Perhaps it was the very specific Northern Mother-in-Law who first instilled the fear of tea in me. If she were in a good mood I would get lots of jokes about an American’s inability to make a cup of tea, or if she were in a bad mood it would be ‘just let me do it.’ I learned from her that there are as many ways to make a cup of tea as there are tea drinkers and so I understood early on in my expat life that offering to make a cup of tea for a British person I was in a no-win situation.
Or maybe it’s just me. Not all Americans have this fear (or inability) or perhaps some expats are just thick skinned. There is some value in a thick skin, as an expat anyway (I think the proper term for it is ‘emotional resilience’: the strength to deal with the howling gales of frustrations in your new life without becoming ripped apart).I asked my friend Julia, another American to see if I were alone. Julia lives in London and blogs at I Carried a Watermelon.
“I know what you mean. James (her British husband) always tells me my tea is crap. I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M DOING WRONG! And now I have a complex about it. We need to start a club.”
Then I wondered what a British Expat in the States did to survive being surrounded by people who grew up without ever making a pot of tea. I asked Toni, fellow Expat Focus columnist and blogger at Expat Mum.
“I never thought about how stressful it must be making tea for Brits in the UK. My kids can now make a decent cup of tea.
They used to barely dunk the tea bag in the water, so I showed them what a real cup of tea should be. My 18 year old now takes a PG Tips teabag to school every day for lunchtime!”
So at least Toni can train her family, which helps.
Whenever a friend or relative or a service engineer is in my house and I know I need to offer them a cup of tea one part of my brain begins running around in a panic. I quickly assess the situation and decide on either a) just make it and hope they like it or, b) make it in front of them as they watch and see them twitch when you get one part wrong or c) boil the kettle, get the mug, tea and milk out, ask if they want sugar, then push it all towards them with a weak joke about how they don’t want an American to make their tea (with silent apologies to all the American’s in Britain who make perfect cups of tea).
Eventually I wondered what other Brits feel like in similar situations. Because there are so many different preferences for one’s cuppa perhaps the Brits have this anxiety about making tea for each other as well? Or is there a secret code they all understand, a way of knowing when a fellow Brit walks through the door, “ah, now I can see she prefers a builders cup, but he will only want the teabag lightly dunked and yes, she definitely will want sugar.”
On my quest for understanding I asked a handful of British bloggers, all members of the same chat room and here’s part of the conversation that ensued: Missie Lizzie who blogs at Me and my shadow said, “That’s so funny! I’m rubbish at making tea for others too. I LOVE tea, make it all day long for myself, but the pressure’s on when it’s for someone else!”
Then Mari of Mari’s World shared her experiences, “I thought I made the perfect cuppa until I met my husband – I put the teabag in the mug, followed by boiling water, squidge the bag until the colour is perfect and then add milk. I was re-taught by him in our very early days = teabag, drop of milk in mug and THEN add boiling water/squidge/serve. So how confused are you now? When two Brits can’t agree….”
Chris, from Thinly Spread was mortified. “NEVER squeeze the teabag! *shocked face* Leave it to gently infuse and then remove carefully. I want to taste tea not paper bag!”
Inspired by the conversation, several bloggers in the group wrote posts about their perfect cups of tea, and you guessed it, no two were the same.
Tanya over on Mummy Barrow declared, “This is how I make THE perfect cuppa. Any deviation from this is, quite frankly, wrong. Bags in mugs? Peasants I say.”
And Sandy confessed that she is extremely particular. “I don’t ask for tea when I’m out as no one ever makes it how I like it. Not that I’m a grumpy fuss-pot. Oh no…” She gives us her ideal recipe on her blog, Baby Baby.
And finally, Angie keeps her different family members’ preferences straight and questions if there really is a perfect cup of tea on Cakes Photos Life. “I’m a Brit and make a crap cup of tea, my husband gets a tea bag yes Tanya a tea bag, in the mug, hot water poured on top then some milk thrown in and he leaves it to stew, never take the bag out for him, my auntie on the other hand different story.”
So that was interesting. It’s not just an expat thing. Isn’t it funny how being an expat we sometimes just assume a point of confusion is a result of our role as outsiders, when in fact it could be a common feature with everyone in the country?
So what about you, readers?
How do you like your tea?
Or, have you discovered something that you thought was ‘only you being an expat’, when in fact you shared the difficulty with the natives of your host country?
Michelle Garrett is an American expat making a life in Britain for over 20 years. Yes, she's still homesick for the States and yes, she'd be homesick for Britain if she moved back there!
Michelle is a freelance writer and blogs at The American Resident.
Read more of Michelle's Expat Focus articles here.