A month after moving to Japan, I find myself kneeling on a straw tatami mat, a tea whisk awkward in my right hand as my bespectacled teacher instructs me on the correct way to whip matcha — powdered green tea — into the perfect, bitter froth.

Her smooth, Kyoto-accented Japanese rushes over me like a gentle wave, and is about as comprehensible as one. Though I’ve been studying Japanese for two years now in a sterile classroom environment, nothing has prepared me for this — trying to master the intricacies of the tea ceremony from a teacher who speaks no English.

My teacher smiles at the end of her explanation, and I nod enthusiastically with all the understanding I don’t have. Satisfied for the moment, she effortlessly rises from her knees to glide across the room on white tabi socks, attending to her more advanced students in the corner.

I watch her float by, a kimono-clad vision of grace, touching another student on the shoulder, who smiles at her attention and asks a question. Frankly, I’m envious of their easy understanding. I remember when all it took to ask a question was a thought and a voice, no quicksand of translation to struggle through.

With a sigh, I shift my aching legs and my attention diverts to the jolts of pain searing upwards. The proper sitting position for tea ceremony is seiza, or on one’s knees, which my teacher seems to be able to do for hours, but it puts my ill-bred legs to sleep in minutes.

“Stop it,” I say firmly to myself, cheating with English. Whining about sore legs or my woeful lack of Japanese comprehension doesn’t help to make the tea.

This is the first time my teacher has let me near a whisk and hot water on my own. My first couple of lessons were dedicated to watching — an exercise in kneeling for entirely too long while observing the other students pour, mix, bow, and present perfectly whipped bowls of green ambrosia every time.

Pursing my lips, I go through the ritual with my little practice tray. The Japanese tea ceremony is a very exact science — there’s just the right way to pick up the bowl, a certain number of rotations involved in wiping the bowl, the right distance to put the bowl between the jar holding the tea and the whisk, and an exact angle to balance the tea scoop, or chashaku, on the tea container. The first time my teacher had explained this level of detail, entirely straight-faced, I had fully expected a dictated number of tea molecules to be rationed per serving.

Going through the motions, I’m pretty positive I’ve folded the wiping cloth incorrectly and can’t remember the amount of times I was supposed to rinse the bowl, but my teacher is still occupied with other students who actually speak her language, so I duck my head and diligently continue to make mistakes.

Much of Japan has been to this tune. I can’t wrap my head around a bonanza of things: kanji characters that mystically change pronunciation with no warning; a smorgasbord of the endlessly frustrating, like the unexplainable reluctance of the Japanese to come out and say no when they mean it; or the downright hazardous, such as the many times I’ve almost gotten plowed over by a car since they drive on the other side of the street here.

Another constant problem is my left-handedness. It’s ruled me out from pursuing my original Asian cultural torture of choice: calligraphy. An ancient geometric principle (that I couldn’t quite understand when explained to me in rapid Japanese) prohibits the use of the left hand for writing as art. Aside from my left-handed geometric limitations, anything remotely calligraphic I tried to produce with my right hand caused the teacher to hum sympathetically, tap his finger against his stubble and say, “Maybe we could try that again?”

Maybe, I had decided, I’ll try tea ceremony instead.

So here I am, my legs numb beneath me as I carefully measure out the tea powder into the bowl, tapping the bamboo scoop the prescribed number of times against the side (loudly; this is one of the things I’m sure I remember correctly), and balancing it perfectly straight on top of the lacquered tea container.

I am not by nature a serene person. I like to play rugby, argue politics, sing bawdy songs, and drink beer. This tearoom, with its quiet breathy calm and dreamy charcoal sketches, is completely foreign to me in every way. As I reach forward for the hot water pot (not yet allowed to use the bamboo dipper), I inhale that deep, patient scent of fine incense and old wood.

Pouring the hot water, I draw it all in, the kanji, the botched calligraphy, my leg pains, the quicksand of translation, and pick up the whisk.

Of course, in the perfectly ordered Way of Tea, one uses one’s right hand to whisk the matcha. Pressing the whisk against the side of the bowl, I manage a few weak swirls, but can’t force my wrist go to fast enough to whip it into a fine, bubbly froth, making the tea “stand,” as my teacher explained it.

“What’s wrong?” Returning to my side, the teacher kneels in a wave of elegant mauve silk and airs her question in equally elegant Japanese. With a rueful smile I sit back on my heels, wincing, as I can no longer feel anything below my knees.

“I use my left hand,” I say, wiggling the tea-and-water–covered whisk in my impotent right hand, dripping on the tatami.

My teacher purses her red lips, painted brows drawn together in confusion. In despair, I start to consider music lessons before she asks, “Then why don’t you use your left hand?”

Shocked, I nearly drop the whisk. “Really?”

“Of course,” she says with a smile. Drawing back her ample sleeve, she shows me her own left hand. “I use my left hand too.”

It’s a small, small victory, but I can’t help the big goofy grin that spreads across my face as I transfer the whisk to my dominant hand and quickly produce a bowl of green heaven, heavy with foam.

“I’ll be your guest,” my teacher says, sliding back to assume the proper position.

Still awed, I pick up the bowl, turn it on my palm two times so the painted design faces the guest, as I have been told to do, and place it before my teacher. 

Pulling it forward, my teacher bows, palms flat on either side of the cup. “Otemae choudai itashimasu,” she murmurs. I humbly receive from you.

She drinks it, and smothers me with compliments about how delicious it is. Still smiling like a loon, I finally allow my legs to fall out of seiza position. The world becomes an odd mix of happiness and pain as blood rushes back into my beleaguered limbs.

I’m not Japanese. I’m not right-handed. I boast the language skills of a five-year-old and the inherent grace of an ox. But none of this matters in the face of my left-handed tea ceremony teacher drinking tea that I myself have concocted, both of us sharing the time-honored tradition of exchanging hospitality.

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