Wednesday, April 18, 2018

An East Berlin early Cold War tea mystery


Someone contacted me about a tea mystery, about tracking down a childhood tea for an acquaintance of theirs, with the details as follows:


He is seeking a tea he remembers from his childhood in Berlin after the war. It is likely to be Russian, or perhaps, Georgian. He does not know the name or type. It is very, very strong, sort of ‘oily’ but not exactly oily, smokey but not Lapsang. The family housekeeper would bring it from the Russian-held part of Berlin.


So the time frame is late 1940's, with that tea from East Berlin. A Russian tea vendor contact told me what is now being sold as "Russian caravan blend" is a made-up designation, just modern marketing spin, but if it had existed 70 years ago that would be a possibility. A blend including some Lapsang Souchong would account for the limited smokiness. Or tea processing style or preparation methods could be other critical factors.

The "oily" designation may be a clue; not many teas come across in that way, and black teas in general tend not to. Maybe it's a black tea but mixed with an herb, which is not unheard of in Russia. I have willow herb at home, also called "Ivan chay," and it has been described that way, and per recently trying it I could see the connection.

I posted this as a request for more input in a few related online groups.  I'll include a combined review of the best input here.  I'd asked in the International Tea Talk Facebook group that I'm an admin for, in the Gong Fu Cha group, in a St. Petersburg FB expat group, on Quora, and in the Trip Advisor travel forum section, and in a couple of other similar groups.


me with a mural in the St. Petersburg metro system

That last group mentioned might seem a little out of place; tea history isn't travel.  Back when I was asking around about tea in Russia before I went there over the last New Years people active in that group / discussion area were most helpful.  They were a little touchy about people not reading the entire FAQ section too (who does that?), but beyond that very nice and informative.  I'm a fan of Russian culture now, after that trip, and that kind sums up how Russians seem in general:  a little gruff, and plain-spoken, but nice and helpful as could be once you get past all that.



I'm a member of that St. Petersburg expat group for the same reason.  St. Petersburg is fantastic, by the way, almost worth it to visit just to see the metro system and the buildings.

Let's go right to what turned up.


Groups and forums input


One person in the St. Petersburg forum mentioned this great article on the old "elephant" brand Russian commercial tea.  It seems pretty unlikely that's what it was but maybe it could've been.  Per that article it seems more likely that product was developed in the 1960's, with the question about a tea experienced in the late 1940's.

Russian "elephant" tea (credit that reference article page)


I'll cite some of that article, since it's fascinating, if not a likely lead:


Initially, there was only Russian Georgian tea in the USSR . This was a real breakthrough in the industrial industry, and the drink was even exported to other countries, where it became popular... In the seventies the tea industry in the USSR fell, the state suffered losses and began to decide what to do about it. 


Many people, who came to the USSR, sadly remember those times when both "the grass was greener and the sky was cleaner", and the products were of the highest quality, in comparison with them, even the imported ones were useless. But many did not even suspect at the time that they drank tea, collected not in the territory of their beloved homeland, but far beyond its borders. It so happened that the Georgian tea had become unusable, so the USSR concluded a contract for the supply of tea with countries such as Sri Lanka, Kenya, Tanzania, India and Vietnam. With our previous importer, China, which could also supply tea, our state quarreled and therefore did not use its services... Initially, this scam went well, but still "domestic" tea replaced the same Indian tea "with an elephant". 

This tea was distinguished not only by its bright and strong taste, but also by packaging, which was specially developed in 1967, and Indian tea "with an elephant" was sold in 1972... Tea "with an elephant" was divided into higher and first grade... The first grade packaging contained only 15% of tea from India, 5% from Ceylon, 25% from Madagascar, and as many as 55% of sheets from Georgia. 


It's a little rough (automatic translation) but all that seems clear enough.  The earliest time-line isn't really stated but if the earliest date mentioned is the initial origin the products were made since the 1960s.

A link mentioned in the Trip Advisor forum responses shows the modern version of the tea for sale (which had been discontinued at one point), with that person's input that the modern version of the tea didn't seem very good to him.

That Quora question turned up some interesting input, not cited for sourcing, but worth considering:


The three main general kinds of black tea available for the Soviets at that time were: Chinese, Georgian and Azerbaijanian. Of those, the Chinese tea would be the least probable, given the state of matters in China at that time (civil war followed by the Japanese invasion).

The Georgian black tea of lesser quality (it’s highly doubtable that the elite kind would be available to the troops) is described as “smelling like tobacco and having a terrible taste.” The Azerbaijanian tea was quite similar.

As for the herbs, the Russians were often adding all kinds of those to the tea, the main limitations being the fantasy of the cook and the availability of the herbs around. Therefore it would be almost impossible to know what exactly was added back then (if it was). The Ivan Chay, aka Fireweed (US), aka Rosebay Willowherb (UK), was not only used as an additive, but also as a cheap surrogate when the real tea was unavailable.


Another comment (hard to keep track of where) claimed Indian tea was also available in Russia at that time.  Indian and Sri Lankan teas were definitely around then, so it might come down to a matter of what really were "main" imports, per that answer input framing.  That overall import source proportion may not determine if teas from those nationalities really would have been sold in East Berlin then.  It would be impossible to remember a taste from 70 years ago in enough detail to trace that back to a foreign tea style back then, never mind linking it to a blend.  The aim here is to see how far review might be able to get.


dog sledding at 5 PM; it had been night for a couple of hours


I just had black tea mixed with herbs (which ones wasn't described) in a visit to a sled dog camp outside of Murmansk, Russia, back during the last week of 2017.  It was a bit hard to place; it's easier for mixes of different things to be non-distinct.  That was actually made in a samovar too, the only time that came up in the Russia trip.

In kind of a typical theme for me I was taking my daughter to use the restroom when they actually talked about that part, that brewing device, and what teas were typical, and what it was we drank then.  My son just became a Thai novice monk monk recently, and after waiting around for two days of training and build-up my daughter absolutely needed to use the restroom at a few moments before he took the vows (with more on how all that worked out here).  I really don't mind at all; they are the priority, and the rest comes and goes as it will.


samovars brewing tea at the dogsled camp


that tea break, just before they brought out crepes



with tea break company like this the other details don't matter so much


To make a longish story short I reported back to the person posing the question that I thought the tea probably would have been one of three things:


1.  an earlier version of a Russian caravan blend, mixing Lapsang Souchong and other tea versions.

2.  a Georgian or Azerbaijanian black tea.

3.  black tea mixed with willow herb (Ivan Chay) or other tisanes.


It probably never would be possible to narrow down which it was.  It would be possible to try modern Georgian tea, and that tisane, willow herb (with both sold through this Moychay site), and to try out mixing the two.  Maybe something would seem really familiar, a likely match.  I reviewed two Georgian black teas from Moychay here and they just seemed like normal black teas, maybe slightly different in character as teas from different regions or teas processed differently tend to.


Review of willow herb


I bought willow herb in the Perlov shop in Moscow (where I also bought the only Russian tea I found on that trip), and this prompted me to try out that tisane, reviewed as follows.

the exterior of that shop is beautiful


friendly Russian guy who translated tea labels for me there


The "tea" tastes nice rich and malty, just in a different sense than in the two other ways I tend to use malt as a description.  The main way I use that description is for Assam, related to that strong near-mineral flavor range.  A second is for sweeter, richer, smoother teas with a version of malt that reminds me more of Ovaltine.  A mid-roasted rolled oolong can also taste malty (like a Dong Ding), which can be really pronounced in a winter harvest tea version, but it's malt in a different sense, a bit closer to how Ovaltine comes across, or a malted milkshake.

When I first smelled this tea a warm, sweet, complex scent was familiar from long ago:  it smelled like animal feed.  That sounds like an insult, but processed malted grains used as animal feed smell nice.  I won't get too far into details but I raised pigs when I was younger, growing up in rural Western Pennsylvania.  There are more stories about how that went but none that help the context make any more sense than it already does.  It was kind of a normal thing to do there.

I don't know what those feeds were made from, although I must have read the bags back then, around 40 years ago.  I don't know how they were processed in order to smell as sweet and rich as they did, or what was blended with what.  I loved the smells related to that farming activity, and truth be told I loved those animals too, perhaps one main reason I spent nearly 20 years as a vegetarian later in life.






The first taste of the tisane was a little like that, just probably much cleaner, more complex, and more pleasant than it sounds.  Tisanes often come across as really one-dimensional compared to actual tea but this had a good bit of aspect complexity going for it.  The flavor was sweet and rich, mostly related to that malted grain taste.  There was other earthy range that gave it more depth, a strange sort of root-spice complexity, not so far off licorice.  It's almost as much an overlapping interpretation versus being a different aspect but it also tastes like bread dough, that one yeast-like flavor that comes up.  The feel was thick, a bit oily, and the tasting experience ended with more trailing aftertaste than usually occurs with tisanes.


Related to this being drank on its own it's fine, a bit richer and more complex than infused herbs tend to be.  I'd probably rather drink a mid-roasted rolled oolong, which seems closest to this in profile, but those are more complex.  It might work really well combined with black tea, since it is smooth and complex but a bit thin related to that broader aspect range.  It lacks all of the edge that standard black teas typically have, the astringency, and also the flavor range that is more typical of what people call malt when reviewing teas, and the other mineral or fruit range that different black teas can express.


As chance has it someone just gave me what looks like a pretty standard plain Kenyan tea (Williamson Tea "Traditional Afternoon" blend), so I tried it mixed with that.  I tasted that black tea alone first:  it's CTC tea-bag black tea, not great, not awful, not surprising in any way.


The blend of the two was a little unusual.  I'm just not accustomed to drinking black tea mixed with much, although I did buy a floral and Ceylon black tea commercial blend in Russia for the office staff here.  That was ok, those inputs matched.  It didn't help that I don't really love CTC black tea, that malty, mineral-tone, rust-like edge those have.  This mix might've been what he had been drinking as a child but it would take some getting used to.  That's especially if someone had already been on the page of drinking better Chinese black teas, deviating to drink a better orthodox Assam or Ceylon when those come up.


I think I liked the tisane better alone since it didn't run counter to my expectations for black tea in the same way.  That malted grain and licorice range sweetness and flavor depth just seems odd paired up with it.  Towards the end it started to make more sense and I'd bet if I had it a few times I'd like it a lot better.


Back to the search


I drifted just a little further towards tracking down willow herb (Ivan chay) and other Georgian tea options in NYC but didn't get far with that.  I asked about options in a NYC tea group and heard nothing back.  I had tried a reasonable Russian caravan blend from Sun's Organic in the NYC Chinatown but it wasn't really close to that initial flavor description.  It seemed highly unlikely that even a tea based on the same mix of tea type inputs (from the same regions) would be similar when made from modern versions.


I asked around a little about Russian markets in NYC but mail order was probably going to be an easier path to follow, unless the person checking wanted to spend a couple hours on Google search and a half a day walking around that related neighborhood.


Of course Google does turn up options fairly quickly, so it wouldn't take much to try finding that one tisane.  After a few clicks an online option turned up locally (there), associated with a local physical store, and some of the same search options I'd checked in this investigation turned up other promising leads.

As mentioned it really could've just been plain, unusual character Georgian or Azerbaijanian black tea, and it may not be possible to find an identically processed tea version today, 70 years later.  If someone had dried teas indoors using heat from a wood fire back then that could have contributed that smoke aspect, and what might well be seen as updated processing improvements might drop that smoke aspect out.  Ordinary black tea shouldn't seem oily, a plain tea or a blend, so maybe that was from an herb, or it could've just been from a processing flaw, or atypical result.  At one point I considered whether it may have even been a Liu Bao instead (a hei cha, not black tea at all), but I've not been discussing that since I rejected it as unlikely.

If anyone reading this thinks "I know what that probably was" it would be interesting to hear more input, probably best communicated through this blog's related Facebook page.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Ban Komaen 2017 (Laos) and Nan Mei gushu 2015 tasting


 Ban Komaen (Laos tea) left, Nan Mei right


I'm back to trying pu'er samples generously sent by Olivier Schneider, a pu'er expert and author of the reference page puerh.fr.  That page is in French but automatic translation works well between related languages.  It's a separate subject but I've been noticing that automatic translation from Russian to English goes better than you'd expect.  He's not actually a vendor, in the typical sense, more a researcher who is also involved with pu'er sales in the development and wholesale levels.

This follows on a review of two initial sheng samples here, which lists out details for the two I tried and the rest.  I'll compare these two teas:


Nan Mei gushu 2015 (small production tea)

Ban Komaen 2017 (old tree tea from Phongsally, Laos, so this is "sheng-pu'er-like" tea)


There isn't much reason why I'm pairing the tasting of these two.  The ages are comparable, and they're the next two on the original samples list, arranged more or less by age.  Trying very similar teas together works better but I'm not clear on expectations related to these.  At a guess they won't be similar.

Nan Mei is a village area in Lincang, Yunnan, as described in this puerh.fr article.  Olivier includes a producer profile of a woman tea maker in Laos in another article on sexism in tea  (who may or may not have made this tea; I'm not claiming that connection).  I won't do much for describing those locations or variations in the teas here; the point is just review, conveying an impression, which is already a lot to cover.

In this case comparison tasting is also about getting the tasting and review process moving since I've been off that for the last three weekends related to my son becoming a Buddhist novice monk.  It's the main Songkran weekend here (the traditional Thai New Years), so we're a little busy doing water park outings and errands, but it did work to set aside time for a tasting.  Conditions were not optimal since the two noise-makers were around for it but a long day at a water park the day before had their volume turned down a little.








Tasting notes


First infusion:


Nan Mei:  the tea is nice.  It's complex, well balanced, with good intensity.  The profile includes plenty of mineral depth, well integrated with the other range along the lines of wood tone and leather.  I'd expect some of this taste range matches flavor descriptions that would be familiar to others but I'll need to muddle through breaking them down through other comparison descriptions.  The astringency is limited for as intense and full in feel as this tea is.  It won't really need to transition to soften to be approachable but I expect it will develop over the next several infusions.

Ban Komaen:   this tea is similar in one sense and completely different in another.  It also expresses good intensity, good body, and complexity, based in a lot of mineral range, with very different other primary flavor.  This tasting is going to be tough in terms of description.  With a lot of other teas it's a stretch to pin components and labels on what's going on but this really isn't getting far, and I'm not sure it's going to.  I'll probably keep saying things like "mineral, wood, earthy, tree bark" and it won't convey much.  So goes tea review in general.

I guess the difference might be in some teas tasting more like fruit or vegetables, or at least like somewhat familiar range like hay or fallen leaves.  With these teas so far into mineral range and other flavors that aren't exactly familiar it's not going to be easy.  Some unusual versions of nuts might make for a start, and describe one part, or spice descriptions could tell part of the story.  It might work as a fall-back to describe differences in the two instead of getting to an accurate flavor or aspect list.


Nan Mei 2015 gushu



Ban Komaen 2017 old tree


 Ban Komaen (Laos tea) left, Nan Mei right

Second infusion:


Nan Mei:  The overall effect is really nice; it's probably as well to communicate that before tripping over the details.  The depth and complexity are good, and the flavor range is positive, if hard to describe well, with a nice thickness to the tea and a long aftertaste.  The previous mix of heavy mineral, wood tone, and tree bark (for lack of a better description), are joined by a trace of tobacco.  There's more going on that that; a rich depth that reminds me a little of brazil nut.  The tea is really approachable for being as intense and complex as the flavors are.  It's not especially bitter or astringent but it has a lot of aspect range to give it complexity; it's not soft or thin.


Ban Komaen:  This tea shifted into a sweeter spice range that's a lot closer to lemongrass than I'd have expected possible.  It transitioned a lot in just one infusion.  It's not less approachable than the other tea, in spite of being a year old versus three, not harsh or astringent at all, although maybe a little softer in effect.  Neither are bitter.  There is enough complexity that maybe a little bitterness can be separated out as one part of what's going on but it's definitely not dominant in either tea.  There is a lot of mineral depth and wood range in this tea but that sweetness and lemongrass range really stands out.  It also has a nice feel and again the experience lasts a good while after swallowing the tea.

Some of this range reminds me a little of how Vietnamese snow teas come across, it's just not as bitter as those often are, and not quite as vegetal.  Those don't seem like typical green teas to me but they tend to span a character range in between sheng and green tea.  It's that mineral and earthy flavor aspect range that's common, some parts of which overlap with the other tea, with some parts not.


 Ban Komeun (Laos tea) left, Nan Mei right

Third infusion:


 Ban Komaen (Laos tea) left, Nan Mei right (infused a little longer)

Nan Mei:  a bark spice aspect picks up, a bit like that "darker" version of cinnamon Rou Gui resembles.  A local Chinese vendor said Vietnamese cinnamon tastes like that, but I'm really not familiar with a range of versions of cinnamon.  It could come across more like tobacco (and it did to me more in the last infusion) but it's only a little towards that from the cinnamon.  Or it's just both; usually tea review is presented as an aspects list.


Ban Komaen:  that nice spice range shifted a bit more; it's cool how novel this tea's flavors are.  It still reminds me quite a bit of lemongrass, so I'd say it's mostly that, but of course the mineral depth and earthiness in the wood range isn't common to tisanes.  The wood in both seems like an aged hardwood, if that helps, maybe with a very faint bite of young branch shoot.

The Nan Mei comes across as "drier" in feel when comparing the two; that full feel tightens your whole palate and gives it a dry feel in comparison, which is more noticeable as a contrast with the other tea.  The Laos tea has a good bit of structure and fullness to it (relatively speaking related to teas in general; really moderate as sheng goes) but the finish feels smoother.

Fourth infusion:


On that last infusion I went slightly longer than usual, which I often do to get a better feel for the feel of teas, and to check how the various aspects work out slightly more intense.  In this case it was because my daughter interrupted me, but the effect in tasting isn't so different related to it being planned or not.  I'll try this infusion quite light, which actually can make it easier to notice trace flavor components.


Nan Mei:  this tea is actually nicer brewed very lightly.  There is still plenty of flavor to be enjoyed and the fullness of feel and aftertaste are still pronounced, and the balance works better.  The list of what I'm experiencing hasn't changed, and the gap in describing it.  It's complex; I get the sense there are layers I'm just not getting to assigning a description to.  The woodiness is probably more like leather than wood, which is sweet enough there might be a dried fruit aspect that matches part of it.  Faint prune, maybe?  Possibly something else dried I'm not familiar with, or just not picking up clearly enough to pin down.

Ban Komaen:  the sweetness and lemongrass effect seems to be falling into more of a balance with the earthiness in this tea.  It has mineral range for a base but less than the other tea, and probably in a lighter range.  Neither of these teas express any aspect range that I'd expect would improve by diminishing through aging.  I can't judge aging potential well yet, or how they would change over a few more years, but they're both very nice now, in two different ways.


 Ban Komaen (Laos tea) left, Nan Mei right

Conclusion:


The next infusions will continue to show transitions; these teas are far from finished.  The basic story is already told, and I get bored with review notes that delve into finer and finer details and transition differences.  I expect that few readers want to read further after getting through a full first page of tasting notes anyway.

Both teas were really nice; both somewhat new ground for me.  The Nan Mei was nice for being so complex and pleasant, really solid across the entire range of aspects, and the Ban Komaen for being so novel.  I liked the Laos tea better because that unusual aspects set really worked for me, the unique flavor of the tea, but I guess others with different preferences might feel different ways about it.

It goes without saying but the continuing emphasis on how the teas taste doesn't match the sheng pu'er theme perfectly, for many.  Feel and aftertaste are highly valued aspect ranges for many sheng drinkers, and I'm not even mentioning qi here (drug-like effect, or at least along that line).  Comparison tasting gives up reviewing that as a factor, since tasting two completely different versions together mixes that effect.  I tend to not notice it that much myself anyway, and don't love it even when the effect is so pronounced it can't be missed.  I already put in my time with using recreational drugs and for me tea isn't about that.

There's room for more rambling on about appreciating different aspect ranges in teas, and how to some extent transitioning what one does appreciate could relate to what is experienced.  Exploring that line of thinking works through analogy:  if coffee and beer are acquired tastes, not so delicious or enjoyable when one first tries them, the existence of a lot of coffee and beer drinkers implies that lots of people had to keep trying them after initially not liking them.  Maybe mochas help explain some of the coffee part, or people needing to stay awake late at night.

Maybe I will start discussing how appreciating mouthfeel, aftertaste, and effects of teas are growing on me, or it could go the other way, and I could decide to ease up on exploring sheng because taste alone doesn't make for enough of a draw.  Of course there's no need for a deadline related to that.  It has been interesting getting further with this especially complex and novel tea type.  I doubt I'll part ways with drinking sheng, I just won't drop interest in all other tea types as some do.  I already have one more set of notes on other versions to convert into a post, and more teas to try.


still wearing that novice-monk haircut, which I do like on him


after an 8 hour shift at the water park


two days later, back at that park

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Keoni's take on being a Thai Buddhist novice monk




typically cheerful, Keo is on the left, with Sony in the front


Following on the last story about my son ordaining as a novice monk, we visited the temple complex  where Keoni and that group of 88 monk novices (samananes) were staying for retreat for the last two weekends, outside of Cha-am.  I had mentioned one main point of the event was to honor and dedicate merit to HRH Princess Sirinthorn, that same Thai princess we briefly met not so long ago, who I was honored to be able to give tea to.

There are lots of pictures and videos from that novice retreat on the Wat Pho FB news page.  The initial draft of this had been about visiting a first time, but by this final version we visited a second time and joined another ceremony back at Wat Pho in Bangkok (Wat Phra Chetuphon, the longer name), for him to return to lay-person status.

At the end it does get back to covering what he thought about all of it, but this drifts through some background first, about the experience.  He did what novices would do on a retreat:  sit through lectures, meditate a bit, go out on alms round, tour local areas related to the Buddhism theme, and practice chanting sutras in Pali.



On that first visit he seemed to be doing well in one sense, adapting to the environment, and enjoying time with the other kids.  He also really missed us, the most that first week, and it was hard for him.  There were long-day demands of sitting through lectures and meditation sessions.  In one sense I think this will be a great experience for him and in another I couldn't believe we agreed to it in the first place, that I would let him go through it.


Keo is a bit high-energy even as young kids go, not good for sitting in place 8 hours a day.  And he's a bit sensitive, not well-suited for adjusting to that kind of separation from family.  They let him call us a few times, even though the general theme was to not really be in close contact with family.


It's nice that he was front-left in the live sitting-session videos the temple showed, like this one, where it was also pretty obvious that he's the least composed of all the kids.  He was by far the youngest, as I'd mentioned in that last overview post, the only novice who was 9, with only two 10 years old.  I think those personality issues factor in more, not really because he's more Western-culture based, just how he is.


Keo in the front left; this broke my heart to see


He was smiling and playing with the other kids during that first visit, then even more comfortable and at ease in the second, that next weekend.  Keoni said he had no problems with any of the boys, that they all seemed very nice.  Then in quieter moments of that first weekend the seriousness of what he was doing crept in, and the fact that he was going to go through several days of separation from family again.


Phra Vichai (left), Nane Keo, and Phra Kwan


The monks seemed to go out of their way to help him.  One in particular he knew from before, Phra Kwan, a monk I stayed with when I ordained as a monk for two months ten years ago.  He and one other spoke English, a lucky break for me.  Another was more or less a supervisor (Phra Vichai), and he seemed to be particularly concerned and helpful.  Not concerned as in worried; I mean that he was actively looking out for how all the kids were doing.


eating ice cream with lunch


We brought ice cream for the novices on both Saturdays we visited, for with their lunch, lots of it.  I didn't hear much feedback from them the first time related to being busy helping scoop it out but I'm sure they loved it.  The second weekend I rushed the dishing out process to take some pictures, and that minimal interaction with the kids was nice.  Their smiles meant a lot to me.  They would try out their minimal English on me too, even if it was limited to saying "hello."





Another positive:  while we were waiting for Keoni to get back on alms round quite early that first morning Kalani and I walked around the grounds there, which were beautiful and quite natural.  Chickens and roosters walked around pecking the ground between bamboo clusters and other tropical plants, while a few temple dogs kept an eye on us.


The main assembly hall was spacious and modern, with lots of space for 88 boys to sit or sleep, with adjoining bathroom facilities and space for preparing meals.  The other buildings were much smaller and more basic, with monks' residences only very small cottages, as the monks' rules specify they have to be:


saṃghādisesa #6Not to build a housing exceeding 2.70 metres by 1.60 metres (2.95 yards by 1.74 yards), without the agreement of the saṃghaa, and doing harm to living beings, or not providing enough space to turn around it.




These are just broad strokes; I'll get back to more from his perspective after addressing a couple of tangents.  I wanted to mention reception for that first post and explain why we ever let him do this in the first place (or convinced him to; it was sort of a mix).


an outing day; they visited a few local places


A tangent:  blog post viewership about him becoming a novice


I was surprised that first blog post about his ordination weekend drew the most interest of any I've written, by far.  A conventional tea review post might draw 250 to 400 views over a week or so, and a more popular research or topic theme post could exceed 1000.  That post had over 9,0000 page views in less than a week.  Ordinarily I'd think a lot of that was probably from my loyal bot followers but in this case the numbers gradually climbing and related discussion indicated it was probably mostly humans reading it.


stats after a week


Why Keo became a novice, and why we went along with it


In a sense this would either be familiar within a cultural perspective or not, but I can fill in some of the background.  There are two main reasons:  it's a learning and development opportunity, in the same way attending a boy-scout camp would be, and also a Thai tradition. Those both do apply, and ultimately both are the real "why," but it's not that simple.

Keoni has been familiar with visiting temples since he was a baby.  It's not really different than a Christian being actively involved in a church, and that connection seeming normal would equate.  I did go to a local church camp when I was around his age, it just seemed a lot less formal (although details are a little hazy; I was just a kid).

with Than Jaukun, early 2014


she was a bit young in this


My wife had him practicing meditation for a number of months around a year ago, thinking that would help him focus.  He went to another local temple for that, not really a class, just informal lessons from a local monk.


proud, protective parents

All of this makes me consider how parenting involves some guesswork.  Would this be too much for him, a bit traumatic for involving more separation and adjustment than he's ready for?  Would bad experiences come up?  Or would it be fun, and a positive experience?  I didn't know.  I guessed it wasn't more than he can handle, and he would like it more than suffer due to it.  I'll add more on that in conveying his own conclusions.


We hedged that bet a bit by perhaps overdoing it with support.  He was ordained for 15 days, counting the ceremony days on both ends, and we were with him or visiting for 8.  It was hard to let go, to just give him to the temple for two weeks at his age, so we split the difference.



Keoni's take


We finally did get him back this past Sunday.  He seemed fine, comfortable and at ease, not reluctant to leave the novice position and his new friends but not in a hurry to see it finished.  He was always playing around with the other kids, kind of how he always is.  He's bright but not focused, at least not focused on things that don't interest him.  For building something out of Legos or in Minecraft he can focus as intensely and for as long as he wants to.  School is easy for him, but focusing during it doesn't seem as natural.  I think he humors me by paying just enough attention to be a straight "A" student ("4's" as they score it here), which still leaves him class time for messing around.

Kalani had a nice day that un-ordination ceremony day.  She has good patience for the waiting around parts, and played with Keo's best friend's younger sister and two other girls a lot of the time.


Kalani with her grandmother and some new friends





I was telling Phra Kwan about how they were always that way, back to the very beginning.  In the first minutes of being born Keo was quite upset by the experience, crying very loudly.  Later it occurred to me that the staff didn't seem concerned because a baby would have to be very healthy to cry that intensely, and he was just put off by it all.  Kalani was relaxed; she cried, then was curious about what she was experiencing, and was too occupied by taking things in to stay upset.

Keo was excitable even before he was born.  I sang to both kids for months before that milestone event and he would kick his mother's stomach to respond, later wriggling instead as space got tight.  Kalani would acknowledge the singing but was more subdued about it, kicking a hello only when she  felt like it.  Keo knew me the minute I held him and talked and sang, but with Kalani I could see the recognition as her expression changed, when she was only around a couple of hours old.


Back to the novice monk experience.  I had planned to get Keoni to do an interview in English, to match a version he did in Thai in that first day or two.  We kept talking to different monks, including a couple with the authority to make that happen, and all agreed to do it, but no one ever did.  Thai culture can work out like that.  My wife took it badly, and I reminded her that in Thailand sometimes yes means yes, or it can mean maybe or no instead.  It's her culture--she's Thai--but that's not the page she is on.  The idea was for Keo to tell other English speakers about his experience, not for me to help raise his visibility.  Since he was almost certainly the least orderly novice I can see why they might've had reservations, even without it being awkward doing an interview in a language they don't speak themselves.

So I'll convey his impression here instead.  One reason why that wouldn't have worked well turned up immediately, that he didn't have thought-through answers to the draft of questions I had prepared.  I'll use those as talking points since the structure works.


with his best friend there, Sony


What was most difficult about being a novice?


Separation from family, not eating dinner, the hours they slept (waking up at 4, after going to sleep at 9, with a nap filling in the gap).  He mentioned being afraid of ghosts there, which is not unprecedented related to what he says at home.  Thais really do go on too much about all that stuff.  There's a prayer room in our house dedicated to dead family members, the "monk's room," and a small shrine that pays tribute to some local elephant headed god (which has nothing to do with ghosts, it's just interesting).

I asked him if wearing a robe was a problem or not, since those are tricky to fold and keep in place, but he said it just seemed normal soon enough.


a bit emotional in a part about honoring parents


that session did make for a cool visual theme though


I think the stress of being separated from family really set in on him during a session about family roles later in the outing, about respecting your parents.  Oddly we were visiting at that time, so he knew we were right outside the door, and that he would meet with us after the session ended, but it all still really got to him.  It was good timing being there for that part.

What were your favorite parts?


Meeting the other kids, making friends.  As we talk further he might fill in details about activities he liked best but for now we didn't get to that.  He did tell me a bit about kids he liked best and one he described as "his enemy," which didn't seem like a particularly rough form of an adversarial relationship.  It's all what you'd expect; some kid was nice, another funny.  He really liked Phra Vichai. 

Keo mentioned that one had been to 5 prior versions of temporary novice ordination (I think it was), which explains why more of them didn't have problems with the process; apparently many had been through it.  11 might have been a more typical starting age, since only three were younger than that, so if Keo elects to do it again at 10 he would be a rare case of a very young but experienced temporary samanane.

might be asking for trouble putting him on the mic


at the final ceremony, more ice cream and more playing around


What is Buddhism about, what is the main point of it?


His answer:  worshiping the Buddha, more or less, and supporting good karma, learning to do what you are supposed to do.  I don't accept that the Buddha is supposed to be seen as an entity you direct attention to, but that is how Thais tend to frame that.

Per my understanding people are reborn, as much as Buddhism even needs any afterlife scheme, and the Buddha is an exception to that, since he just more or less stopped existing.  To me Buddhism really isn't about all that anyway, afterlife explanations and guesses about existence of other realms of being.  It's more or less practical psychology, just not in a form people would be familiar with in Western countries.  I was going to get Keoni to convey some meditation tips for this, or practical guidance, but that seems more appropriate to ask of a 10 or 11 year old instead.


Keo and the Wat Pho abbot, Phra Rajvachiraporn


Are there any monks you are most grateful to for their help?


with Phra Vichai (left) and Sony

One monk I knew as monk myself, Phra Kwan, and he helped me by updating me on how Keo was doing.  I would have expected him to be the main support for Keo, but apparently another called Phra Vichai, a supervisor of sorts, was the one who looked after him most.  Keo slept beside the two of them, which somehow related to being more protected from ghosts that way.  Monks sleep on the floor, of course (that's familiar, isn't it?), but he said rather than being too hot, as it normally is in Thailand, it was a bit cool sometimes.


All of that monk staff did seem nice.  Phra Kwan said they all seemed to like Keo, that him being cheerful and positive was more a factor than him being a trouble-maker was a problem.  He was teaching Phra Vichai some English, they said; nice that he tried to be helpful.



Conclusions?


Keo and I will both be awhile placing all that happened.  I probably never will do that interview with him, since that made more sense while he was still a novice (samanane).  We'll go easy on him at first and by the time Songkran rolls around at the end of this week, the Thai traditional New Year, only the haircut will be a reminder.  I'll have him visit those monks, to say thanks, and to get to see them again, although Phra Kwan we already see, related to religious events or just stopping by there.  We will most likely give them tea (what else), but that will be it.  I probably took those concerns more seriously than I needed to, and stressed out for those two weeks over nothing.

Keo misses those friends and has already talked about going back to do it again next year to see them.  But he was happy to get back to familiar territory, to see his mother and grandmother, to play Risk and Monopoly, and read to his sister before bed.  She won't have him caught up enough on hugs anytime soon.


offering alms to Nane Keoni in Cha-am