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Born in the US, raised on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, lived in Italy, the US, and Canada. Lover of language, travel, colour, and the natural world.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Drink your chai. Break your cup.

A worker takes a chai break in India (Photo Credit: Judy Swallow. Photo found here)       

Indians have been making biodegradable chai cups for generations, I learned this afternoon, as I was listening to the radio. The show I was listening to (which you can listen to here) was about the custom in Kolkata, India, of drinking chai out of tiny, unglazed, terracotta cups. The BBC's Judy Swallow told the fascinating story of how, after a customer finished his or her chai, they would simply smash the cup on the ground. Because the shards were unglazed, the cup would simply dissolve over time in the rain and sun, and from the friction of peoples feet walking over it. Drinking chai this way was apparently a custom followed all over India. On India's trains, people would sip tea out of the tiny cups, tossing them out the windows once they were empty, leaving behind trails of red shards that snaked along India's railway tracks, all over the country. A gritty layer of dry clay would settle to the bottom of the cup of chai, giving every cup a subtle earthy flavour.

With the introduction of plastic, today it is almost impossible to find chai sellers serving their chai in the terracotta cups anymore. In fact, Judy Swallow explained on her show that the only place that still serves chai in the traditional cups is Kolkata. Interestingly, although the cups are no longer made of clay, the pattern of dropping them on the ground after enjoying a cup of chai has persisted all over India, which means that plastic cups litter the ground everywhere, replacing the parallel red ribbons along railway tracks with trails of plastic.

The story made me think about how important having an understanding of cultural practices is to solving our global environmental problems. As westerners, we are quick to judge large quantities of non-biodegradable garbage dumped in the street. We are inclined to make assumptions about how people must feel about their environment, based on what we see, without digging deeper to really understand the cultural traditions behind what we are seeing. The story also made me think about how much more green Kolkatan chai cups are, when compared to what most coffee and tea houses in North America serve their drinks in, and how much we have to learn from them about using green packaging.

It made me slightly sad to think that the tradition of drinking out of these traditional terracotta cups is dying out, and that Indians have, for the most part, already adopted the far less sustainable method of drinking tea out of plastic cups. I have had many conversations with people from non-western countries over the years, and have naively expressed my hope that they learn from, and avoid the mistakes that western countries have made that have negatively impacted our natural environment. The response I usually get is "it is easy for you to tell us not to pursue avenues of development that are economically profitable...you have already profited from these so called mistakes"; and "it is only fair that we also be allowed to pursue practices that will increase our economic prosperity. We have the right to be economically successful too." They are right. What right do I have to tell them not to make the same mistakes? What right do I have to point out that in the long term, continuing to make chai cups out of clay will probably be far more profitable than serving their chai in the same cups that can be found anywhere and everywhere else in the world? What right do I have to tell them that using clay cups is so much better for the environment?

I wonder how countries can best learn from each others' mistakes and successes, without anyone feeling patronized. How to best support the unique regional cultural practices that make our world so amazingly diverse, and so much more economically and environmentally sustainable. The world is a fascinating place, and part of what makes it so beautiful is the diversity of cultural practices that persist around the world. I hope that the people of Kolkata continue making their own cups. I hope to travel to India some day, and when I do, I plan on making a trip to Kolkata for a cup of chai. I can hear the cup shattering on the dusty road, even now. 

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