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The Common Language of Tea with Andrea Wang

Andrea Wang shares Luli and the Language of Tea, a story that reminds us that when you're looking to communicate with people, you look for a common bond.

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The Children’s Book Podcast

S6E04, The Common Language of Tea with Andrea Wang



[2:31] Introduction


Matthew: Welcome to the Children’s Book Podcast. I’m Matthew.


I am a teacher, a librarian, and a fan of kids.


And today we are talking about making friends beyond the language barrier.


And we’ll do that with the help of a very wonderful picture book.



[2:52] Book Summary


Matthew: Luli and the Language of Tea by Andrea Wang; illustrated by Hyewon Yum



Though they may speak different languages, kids from all over the world come together to enjoy the shared pastime of tea in this delicious book for young readers.


When five-year-old Luli joins her new English as a Second Language class, the playroom is quiet. Luli can't speak English, neither can anyone else. That's when she has a brilliant idea to host a tea party and bring them all together.


Luli removes her teapot, thermos, and teacups from her bag and calls out "Chá!" in her native Chinese. One by one, her classmates pipe up in recognition: in Russian, Hindi, Turkish, Persian, Arabic, and Spanish, Portuguese, and Swahili. Tea is a tasty language they all know well, and it gives them a chance to share and enjoy each other's company. When all the tea is gone and it's time for dessert, Luli gets to use her favorite English word, cookie! After that, the playroom isn't so quiet.


Informed by her own experience as the child of Chinese immigrant parents, Andrea Wang makes the point that when you're looking to communicate with people, you look for a common bond. The word for "tea" is similar in many languages, and tea becomes the unifying metaphor that brings a diverse group of children together. Additional material at the back of the book explores the rich and ancient history of tea drinking across cultures all around the world and contains maps, statistics, and fascinating details that will delight young readers.



[4:39] Meet Our Guest: Andrea Wang


Andrea: Hi, my name is Andrea Wang, and you can pronounce that “Wong” if you want to. It's “Wong” in Mandarin. And I just say “Wang” in American English so that everybody spells it with an “A” and not an “o”. But no matter how you say it, it's not incorrect.

I write picture books and middle grade novels. And I am the author most recently of Luli and the Language of Tea.



[5:05] Andrea is a Tea-Drinker


Matthew: Let’s get the most obvious questions out of the way first, shall we? Is Andrea a tea-drinker?


Andrea: I'm a huge tea drinker. Now. I wasn't when I was little because I thought it was very bitter tasting. Um, but I, that's all I drink now pretty much.


Matthew: Do you have a go-to?


Andrea: A hot cinnamon spice tea. Yeah.


Matthew: Oh, that sounds really wonderful!


Andrea: It's delicious.


Matthew: What about you, listeners? Do you enjoy tea?


Julia: I really like tea because it makes me feel really calming and I like peppermint tea.


Matthew: Do you put anything in your tea?


Julia: I put honey.



[5:45] Leaves and Hot Water


Matthew: Wait. Do you all know what tea actually is? I mean, when does a drink qualify as a tea?


Andrea: Tea is at its most basic, just leaves and hot water, but leaves from a very particular plant, which has a scientific name that sounds really cool. It's called Camelia Sinensis. And it grows in China.


And so the story is that like close to 5,000 years ago, there was some emperor in China having a picnic outside, traveling around the country and a cup of hot water to drink and some leaves blew into it. And he drank it and he thought it was great and he wanted that again.


So supposedly that's how tea was invented. Of course you do a lot more to the tea leaves now. They're processed in different ways, and that's how you get green tea and oolong tea and black tea. So there's all different ways to process those tea leaves. But I do not recommend drinking stuff that falls into your cup outside.



[6:51] Language Barriers


Matthew: As the title of the book suggests, this story is about more than tea. It’s about a common language that allows a group of kids to communicate with one another and share something in common.


Andrea: I was really thinking about readers like me, who are the children of immigrants, as well as their parents, the immigrants themselves. So, I was really just thinking about newcomers to the United States.


My parents were immigrants. They came to the United States in the late 1960s and I was born here, in Massachusetts. And I think they've just always been on my mind, especially recently.


And I write the kind of stories I do to keep a connection to them. And it's sort of my way of keeping a conversation with them because they're no longer with us. And you know, I feel like I didn't really understand my parents until I was a grownup and what they had gone through in their childhoods in China. And so, this is just my way of honoring them and writing about some of the things that we shared, you know, as I was growing up with them.


One of the things they always used to do was to give tea to everybody who came over to the house regardless of where they were from or their culture or anything, you got tea and snacks if you came over. So, you know, and, and a lot of times I helped make that tea.


And so I also, you know, saw a lot of what my parents had to do to make it here, make a living here in the United States. It's really hard to give up everything you've ever known and move somewhere completely different, where you don't speak the language that well or at all. And so I wanted just to, you know, um, kind of like, you know, honor them that way by writing a story like Luli.



[8:49] When Our Languages Are Different


Matthew: Have you had a student join your class who does not speak the language that the teacher uses in the class? If you live in the United States, most likely that language would be English, but this is an experience that can happen anywhere in the world.


So, what do you do to help someone feel welcome in your class when they don’t speak the same language as you?


Julia: I could teach them, like, how to speak English to say, like, “hi” maybe. Yeah, I could try to learn their language. And I could use sign language if they didn’t. Yeah, or I could just invite them to play with me. I love making new friends cuz everyone is really nice to me.



[9:32] From Learning English to Teaching English


Matthew: Luli and the Language of Tea opens on a wordless spread where grownups are dropping off their kids to a room displaying a “Free Childcare” sign while they go into a separate room marked “English as a Second Language”. The grownups are each carrying a blue book or folder.



Perhaps your grownups have been to similar classes. Perhaps your grownups speak a language other than English as their first language, but learned or are learning English as a second or third language. If so, you’ve got a special connection with Andrea!


Andrea: My father, I mean… Both my parents learned basic English in China, but it's one thing to learn it, reading and writing, and another thing to, you know, come and have a, you know, a fluent conversation. Right?


And so he actually learned much more English. He was very good at languages and, intern, started teaching English as, you know, a second language as they called it then ESL. Or, you know, ELL classes now, I guess you would say, to not only high school students, but also to people who had come from other countries to work in hospitals because my mother was a nurse and so he had access to, you know, to the hosp… the hospitals knew him through my mom.


And so, yeah, he was, he was teaching English to those immigrant medical professionals because, you know, my mom was also trying to help them pass certification exams so that they could get their medical licenses here, and practice medicine. And my dad was helping with the English side of it.



[11:20] Giving One Another a Helping Hand


Matthew: Andrea saw great acts of selflessness in her parents growing up and in the ways they served others like them in their community.


Andrea: We can use a lot of skilled workers in the United States and it's just too bad that language is often, as you say, that barrier. Right?


And I just remember one of the women that came to help my mom, when she was, my mom was ill for a while, and so she was helping do some chores around the house for my mom. And she was a recent immigrant from China. In China, she had been a nuclear physicist, but you can't, she couldn't find a job doing that here because of the language.

And so, you know, she was cooking and cleaning instead. And, you know, hoping to practice her English enough so that she could, you know, take up her career as a nuclear physicist again.



[12:25] BREAK


[12:32] Sharing What You Have


Matthew: Sharing is a selfless act. I am sure that some of you share easily and have no problem letting others have a turn, or sharing food with someone who has less or has none.


But at the same time, sharing requires sacrifice. You have to willingly give up something that belongs to you because you feel that it could mean something more to someone else.


If sharing comes naturally to you, that is so excellent. And if it doesn’t, know that it’s okay. It takes a lot of time and practice and selflessness. And it also can be a bridge toward commonality.


Andrea: Well, I think sharing food is one of the central themes in a lot of my books. I'm kind of obsessed with food in general. And so, or Luli, for those of you who haven't read it yet, Luli shares tea with her friends who are also non-English speakers. And just that act of sharing the, you know, beverage that they all recognize and then sharing some cookies at the end really brings them together. And they, you know, realize they have a lot more in common.


And I think, in general, just being respectful of people from different cultures is huge. Right? Just instead of reacting with fear, but reacting with curiosity perhaps.



[13:58] We All Have Our Own Story


Matthew: It’s impossible to know the way someone will respond when you reach out to share. Likewise, it’s not always possible to know the impact an instance of sharing will have. The story you are living is different from the story lived by others. And how you impact someone else’s story says a lot about who you are as a person.


Andrea: We all have our own story that's going on from day to day. And then, you know, when someone comes in or we're put into a new situation, we're suddenly thrust into the middle of someone else's story. I. We have to, you know, observe and react and figure out what's going on.



[14:37] Reading Aloud From Luli and the Language of Tea


Matthew: I asked if Andrea would mind sharing an excerpt of Luli and the Language of Tea with all of you. She picked a wonderful spread and I’d love to invite you all to picture it in your mind as she shares.



Andrea: Um, sure. Let's see. I really like the page where, it's right after Luli has discovered she's run out of tea, so she has an empty cup and then the children pass around her empty cup and start sharing little bits of their tea into her cup. And so it's that spread where you just see from above the table and you see all the children around it. And they've all got their cups of tea and it reads…


All around the table, each child gave a little tea.

Now everyone had a share. Hands curled around warm cups.

Mouths curved into shy smiles.


So they've bridged that barrier now. They're no longer strangers. Now they've had some tea and they've figured out how to share and they're all happy.



[15:46] Representation in the Back Matter


Matthew: The book continues after its story. Andrea has included back matter that invites readers to explore the representation of different countries in the book as well as the representation of people from all different countries around the world that have immigrated to the United States.


Andrea: The back matter is pretty much just about where each child in this story is from and a little bit about the tea drinking practices in that country. But the continents are shown in the back matter, and I really wanted to put in, according to the US Census, how many immigrants from that continent were living in the United States, or are living in the United States as of 2019.


I thought it was important to share those numbers to show how there are immigrants from all the continents, including Europe. You know, often when we talk about immigrants in this country, we think immediately of people of color. And often that rhetoric is very negative.


But I wanted to show that, you know, there are European immigrants here. And, you know, maybe the number of immigrants from a particular continent that we have in mind is not as much as some would lead us to believe.



[17:05] Representation in the End Papers, Too


Matthew: Representation of these different countries begins from the moment you open the book, on the end papers. Illustrator Hyewon Yum showcases beautiful teacups from all around the world. It’s such a wonderful way to set the stage for this story.


Andrea: A lot of that credit goes to Hyewon for the illustrations and for those brilliant end papers. I always like to point them out to kids and they realize they're, you know, these teacups are from all the different 10 countries in the book. And I point out that they're all different and they're all beautiful and they're all used for the same thing.



[17:42] A Message from Andrea Wang


Matthew: It is that time: when we say goodbye for now to Andrea Wang


I am grateful to Andrea for sharing stories of her childhood and, specifically, of her parents. I love what she taught us about tea, both as an ancient tradition and one that is universally shared across the globe. I am also thankful for our discussions about immigration and challenging us to consider how we welcome people from other countries outside of our own.


As I prepare my library for the next time it is full of children, and as you prepare for whatever is coming next in your day, I asked Andrea if she had a message she would like me to share with all of you. And, of course, she did!


Andrea: Reach out and make a new friend. You might not think that they, you know, look like you or that you have anything in common, but if you, you know, just try a little bit, share some of yourself, like Luli shared some of herself and her culture, you might find that you actually have a lot in common.



[18:51] Closing


Matthew: The Children’s Book Podcast is written, edited, and produced by me, Matthew Winner. Special thanks to Julia for helping me with this episode.


Julia: Hi. My name is Julia and I am 8 years old.


Matthew: Follow the show wherever podcasts are found, and leave us a rating or review when you do. That helps us out a whole lot because it helps the show get discovered by and recommended to new listeners.


Andrea? Where can listeners find you?


Andrea: My website is andreaywang.com. That's the letter “y”. And online, Twitter, I'm also AndreaYWang. And Instagram I spell the Y out as W-H-Y because I'm super curious about everything. So it's AndreaWhyWang.


Matthew: Visit matthewcwinner.com for a full transcript of this episode plus some questions that you can use as you think about this episode.


You can also reach out and let me know what kind of tea you enjoy. Or, if you don’t like tea, what other drink you enjoy.


Write to me or send me a message at matthewmakespods@gmail.com. That’s M-A-T-T-H-E-W M-A-K-E-S P-O-D-S at gmail dot com.


Our podcast logo was created by Duke Stebbins (https://stebs.design/).


Our music is by Podington Bear.


Podcast hosting by Libsyn.


You can support the show and buy me a coffee at www.matthewcwinner.com.


Don’t forget to check out the Reading Culture Podcast with Jordan Bookey, from Beanstack, if you are a fellow teacher or librarian. It’s the perfect podcast to explore building a stronger culture of reading in our communities. It’s available wherever podcasts are found.


And on that note…


Be well. And read on.



End Of Episode

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