Content warning: Disordered eating
I found matcha in the backseat of my parents’ white Honda Odyssey, with my hands fumbling to grip the cold perspired plastic of a The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf cup. Introduced into my life by the very parents who placed an emphasis on showing affection and care through foods and acts of service, the sickly sweet ice blended drink reappeared once a month: during a Friday night, when the night ocean breeze was warmer than the summer sun’s embrace. With the open windows welcoming the night to whip my hair around the cup, sticking to the condensation, I became obsessed with the juxtaposition of the gentle evening with the heart-pounding sugar. In these moments, I projected into my own world, imagining myself brushing fingertips with the stars that seemed a little closer than usual. My only anchor to reality was the squeaking of the plastic straw against the inner perimeter of the cup, tinted the slightest shade of green, while I hunted for every last bit of artificial green slush.
As I became older and my evenings consisted of less late night drives and more school assignments, I grew more socially aware and anxious of my behavior, external appearance and mannerisms. All of a sudden, I swear that my reflection in the mirror stared at me harder than I did at it. My own judgmental eyes would flash in my head whenever I added any “excess” calories for the next seven years.
In these moments, I projected into my own world, imagining myself brushing fingertips with the stars that seemed a little closer than usual.
One weekend, I watched my middle school best friend pour bubbling hot water over a soft mound of muffled green, and a thin layer of powder coated her kitchen countertops. She placed one, then two, cubes of sugar in her own mug — and I declined. Suddenly, the encoding of sugar in my brain had gotten lost in translation, and something about a sweet drink in the quiet hours of the night didn’t feel quite right. After sitting on the roof and confessing to the moon until the sunrise kissed the horizon, I held the empty ceramic cup in my weary hands, and the remnants of the bitter tea swelled in my being until every heavy breath replicated the warmth from a self-love I heartbreakingly lacked. Despite the common dislike against natural matcha powder shared among others, expressed with the same scrunched up face and post-drink cough, a part of me craved the intense bitterness; it made me feel something for once, as if microdosing emotions would make me feel more human. It was my 13-year-old self that would begin to sedate moments of unhappiness with a drink that ironically represented the uplifting of spirit and body-mind harmony. Fitting, to say the least.
Late nights spent with my eyes glazed over, scouring pages and pages of mathematical equations and begging my brain to memorize titration’s endless steps for a chemistry quiz at 7 a.m. sharp the next morning, a cup of matcha sat adjacent to my computer losing its steam with every passing second — unsweetened, pure. Unsure whether my hands shook from the cold bite of the dawn or the anxiety of a procrastinated deadline, my fingers stumbled around for the comforting touch of the mug while my gaze hyper-fixated on some oversaturated grainy illustration of a plant cell.
While I strived for academic validation in the gentle night, I struggled to find peace with my peers in the hallways of school. During every waking moment, violently ignorant of the beauty of my culture and family history, I wrestled with the silent presence of the love of my ancestors and covered any hint of saturated “Asian-ness” that would peek out during school hours. In some twisted way, I loved the aesthetic of Asian culture only in the convenience of the Western gaze but would be absolutely repulsed by any racial detail that crossed the thin line that separated “cool” and “weird” in the middle school world. I shed my mother’s hand-picked outfits for whatever tacky, chevron-print, turquoise monstrosity of the early 2000s, and I began to ask for ham-and-cheese sandwiches for my packed lunches instead of the usual steamed rice and protein that would fill my thermal tupperware. Even though I recoiled from the culturally rich part of me with the same face of disgust that plagued the matcha-haters, the “American” version of myself was aggressively anti-me; it was everything I never was, and never will be.
My first encounter with the iconic American teenage dream of Starbucks was a grande hot matcha latte with two pumps of vanilla — the syrup recommended by the barista to drown out the taste of the acidic green tea leaves. As my taste changed, I eventually graduated to satiate early morning sugar cravings before debate tournaments with a grande iced matcha with two pumps of chai (three pumps was simply too much, but one wasn’t enough). Sip, swallow, win. The rate at which I finished my caffeinated drink would become an early tell of confidence during my rounds. Matcha soon became a staple in my competitive career, and the feeling of pride after my triumphs trumped the feelings of guilt for indulging in extra sugar.
The infamous “tumultuous teenage years” that curse every youth hit me in the midst of my high school experience. After struggling immensely with the self-perception of my body for as long as I can remember, the relationship I had with food was deteriorating at an unstable rate. Coming from a culture where food is the main form of affection, adoration and love, I panicked staying at home for meals, absolutely terrified of the portions given to me by my mother and the pantry stuffed with every salty snack and sweet treat you could think of. I cut out important parts of a healthy diet, ran until my lungs bruised and gave up the literal sweeter things in life. To make matters worse, I had lost my significant other and my best friend in the same year, not to mention the reason behind this loss was that they had chosen each other when I looked away. Eventually, the stress of the academic pressure mixed with the heartbreak caught up to me, and I began to spiral out of control, losing my appetite and my sanity. I cried at an extra egg in my breakfasts, swapped my favorite drinks for water or tea and denied myself anything I deemed “excessive.” I was an empty shell of a human being, completely numb and out of touch with the world, as if I had faded into nothingness — and no one noticed as I filled the hollow spaces within myself with the warmth of the bitter tea, finding a commonality between my critical self and a hostile drink that lacked mercy on my tongue.
Dangerously falling apart faster and faster with every passing day, I was on the road to nowhere — until I met someone sweeter than any syrupy concoction I had ever known. My best friend showed up in my life with open arms and hands full of treats. Working her way through the failure of a romantic experience all too similar to mine, we bonded over the newest flavors of milk tea and seasonal releases of outrageous caffeinated drinks after school. And slowly but surely, I found myself craving the saccharine hours that I spent with a girl with honeyed eyes and a darling smile. My best friend painted the world with a thin layer of nectar, not overdone to induce a diabetic coma, but enough to change the direction I was headed in. I was reminded of the innocent childlike wonder I once held deep within my soul.
My love for my matcha adventures returned, and my fear of the number of calories behind every flavor shot was overruled by the corners of my mouth that lifted from the mix of the sweet flavoring and the laughter induced by my best friend.
I realized that in my most personal and intimate moments were the only places where I felt comfortable enough to embrace my Asian-ness, the bitter matcha side of me, while the saturated additions of syrup would forcefully dilute the flavor, similar to how I tried so desperately to become another face in the Western crowd. Later, as I grew older, I realized that my favorite blend of caffeine and sugar was the version of myself I had grown to become, a mix of both my culture that had taken care of me for so long, as well as the person that I paraded around as for most of my K-12 education.
Infatuated with both the combination drink as well as the understanding of how it reflected the person that I was, a “large matcha with two shots of — ” became my go-to safe drink for any new cafe my best friend and I endeavored upon that week. At our favorite little cafe, we would routinely get the same drink: She dies for an iced chai, while I will continuously fold for the lavender matcha. Occasionally, when I was too busy for one of our infamous food quests, she would just show up in my driveway with some variant of a matcha-flavored good. Despite the fact that she disliked matcha and would rather get run over than voluntarily choose green tea for any cookie, cake or drink flavor, she would always make an exception for me, driving to any end to satiate my cravings. How ironic that she cannot stand the flavor of matcha, yet latched onto the person who depends on the viridescent drink. For the entire duration of our senior summer, we had an inseparable bond with Yelp, as it fueled our caffeinated coffee-hopping adventures until Aug. 16 ripped me from my hometown and placed me in the bustling city of Berkeley I now call home.
This fall on a random weekend when we were both too busy to catch up through our spontaneous FaceTime calls, my best friend sent me a box of matcha mochi donuts and muffins. Although it is incredibly easy to lose yourself in the chaos of starting a life away from almost everything you’ve ever known, my best friend remains an ever-sturdy presence in my life. In fact, in the few times that I have visited her, she has taken me to her school’s popular cafe, a place that boasts a wonderful combination of matcha and blueberry. I have yet to show her the tight hold Caffè Strada has on Berkeley culture, and someday soon, she will sit across from me on the rickety wooden plank benches. But until then, I will enjoy my iced matcha mints with others who share my enthusiasm for the $5 drink.
How ironic that she cannot stand the flavor of matcha, yet latched onto the person who depends on the viridescent drink.
Although matcha will forever remain in my heart, the shot of flavoring will vary depending on where I am in life, both literally and figuratively. A basic vanilla in my soft vision of the past, comforting chai at home, mint at Berkeley, lavender during explorations and a cool blueberry in the moments spent with my best friend at the school she has grown familiar with. In some cases, I will substitute my iconic mixed beverage for either the most plain and unsweetened tea or chase the absolutely thrilling high of enough sugar to knock out my health-conscious parents — because everyone has their ups and downs, and a little variety is good for you.
I am unapologetically myself: a drink all-too-familiar in Asian culture, with a little addition of something that I have creative license over. After experimenting with this tea my entire life, I am glad to be able to say that I have found my comfort, my solace and in some cases, my muse. Although it is obvious I now have a favorite item, when I am back home for break, I will never be disappointed by the drink that started it all, an ice blended green tea, placed squarely in the heart of my room as a token of love by my parents. And I will forever look at the world through the sage-stained glasses permanently fixed with the eyes that have seen it all.