I don’t remember when chai tea became a thing in the USA. A quick Google and Wikipedia search gave me no help beyond “in recent years”, however I have an educated guess, at least as to when I first heard about it. I recall first hearing about this drink that everyone kept referring to as chai tea shortly after I went to college. I wasn’t a big tea drinker by any means. My mom occasionally made chamomile tea for my brother and I when we were sick, but between the fact that we didn’t live with my mom and the fact that chamomile is revolting, I didn’t develop a liking for tea.
During my first year of college, I lived on the same floor as a girl named Amy who I had multiple Spanish classes with. Amy and I regularly spent time in her dorm room studying for class. As Amy was an avid tea drinker, this lead to her often offering me tea. Though I politely declined a few times, eventually I started having a cup every now and again. My usual fare was raspberry or Earl Grey, but Amy almost always had a tea she referred to as masala chai. In one of the very few conversations my mom and I had during my college years, I asked her about this tea, only to learn that masala chai was the same thing that most people around me — including my mom — regularly referred to as chai tea.
I was left in a bit of a conundrum mentally. Amy’s tea smelled really good. Since I was still relatively new to liking tea, I preferred to play it safe with the teas I liked, however based on smell alone, I figured that chai was a tea that I’d like. On the other hand, I’d regularly heard both sides of my black coffee drinking, eat the same meals for life family talking about how chai tea wasn’t just bad. No. Chai tea was part of a foreigner conspiracy to tear apart what it means to be American.
I can’t recall exactly who in my family said those words. I have my guesses, but names are better left unsaid when a ten-year-old memory is fuzzy. But I do remember the sentiment coming up more than once. This benign drink — one that smelled really good — was as dangerous to my American identity now as communism was in the 1980s, hippie counterculture was in the 1960s, and alcohol was in the late 1920s.
Of course, chai isn’t going to destroy America. That’s just silly. I had a wonderful chai tea latte from Panera a few weeks ago. No one died. I also had black coffee with my breakfast this morning. It was lovely too. I knew I liked black coffee when I was studying with Amy. I didn’t know I liked chai tea. And the reason I didn’t know was because I was afraid to try it, afraid to be associated with something that my family didn’t approve of, and most of all, afraid to open up to something that was not like the drinks I had grown up consuming.
I graduated in a class of 140 students. Of those students, 137 were white America, 2 were of South Korean descent (though still American), and 1 was an exchange student from Norway. I was not surrounded by diversity of race nor by diversity of religion. Political diversity was a little more existent in my school, though most students — myself included — held opinions that where extremely conservative and extremely driven by both the molding of our parents and a religious upbringing. While there were some who treated every with love, care, and compassion, these political and religious views were often combined with views that blended racism, sexism, homophobia, and nationalism into a belief system that was not only considered to be acceptable, but in some cases encouraged. While I didn’t agree with every opinion that was taught to me, I vividly recall being in speech class and debating against a female student on the topic of abortion. My argument, pro-life, was one that I believed in not because I went to church regularly or because I was particularly religious, but because that what I had learned was right.
College was an eye-opening experience for me. My asshole roommate was a hard-partying, extremely liberal guy who enjoyed Guitar Hero and cheap beer a bit too much. The two guys that lived across the hall from us were from affluent suburbs of Detroit and Chicago. Had they come around me in high school, I likely would have considered them thuggish or worse. After a few days around them, I learned that they were nice guys who wanted to become a journalist and a police officer. A girl who lived down the hall from Amy was a student from Iran who had come to the US to study business. Last I knew, she had moved to the US, become a US citizen, and is happy married to her wife. High school me would have formed so many ill-advised opinions about her that it makes my head hurt.
I’ve changed a lot in the past ten years. According to Political Compass, I test at a -5.25, -6.1 now, though inputting answers that would best reflect 18-year-old me, I test at a -1.0, 4.0. But regardless of how my political views have changes, there’s a few things I’ve learned that matter more than anything else.
- Everyone should be treated equally…and that treatment should be filled with respect and compassion.
- If someone is different from you — be that in their looks, their beliefs, their practices, or some other way — you’ll get farther if you work to understand their point of view than if you hole up in your own.
- If we cannot do the first two things on this list, we cannot grow as people.
The other day, I was texting with a member of my family asking if they had watched the third and final presidential debate. In my discussion, I was making a plea with my family member that supporting a candidate who is racist, sexist, nationalist, and does not support the peaceful transition of power following an election is not a good thing. In the next two texts, our discussion went from civil, though heated, discourse to full on Godwin’s Law when my family member told me that Hillary is literally Hitler reincarnated and that she’s going to repeal the Constitution to make herself queen.
On one hand, I shouldn’t have been surprised. This is the same person in my family who spent the first six years of Obama’s presidency referring to the President as “President Kunta Kinte”. But on the other hand, it hurt — really bad — to see/hear someone I had grown up around…someone who had helped me to shape the person that I am today…continue to show such hate in their speech. It made me feel like I had failed in some way because I had not been able to bring the compassion and openness I’ve been learning to have for others to my family. I also know that somewhere in my mind — somewhere in a deep, dark place I hope to never see again — those behavioral patterns and early-life teachings are still in there.
I ended the conversation without saying another word to the person in question. I sat in my office and I cried a little bit. I felt hurt to be associated, even indirectly, with such an angry opinion. And to hear it come from someone who typically was one of the more rational people in my family…was there hope for me? Would I revert back to these base lessons that I was taught at a young age and go back to believing that my kind was superior to those around me?
I bounced this quandary off of a co-worker/close friend. While she didn’t say much beyond the fact that it happens to her too, she managed to get me thinking about why it’s critical for us to call out clear and present dangers to our society, but to do so in a respectful manner. A clear and present danger is not something like masala chai…or sour cream, no matter how vile of a taste it is.
What is a clear and present danger is when people act in a manner that demeans someone because of their race, sexuality, gender, national origin, or some other difference they have. What is a clear and present danger is using a belief that a specific characteristic, be that your race, environment, social class, religion, or something else, makes you distinctly and completely more of a person than your neighbor. What is a clear and present danger to our society is hate.
We can and we must act with compassion to those around us, even those who we disagree with. If we fail to do that, the hate will only continue to grow. And then it wins.