Beauty pageants was a thing in the days of television. It was fun to watch: the song and dance, ball gown and swimsuit parades, and the Q&A the pageants have to go through.
One question stuck for over 25 years, “As a Miss Hong Kong, you need good manners and deportment going about your day. When you are at the ladies, do you need good manners and deportment also?”
The contestant fumbled for an answer. What probably was going through her mind and what was going through mine at the time was, “How does one go to the loo with (ahem) deportment?”
Let me fill you in on background. In the heyday of beauty pageantry, TV stations had big budgets to spend hiring experts to teach contestants how to walk, how to carry themselves, how to adhere to certain protocols. Perhaps not unlike what Kate Middleton or Meghan Markle would go through to adhere to – in their case – royal protocols.
After weeks of such training, the contestant’s probably thinking – yes, I need to stand at a slight angle with one foot in front. And yes, I need to remember to cross my legs at my ankles when seated.
But…what about the loo? There weren’t no training for loo protocols though! Ooops.
Form, function and spontaneity
This brings me to Tea ceremony and two common misconceptions. Follow me and you’ll see why.
Misconception #1: Tea ceremony is ritualistic and repetitive
We practice the same types of Temae (tea preparations) over and over again – True.
It can appear ritualistic, and it is repetitive. But get this – Temae are designed with beauty and efficiency in mind. Items are moved and placed where it can best facilitate the action whether it’s scooping tea powder or whisking tea. There is also an underlying Yin-Yang balance. For example the tea bowl, since it holds water is yin, is thus balanced with the yang – the tea caddy holding matcha powder from the earth.
As the practice becomes ingrained, it spills over to daily life. In the early days of learning Tea, each time returning from class, I’d have the impetus to tidy up and straighten out the home.
In the kitchen, I noticed how I started to fold towels in a particular manner, or arrange and prepare cooking ingredients with more care than I did before learning tea.
So back to the question of whether deportment or not in the loo. When manners are ingrained, there is no separation of how one is in or outside of the Tea Room. Likewise, there is no separation of in or out of the public eye – you are yourself as you naturally are.
Misconception #2 Tea ceremony is blind adherence to form and tradition
I thought so too until a Senpai (senior) told me these really cool tea gatherings that happen in Japan where the centerpiece instead of a scroll, might be an ice sculpture.
Or a friend in Washington DC who threw his own Tea gatherings with Rothko prints as centerpiece, and contemporary ceramics by American potters to serve. He learnt from Youtube on Cooking with Dog how to make Castella cakes as sweets. In the spirit of practice (he’s a pianist afterall), he made the cake over and over again to improve his output.
Last year when the professor of Tea from the Kyoto Headquarters came to teach us, he also showed us another side of Tea practice. He was in his sixties but god he was not one bit old. Trained in martial arts as a young man, you would have missed his punch had you batted your eye once. The way he moved across the Tatami floor had swag. He knew the movements not by rote, but because he has understood it and thus could explain why movements or arrangements are designed a certain way. It was not blind copying, but true understanding.
That’s what differentiates learning by rote or by understanding. Or actions by rote, vs actions through understanding.
So going back to the question that stuck for 25 years, when an action or ‘deportment’ is through true understanding, it’s not strict nor blind adherence. It could be full of creativity and freedom when you understand the essence of it.
Now, what would your answer be to the Miss Hong Kong question?
Postscript: Do clotted cream go first or jam go first on scones?
Years ago, my brother questioned why I cared what the proper way was. Was I too much a stickler for doing it right? Perhaps. Or was I curious about the cultural ramifications? That too.
The “proper” way was first the clotted cream, then jam. Reason being the cream was harder to come by in the olden days and more expensive so the host would offer it first to guests.
To be honest, jam first makes it so much easier to spread.
Times change. Rules change. Rules can differ depending on where one’s from. The Chinese finish their drink because drinking up even the last drop means they enjoyed what’s served. Some other cultures leave a bit behind, to show that they were served so well that they had more than enough.
It’s all about the intent.