down and rushing to the house.
“Camellia!” she hears as she opens the door, her wrinkled Nani approaching her in a bright red kurta. A jumble of other words flowed from her as she gripped her in a tight hug, but Camellia couldn’t make them out. She heard her own mother behind her, talking to Nani in an equal jumble of excited Bengali.
Nani pulled her back at arm’s length, a large smile across her sun kissed cheeks. “Time for tea!”
“Oh, Nani that’s okay. I don’t really like—ow, Amma!”
Camellia’s mother jabbed her again sharply in the ribs. She sighed, sitting down in the small wooden chair on the porch as her Nani went inside and fetched a cup of tea. Her mother bustled inside behind her, the two of them talking excitedly over each other.
Papi wasn’t much for words, especially since he didn’t speak English. He nodded happily at Camellia, pointing at the yellow faded words on his grey trucker hat. ‘Sunny San Diego!’ it said. She had gotten him that hat a few summers ago. It was rugged now, and dirty.
“I should have brought you a new one, Papi,” Camellia said, knowing he wouldn’t understand. He nodded anyways before walking off the porch into the field, where her cousins were sneering and giggling at her. She didn’t even bother saying hello to them.
Nani shuffled out, holding a delicate cup of tea out for her.
“Thanks,” Camellia said, trying to smile. She didn’t like tea. Never cared for it. She preferred something stronger, more productive. Like coffee.
“This tea is family tradition, you know,” Nani spoke proudly, looking out over the fields. “We make it here. Your Papi and I, all your brothers and sisters….”
“…cousins…” she thought to herself.
“We pick them, dry them, grind them, brew them. It is rewarding to drink, you think?”
“Sounds great, Nani. I just wished I liked tea.”
Nani looked hurt at this, and Camellia wishes she hadn’t said anything.
“You don’t like your tea?”
“Oh, no. It’s okay Nani I’ll drink it.”
A rush of Bengali came out of her mouth, answered by her mother storming out of the house, hand on hips, and glaring at Camellia.
Nani shouted, “You have been spoiled, like an American! You do not appreciate things of hard work.”
She looked down sheepishly at her cup of tea, wishing she would have just shut up and forced it down as usual, like ever other summer. From sun up to sun down, all they’d drink is tea. Tea, tea, tea. As mother and Nani argued, Camellia took small sips as she looked out over the field, her cousins watching her as they picked. She wished she could just ignore them all.
“Well,” her mother started, “tomorrow you will begin to understand and appreciate things differently. You will be with your Papi in the field.”
“What! Amma, no. Please. This is my vacation.”
“Yes,” Nani laughed, “yes! You learn on your vacation and teach your American friends what to do. Then you will all like tea. Good!”
“Papi doesn’t even speak English!”
“And you are in India, and you don’t speak Bengali! Another shame,” Nani contested, standing up and taking the cup from her hands. “You have many things to learn this summer.”
In the beginning, it was torture. The first two weeks, Camellia was shoved out of her mattress by her mother and out the door by 4:30 a.m. to eat breakfast of dosas and tea, and in the field with a large, awkward woven basket on her back by 5. Since she couldn’t understand Papi, she simply watched at first. Watched how he delicately pinched off the bright green top leaves and buds of the shrubs, throwing them over his shoulder in his large basket. It didn’t seem too hard, but when the leaves broke in her hands as she quickly yanked, Papi gently patted her hand and shook his head no, drawing her attention to his delicate pull on the buds. Her cousins laughs and jokes sounded off from different rows.
Eventually, she got used to it. Her cousins and Papi could pick a whole basket by the time she was nearly halfway full, but she was always double as tired as they were by the end of the day. She now wished she could be the bored girl she always was every summer sitting on the porch with a dull tea in her hands instead of this back breaking work that made her fingers ache from the same motion eight hours a day.
“Dhan'yabāda,” Papi would say, coaxing me to repeat.
“Kon yabat,” Camellia tried to repeat, answered by Papi’s goofy smile and a few cousins’ giggles. She couldn’t help but smile. She knew it didn’t sound right to them.
“Your turn,” Camellia chimed, “say, ‘thank you.’”
Papi furrowed his eyebrows in concentration. “Thongyoo.”
We all laughed as we picked leaves and buds. Her sore fingers were getting used to the long hours, and in truth she was starting to be glad she was out in the field. It did make time move faster.
“Camellia!” Nani called from the field one day, “come! It is time you learn the next thing.”
She looked over at Papi. “Kon yabat.”
He winked and waved goodbye.
She dropped her basket at the edge of the field and followed Nani into a large building on the side of the house. She never went in here growing up, since more of her cousins were usually in here, ready to pick on her.
“We must lay the leaves to dry, roll them, then put them in low heat oven here,” she waved her hand to a large round oven, the sent of fresh greenery filling the room. “Then, we sort them. From full leaves to small pieces.”
“Really? Don’t they all taste the same?”
“No,” Nani chuckled, “No full leaves are much more valuable than the bits. The small ones steep more quickly, and become bitter if steeped too long. Come, you pull the leaves from the ovens and sort.”
So, Camellia learned the process of sorting. It was a long process. Like trying to pull apart a million-piece puzzle and organizing them all into bins based on color. The big leaves from the tiny scraps of leaves. She watched her cousins sort the leaves quickly, laughing and jibing with each other. Her cousin Samesh showed her how to dig through for the full pieces and place them carefully in another basket, and Camellia quickly caught on.
“Kon yabat,” Camellia said to him, who smiled largely and laughed.
As the bulky tray of shriveled tea leaves began to disappear, smaller black bits remained.
“Fannings,” Nani said when she came in to check on her progress, “We save those. Those are sold for tea bags.”
Camellia found herself almost eager to start each day, now oblivious to how quickly her summer was disappearing. She learned the importance of gently picking the top leaves and buds from the shrubs. She learned that they were at the perfect altitude for growing the leaves, here at the foothills of the Himalayas. Also, there is two flushes with tea; the first in March, when the plants come out of their hibernation and their flavors burst forth, and then after that in May is the second flush. Depending on the leaves, it can be Oolong Tea, White Tea, Green Tea, or Silver Tips Imperial. The processes are different for each. November through February are when the bushes are asleep. Instead, the bushes are carefully pruned. The different processes of drying, rolling, baking, and sorting she was getting good at by the end of summer. She no longer filled her mind with concerns of shopping, parties, and Braxton Matthews. Instead, she filled her baskets with leaves and learned more Bengali from Papi and her cousins.
The last day of summer had come, and Camellia sat down cheerfully on the porch after a long day of picking and sorting. Nani brought out a well-earned cup of tea to her. “Dhan'yabāda!” Camellia beamed gratefully.
Nani’s eyebrows shot up, laughing, “Very good! Very good!”
Camellia took a large gulp, and closed her eyes, tasting the nutty flavor profile followed by the flowering aftertaste.
“You like tea, see?” Nani had questioned.
“I guess I do,” she agreed, “It’s light and refreshing.” The thought of drinking coffee now didn’t seem as appealing as her families Darjeeling tea does. How could she have underestimated her family for this long?
“It is your name, after all,” her mother chimed in as she stepped out onto the porch.
“Yes. Camellia. Comes from the tea leaves. Camellia sinensis is the species of tea leaves here in Darjeeling.”
She was stunned, “I never knew that.”
“Tea is in your family. Your blood,” Nani said, patting her on the shoulder, “I am sad to see you go, but you come back.”
“I will,” Camellia answered truthfully. Next summer, definitely. She can bring whatever books and studies she has and work it into her time on the field or sorting leaves. She can even study Bengali while she’s in San Diego.
She dreaded packing her suitcase that night, and even more so waking up the next morning. Instead of preparing her basket, she was rolling her suitcase to the funny little green jalopy.
“Thongyoo,” Papi said, hugging her tightly.
“I’ll bring you a new hat next summer, Papi,” she said, wiping a tear that slid down her cheek.
Camellia couldn’t think of anything better than summers in Darjeeling.