Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.
By Arka Ray
Wishing for a thing does not make it so.
In India, a cup of tea is predictable. In a country spanning 27 states, 56 languages, a billion people, and every climate imaginable, the cup of tea is a constant.
Pure cow’s milk imbues the liquid with a golden hue and a rich caramel flavor. An abundance of sugar makes it candy-sweet. A dash of masala, cinnamon, or cumin gives it a tinge of spice. Chai is liquid sunshine, served up in clay cups by chai-wallas in their makeshift street stalls with thatched roofs.
I was raised in the ritual of tea. My days kicked off with toast, jam, eggs, and a steaming mug of chai. After school, I’d be greeted by another cup, accompanied by Britannia tea-biscuits. And I would be with family.
Chai is the catalyst that brought my family together every evening. My parents would come home at tea-time. Neighbors and relatives would drop by, often unannounced, to take tea with us. There would be gossip, games, and a seamless transition into the mellow evening, lubricated by several pots of chai.
The evening tea, a quaint colonial artifact, remains a cornerstone of the Indian family. An irony I’m thankful for. It helped forge my lifelong bond with the drink. A bond that was about to be tested.
“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” my hero said to the Replicator, and out poured an alien, dark liquid bearing no resemblance to the chai I knew and adored.
It was 1997 and I was 14. Star Trek: The Next Generation had been airing on Rupert Murdoch’s Star India Network since ’95, a year after its original run ended in the US. We always got our shows late. It was my first introduction to Star Trek and to Jean-Luc Picard. Barely two seasons since my first encounter with Picard’s crew at Farpoint, I knew that this was the man I wanted to be.
It’s difficult for a teenager to practice compassion while dealing with perpetual hormone-generated aggression. Compassion was a sign of weakness in the constant war for psychological and physical dominance that played out in the classroom and the schoolyard.
Jean-Luc Picard was the antithesis.
He taught me that power was meaningless without compassion. With all the firepower of Starfleet’s flagship at his fingertips, his decisions were instead driven by compassion and wisdom. It was compassion that drove his arguments for the rights of his android Lieutenant Commander in the “Measure of a Man.” It was compassion that stayed him from wiping out the Borg, a race that had once enslaved his body and mind, in “I, Borg.”
Picard made kindness and integrity cool. I wanted to emulate everything this man did.
Thus, I was beyond excited when I learned, in Season 2’s Contagion, that Picard’s drink of choice is the humble tea. Here was the first tangible connection between me and the man I wanted to be.
The problem being that I had no idea what Earl Grey was or how I could find some.
I hit up my new best friend, the internet, for the lowdown on Earl Grey. Over a dial-up connection, a pre-Wikipedia site informed me that the leaves of my beloved chai were usually sourced from Darjeeling, a small town nestled in the Eastern Himalayas. But Darjeeling tea was just one brew among thousands. Earl Grey, named after Earl Charles Grey, who once received it as a diplomatic gift, was one of the most popular. Its defining trait is a unique citrus flavor derived from bergamot oil produced in the Mediterranean. Cool, got it.
I visited every grocery store in my neighborhood looking for Earl Grey. In vain. I recruited my parents on this quest, and they helped broaden the search perimeter. The Earl remained elusive. It was impossible to find anything but Darjeeling and its close cousins unless you ordered room service at a posh hotel.
After about a month, we gave up the search. I kept drinking Darjeeling, occasionally without milk and sugar.
Through the course of TNG, Picard ordered Earl Grey over and over again. “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” Noun, descriptor, descriptor. The cadence never varied. And each time the phrase sparked a pang within me. The pang of a wish unfulfilled, a goal unmet.
The cup of Earl Grey went from being a curiosity to an aspiration. It became a symbol of the goals I wanted to achieve, but did not know how to.
Then Picard showed me the way, as he always does.
To boldly go… to the coffee shop
“All Good Things,” the Star Trek: The Next Generation series finale, takes Jean-Luc Picard back in time to his first day on the Enterprise. While trying to figure out the reason behind the time-shift, Picard asks the Replicator for a tea — Earl Grey, hot. The Replicator is unable to comply. The drink hasn’t been programmed in yet. Picard simply smiles to himself.
I tear up. Partly because my favorite series was ending. But more so because I was witnessing a time when even Captain Picard couldn’t get a cup of Earl Grey. On his own ship.
He had to start somewhere. And so would I.
Three years after “All Good Things” aired in India, I walk out of San Francisco International Airport and board a shuttle headed to Berkeley. It’s my first time in the U.S. I’m about to start my freshman year at the university.
I reach Berkeley around 9 pm, check into my dorm, and introduce myself to some floor-mates gathered in the lounge. I decide to go to bed and get an early start the next day.
But then I lie awake for hours.
I am excited, but nervous. This country, where I have no friends and no family, is going to be my home for the next four years, possibly longer. And what I do in this foreign land will determine the course of the rest of my life.
A few hours of sporadic, jet-lagged sleep later, I step out to explore the early morning. I make my way towards the campus, walking among an eclectic but weirdly comforting mix of students, hippies, and hobos.
I realize that I need caffeine and a bite to eat. I enter a coffee shop nestled between an American Apparel and a store selling Tibetan goods and artifacts. I walk up to the counter, with the intention of ordering a cup of coffee and one of these donut-shaped things called bagels that look pretty enticing.
It’s then that I notice the colorful boxes, lined up neatly behind the lady at the counter. Each box has the word Twinings emblazoned within a gold bar, along with a description of what it contains.
And then I see it. The yellow box.
Time freezes. In that moment, I realize that my being here was not luck, nor coincidence. It was the cumulative result of difficult choices and sacrifices that my family and I had made to get me to my dream school. I had earned a small celebration. The universe had kept that drink from me because the next four words would taste sweeter now than they possibly could have in 1997.
With a beaming smile on my face, I turn to the lady at the counter and say, “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”
Originally published at popularium.com on November 3, 2016.