Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight
A Xuxa universe story. Yes, I actually wrote an entire thing around three of the six types of Chinese tea. I’m a total geek. It won the British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Short Fiction and was shortlisted for a Locus Award.
It took me a while to get around to writing this story: I’ve had the “three different teas as a through line for a story” kicking in my brain for five years or so, but I’ve never had the right story come along.
Chinese tea classifications includes that old chestnut, pu-ehr tea or “black tea” (whereas what the West thinks of as “black tea” is named “red tea” in Chinese, in reference to the colour of the brew that results). I made a choice to translate 黑茶 as “dark tea” rather than “black tea” in order to flag the difference (though in Vietnamese, those teas are known as Trà Phổ Nhĩ, which is the name of Pu’er). And, uh, just in case you’re wondering: red teas are oxidised, black teas are actually fermented and have a very different, pungent and earthy taste. If you haven’t tried one, I highly recommend getting hold of one–they’re sold in blocks, sometimes with patterns–I once saw a very pretty brick imprinted with the God of Longevity).
The green tea of the first scene is probably a sencha, that most temperamental of teas: sencha leaves are steamed rather than dried, which gives them a particularly grassy taste but also means that brewing them for even *slightly* too long or with slightly too hot water results in a really bitter brew.
The number of days I mention are also significant: forty-nine days is the time it takes the soul to cross through Hell and be reborn in Buddhist thought; a hundred days is “the end of tears” (not as important as the 49 days or the year anniversary, but there’s a ceremony for this). The mourning period for a parent is three years–for a civil servant like Quang Tu, it used to be a three-year sabbatical under the Empire, which is rather devastating for a career, and there’s plenty of tales of officials manoeuvring to cheat that prohibition.
I crowd-sourced the question of which research would be useful to a galactic empire, since I didn’t want to fall back on my usual clichés of war weapons or medical cures–my deepest thanks to everyone involved. In the end I went for simple, aka “secure the food supply” 🙂
Green tea: green tea is made from steamed or lightly dried tea leaves. The brew is light, with a pleasant, grassy taste. Do not over-steep it, lest it become bitter.
After the funeral, Quang Tu walked back to his compartment, and sat down alone, staring sightlessly at the slow ballet of bots cleaning the small room–the metal walls pristine already, with every trace of Mother’s presence or of her numerous mourners scrubbed away. He’d shut down the communal network–couldn’t bear to see the potted summaries of Mother’s life, the endlessly looping vids of the funeral procession, the hundred thousand bystanders gathered at the grave site to say goodbye, vultures feasting on the flesh of the grieving–they hadn’t known her, they hadn’t cared–and all their offerings of flowers were worth as much as the insurances of the Embroidered Guard.