In a world of commercial coffee and tea chains, Teja was an original. This one-of-a-kind tea house was located where the Himalayan Kitchen is now in Kaimuki. To this day, I still miss it.
The first time I went there, it was with my mother. When we arrived at that second floor dwelling, rich in dark wood, the owner greeted us. She was a Japanese woman in her mid-thirties. She was well-traveled and had learned about tea all over the world. She was also an amazing collector of cups and saucers and teapots, that would make even the grumpiest person smile. Her tea house wasn’t Asian, nor was it the frilly stuff that only appeal to women. For lack of a better word, it was more artsy.
The owner invited us to smell a variety of teas. There were spicier teas from India and more herbal ones from Japan and China. I chose one called Wedding Chai. You never know. Tea could bring a man into your life. You should try for luck anywhere you can get it. We sat down at one of the tables and the tea was brought out on black lacquer trays that would normally be used in teishoku cuisine. In all the compartments, she fit the cup, the saucer, the strainer, the teapot, the thing to hold the tea leaves etc. She also brought a separate pot of hot water so that we could continue to drink our tea.
In addition to the tea, we had small round scones with lovely strawberry jam. That day with my mother exploring some place new I will always remember for the rest of my life. I even wrote a story about it, which I’ve included at the end. I absolutely adored Teja. I would take friends there. I had my tea leaves read there. I would go there to study. It was just such a unique place. I think they had live music too.
Recently, I’ve been making scones for the first time in my life. I make two kinds, one with lemon, rosemary and currants and another with pumpkin. I’ve included the first recipe here. I’m still working on the pumpkin recipe.
I hope that the owner of Teja sees this blog and one day opens another place like that. We need originality in this world. And hers is greatly missed!
Lemon, Rosemary and Currant Scones
(Adapted from Agatha Kulaga’s and Erin Patinkin’s book, Overly.)
3 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar (could even put less)
1 1/2 T baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
1 stick very cold, unsalted butter, cubed
1 cup dried currants
2 cups heavy whipping cream or 1 1/4 cup half and half
2 T finely chopped rosemary
Zest of one lemon (two, if small)
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line baking sheet with parchment paper. Whisk flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in a bowl. Cut butter into flour mixture until it is the size of small peas. Stir in lemon zest, currants, and rosemary. Then mix in half and half or heavy cream until a dry, shaggy dough forms. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead gently until it comes together. Pat dough out to 3/4 inch thick, then fold in half. Repeat pattern three times to form a layered dough. Cut into 8 triangles. Place on baking sheet and chill for 30 minutes. Bake for 30 minutes. Leave in the oven an extra 10 minutes with the heat turned off for a golden brown crispy outside. Serve warm.
Harumi Worries About the Geckos
Once you mention gecko, everyone has a story. It begins in a dream, in that time of night when the subconscious glows as naked as a disco mirror ball. The gecko disembarks. He waits patiently in the Freudian abyss of our heroine, Harumi Goto. She is experiencing a nightmare, a recurring nightmare with location variation. This time, she is stationed in front of the paint samples at City Mill. Her expression, a look of utter bewilderment. There are no choices. She is forced to purchase Bridal White. She screams, petrified her life at thirty will be over without her having found a proper suitor. Our lovesick gecko is encouraged. He scatters across the ceiling just above her bed. He has gotten ahead of himself! Her glow-in-the-dark stars, trappings of the feng shui kind, cause him to miscalculate his mission. The gecko loses his footing, plummets six feet, landing on Harumi Goto’s cheekbone. He sputters his last soliloquy like a reptilian Hamlet before she turns on her side, slipping into the fantasy of the Brazilian soccer player, leftover paella, and a bit of bossa nova, unaware of the gecko corpse sliding gracefully into her mouth.
Harumi Goto wakes up spitting. Enough saliva leaves her mouth for a twenty-pound cat to thoroughly clean his body. And when she cannot force the purification any longer, she resorts to gargling with the oolong tea left on her desk three nights ago.
How do they find her? She made sure the night before. Used her duct tape like a hardware store Picasso. Sealed every crevice, every crack, every orifice of the house in strange cubist designs. But one cannot block out dreams.
She picks up the phone, calls her mother.
“Nancy Kwan Feng Shui,” answers an airy voice at the other end that sounds as if it should be followed by a gong.
“Since when are you Chinese?” Harumi asks.
“Since business started booming and your father wanted no part of it.”
“Pretty clever, huh? Maybe they’ve seen Flower Drum Song.”
“Isn’t that the story about the prostitute?”
Her mother snorts into the phone like a wildebeest with sleep apnea, “Name recognition is everything, Harumi.”
Harumi doesn’t answer, thinking she’s just seen another gecko on the ceiling.
Hallucinating is the first step to depression, the words of her therapist ex-boyfriend echo in her ears. His image stays suspended in her vision—the dancing dwarf donned in his Reyn’s inside out aloha shirt neatly tucked into belted black slacks. He cackles when he sees her fear. I-I-I ssseee dead reptiles, he hisses. Harumi growls like a Chihuahua. It’s been three months since he left her for the acupuncturist but it still makes her mad when she thinks about him.
“What’s wrong? Why are you calling me at five in the morning? I thought you were the lady who kept crying but refused to take that damn fountain out of her—”
“The geckos—” Harumi can’t bear to finish.
“Can’t you do something? Feng shui the house one more time?”
“Did you clear out the southwest corner?”
“In my closet?”
“Of course. More space is happiness. Clutter cancels.” This is the way her mother spoke to her nowadays, as if Confucius had a daughter. Her mother had studied feng shui from a Buddhist reverend who moonlighted so who knew if she were moving furniture correctly? Two years later, Nancy Kwan’s good intuition blossomed into her very own technique. It seemed to be working. Business was booming.
“Well, I was going to throw away my magazines, but then I thought, one day, I’m actually going to reflect on my life for an extended period of time and then I’ll need Oprah’s advice.”
“Excellent. You made 380 degrees progress.”
“You mean 180.”
“No 380—only twenty percent. Harumi, I already feng shuied your house for love, for money, for happiness, for prosperity, for health. I don’t know what to do about the geckos.”
“This is the twelfth time, Mom!”
“All right, all right. Take me to lunch.”
Harumi hangs up the phone slowly, her eyes locked on a gecko suctioned against her window screen. She fills her mouth with Oolong tea like a human pastry bag. She creeps closer and closer to the window like a cheetah that has just spotted its dinner on the savannah. With the force of a high-pressure garden hose, she expels the tea, sending the gecko flying into the mock orange hedge. She sat back in her bed and sighed. Yes, Harumi remembered. All this hoopla was the astrologer’s fault. He said a man would come into her life, the yang to complete her yin. That was too much pressure for one woman! The expectations were infinite. She should have listened to her mother. Nancy Kwan never liked that astrologer anyway. He was always cleaning his ears while he talked, so any flying snow was to be avoided with suspicion.
At five minutes to ten, Nancy Kwan is perched outside, ready to leave her role as the wife. She files her nails into perfect crescent moons glancing up every now and then for Harumi. There was no time to make a list of things to do, no time to premeditate her day. Her daughter’s geckos had ruined her pattern of predictability.
She tries to create a spontaneous itinerary in her head: Malama Salon for free tea and unlimited use of all the essential oils, Neiman Marcus to use the bathroom, and a visit to the dentist who feng shuied her molars with more gold than a Buddhist altar. It is no use. She needs paper. Nancy Kwan is a woman of lists. She makes lists of vegetables, birthdays, things she needs to say, things she wants to remember she said. She inventories her toilet paper, dates the dishwashing liquid to predict longevity. She charts her dreams on large kindergarten calendars. She lives on paper.
Harumi is different. Her plans stay in her head, float around all day like algae in the ocean at low tide. Her life is prone to getting tangled, claustrophobic like her father’s. In fact, their personalities are so identical, that Nancy Kwan has always wondered if Harumi could really be her child. After all, Harumi had no desire for revenge, no desire to teach people a lesson. She lacked fire. Too much water could bring one to tears.
Nancy Kwan blamed the astrologer. She hated that that man with the snowing ears could be right. He had warned her before Harumi was born. He had warned Nancy Kwan that she was about to give birth to a Scorpio rabbit if something wasn’t done.
“Can’t you suck her in for another two months?” the astrologer asked her with a grim face.
Nancy Kwan was appalled. “Are you crazy? I’m not an elephant, you know.”
“But, she’ll be a Scorpio rabbit. A Scorpio rabbit is fine, but if you wait two more months, she’ll be a fire dragon. That is the one you want. All the leaders and CEOs of the world are fire dragons.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this before I got pregnant?”
The astrologer shrugged his shoulders and began to pick his ears again. “At least she’s not a water rabbit. Too much of a water element and they’ll be crying all the time.”
Nancy Kwan blamed the astrologer. Then she blamed her husband.
After Harumi was born, he began to create a bona fide Daddy’s girl. Translation: water rabbit. She followed him everywhere. She laughed at everything he said. She cried if she had to stay with her mother. If men could nurse, Harumi would have stayed with her father. It was the ultimate ego expander for her husband. That’s why most men prayed for a daughter. They wanted to experience their very own cheering section—daily. Nancy Kwan disapproved of that much praise. Every daughter needed to be independent. She needed to got to preschool and then on day become a lawyer at a good firm. And this could not happen without some inner strength and that didn’t just come with praise. It came with suffering.
But her husband wanted to create a happy universe for his daughter. When Harumi could not stop crying after the first month at preschool, her father allowed her to stay home with him. And thus, her kindergarten year was two steps away from major delusion. Harumi clung to her father like an old blanket. She had to literally be yanked from him every day for the whole school year. Of course, Harumi’s father was willing to miss work and stay wit his little girl but the teacher absolutely forbade it.
Years later, Harumi finally got used to school. But she never outgrew her dislike of reality.
Nancy Kwan begins their day with something familiar—Kahala Mall. They immediately begin browsing at Liberty House searching for anything to buy. At least if they found a bargain, the day would be worthwhile. A few minutes at Liberty House become an hour. Nancy Kwan becomes restless. Her initial desire at adventure moves into routine just like when you’ve outgrown your childhood blanket and its rough edges are no longer comforting against your skin.
Then, Nancy Kwan spots an outfit for Harumi. “Look how special this fabric is. It’s beautiful,” she remarks.
Harumi wrinkles her nose. It is not very attractive on the hanger—a two-piece deal in turquoise, her least favorite color. It reminds her of the Caribbean, cruise ships and senior citizens eating shrimp cocktail and frozen yogurt.
“But Harumi, that’s the kind of girl you are. You look good in things that don’t look good on the hanger. At least try it on. You never know.”
The two of them stand in the dressing room together as Harumi pulls the top and skirt over her body. She turns to the mirror. There is a long pause between them and in that moment Nancy Kwan thinks she hears the voice of the Buddha. The overlay netting of peacock feather designs is beautiful against Harumi’s skin. Nancy Kwan admires her daughter as if Harumi were a goddess wearing the Mediterranean Ocean. It is a perfect fit.
“I’m starving,” Harumi announces after the Buddha stops talking. Without a word, Nancy Kwan digs into her purse for her embroidered bag of aromatherapy oils. She rubs tangerine and vanilla oils on Harumi’s forearms until they glisten and the illusion of creamsicles and summertime permeate the dressing room air. Harumi is almost satiated by the smell but then her stomach turns to hunger again—agitated hunger.
Nancy Kwan looks in her purse, looks in the compartment with her emergency fund, the money she slowly siphons from her husband’s wallet for extracurricular activities. She offers Harumi her find, a neatly packed bag of almonds. Harumi gags at the sight of them.
“They’ll save you from hunger. Do you know that your father would rather get the shakes and die of hunger before he’d pack almonds in his pocket?”
“They make me want to throw up. They look like tears. I don’t want to eat any more sadness.”
“So sad. Suffer, then.”
They walk in silence down the long, wide halls of Kahala Mall: Harumi’s mother eating from a tiny Ziplock bag of almonds and Harumi looking for a place to eat. There are too many people here, Harumi mumbles to herself. Summertime is best spent away from the malls, the beaches, the restaurants. One should just curl up in his or her bed and live in the space of dreams.
Nancy Kwan decides they should go to Kaimuki. She wants to find a new teahouse, the one she has seen on the news. Harumi wants to talk about the geckos. She wants to go someplace familiar.
“That’s your problem, Harumi. You don’t like the unknown. You don’t like the possibilities right here in reality.”
“Yes I do.”
“No you don’t. You can’t deal with reality. Remember when you were little and the first recess bell rang? What happened?”
“I went out to recess.”
“No you didn’t. You told the teacher, ‘there’s too many people,’” Nancy Kwan mocked in a voice on the verge of tears.
“I don’t remember that.”
“You’re just like your father.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“You don’t change. Even as you got older, you were always afraid that the neighbor’s Christmas party would never end. You stood by the bathroom window counting the cars that were left. I should have been a stay-at-home mom. Then you wouldn’t be so afraid of reality.”
Harumi doesn’t say a word. She was feeling bad that she didn’t have anything in common with her mother. At least she wanted to see the thread that connected her. Even adopted kids began to look like their parents. Even dogs began to look like their owners. Harumi didn’t look like her mother at all.
They park on the street. A parking space opens closer to the café. Harumi’s mother insists they move the car to be completely in the southwest, the marriage direction. When they move it, another car leaves. Her mother gives her the eye. Harumi ignores her.
They find the place and arrive just as the owner opens for business. She lets them inhale the aromas of as many teas as they want: African Mauritius, Argentinean Mate, Indian Darjeeling, Jasmine Pearls, Chrysanthemum and Amber Oolong.
“No, no tea from India. You never know. Child labor. I don’t support that.” The owner and Harumi exchange glances.
Harumi’s mother, always attracted to vanilla, picks a black tea called Phoenix, mumbling something about feng shui. Harumi chooses one called Wedding Chai. Her mother thinks it will purge the ex-boyfriend and lead her to an auspicious wedding. They order salads and papaya scones to go with their tea.
The rattan chairs near the window entice Nancy Kwan. She sees a red crystal heart hanging above the chairs and verifies with her compass that it is indeed in the southwest direction. Two men sit nearby in the corner next to the Java tea root. They both chatter loudly on their cellular phones.
“I hate people who use cellular phones in restaurants,” her mother begins in a loud obake voice, “I won’t be able to digest my food properly. I’ll feel like I’ll have to listen to their whole conversation.”
“Look. They don’t even talk to each other,” Harumi adds feeling brave, knowing they would never hurt a senior citizen.
The owner brings the tea on separate trays. “Teishoku tea. Everything in compartments. Look at all this paraphernalia!” her mother chirps happily. She begins touching and admiring the teapot that holds the water, the individual teapot for each person, the tiny bowl filled with tea leaves, the cup and the saucer, the strainer and the tiny ceramic plate to rest the strainer on.
“Very Japanese,” Harumi’s mother says to the owner. “Everything is presentation.”
Nancy Kwan likes the food too. The greens are fresh. The scone is warm. There is no need to stage a silent protest.
Last Saturday, Nancy Kwan ate with her husband at a pricey, upscale café where they serve their Nalo greens with wasabi dressing. Harumi had taken her mother there before and it had always been perfection. But this time, half the salad was rotten. Harumi’s father quietly ate the lettuce, rotten and all, too engrossed in the planes ascending into the clouds. But her mother would not stand for it. She plucked each rotten leaf out of the raw vegetable wasteland and placed each one artistically in mermaid tails around the edge of the plate. The waiter saw her protest and quickly offered her a haupia pudding pie as a peace offering. For Nancy Kwan, that hardly made up for a missed lunch. She waited there until the chef allowed her to make her own salad.
“Tell me about the geckos,” her mother says while scraping the yogurt dressing form the salad and removing the grapes, unsure if they’re from a country that uses banned pesticides.
“Well, I keep having the same dream, the one with David Attenborough narrating. According to David, the gecko goes up on the ceiling, falls onto my head and then into my mouth.”
Harumi’s mother keeps eating and blotting the oil from the papaya scone, shaking her head in acknowledgment.
“The worst part is he makes it sound like it’s my fault the gecko died.”
“Harumi, you should feel so privileged that David Attenborough chose your dream to narrate. I hear he’s very good at documentaries.”
“Mom. The geckos.”
“Well, do the critters ever say anything to you? I mean, when we had that ant problem where they thought nuestra casa era su casa, your father talked with them. He’s such a pacifist, you know.”
“What does he say to them?”
“Well, he stuns one with a rag and then he says to the rest that scatter, ‘Now go tell your friends never to come back here.’”
“You’re joking, right?”
“No. So what do they say, these geckos?”
“Well, it’s only one. He says to me before he dies, ‘Helloooo Harumi. I’ve been waiting for you all week.’”
“Is that how he says it?”
“Yes. But in a more sultry voice. I think he’s a smoker.”
Nancy Kwan doesn’t say a word. She watches her daughter’s face for the slightest twitch that this might be a lie. But her face stays as smooth as an egg. She had no other choice but to conclude the inevitable—her daughter was weird.
Of course, this wasn’t the first time she thought that. For a mother like Nancy Kwan, Harumi was always a weird child. Live in reality! Tap the glass at the pet store and scare the fish. Pledge allegiance to yourself. But no matter what Nancy Kwan said, Harumi lived in dreams. She was like runoff in a storm. You wondered how much of your patience she’d erode.
“I don’t even like geckos,” Harumi continues, unaware of her mother’s revelation. “They’re not very nice looking creatures, and about the most they can do is to grow back their tail.”
“That’s partial reincarnation. How exciting! You don’t know whose tail they’ll have next.”
Harumi gives her mother a stare.
“They’re always around, Mom. You can’t get rid of them. Last year on Maui, I spent an hour trying to get one out of my hotel room because I couldn’t bear the thought of a baby gecko falling into my mouth as I slept.”
“At least you’d have someone in bed with you.”
Harumi unsuccessfully tries to throw her mother a piercing glare. Nancy Kwan continues talking.
“So, changing the subject, did you go out with Warren Lee?”
“The guy who works at the bank. Your father said that he always makes happy faces on your deposit slips. How cute!”
“Really. What Dad failed to tell you is that Warren Lee has a face of linoleum with two bulging eyes that are beyond hapa haole. His face is shaped like some, some—”
“You know, Harumi, looks aren’t everything.” Harumi stares at her mother, watches her blot every last possibility of cholesterol off her plate. “As you get older, the personality really does take over.”
“That’s not true.”
“Yes it is. By the time you’re seventy with enough sun exposure, you’ll have cataracts and you won’t be able to see your man anyway.”
“But that’s when he’s seventy. I don’t want to start out bad. Dad was very good-looking when he was young.”
“If you say so.”
“You don’t think so?”
“Oh, Harumi. You’re not a child anymore. I’m not going to purposely pull the wool over our eyes just because you only want to feel warmth.”
“But you do love, Dad, right?”
“What do you love about Dad?”
“Well, he’s such a good man. And he’s very handy around the house. He’s good with the finances too.”
“That doesn’t sound like love.”
“Okay, he’s smart and funny and very responsible.”
“Doesn’t he give you gifts?”
“Yes. But I don’t like his gifts. I buy my own birthday, Christmas, New Year’s and Valentine’s Day presents.”
“Mom, it’s the thought that counts.”
“If you don’t think, Harumi, it doesn’t count.”
“Yes. If I give a diabetic a box of candy for Christmas, do you think that’s thoughtful knowing that he can’t eat it?”
“I guess I didn’t see it in that way.”
“Well, what don’t you like about Dad?”
“He’s a pacifist, you know. That’s great and all but he should do more in a day. Not spend his evening watching the ants that are sleeping under the kitchen sponge and then come to me and tell me such facts about nature like ‘ants sleep too, you know.’”
“Oh, I didn’t know.”
Harumi continues to chew on her scone. Thirty seconds of chewing makes for good digestion. Her mother doesn’t even have to speak for Harumi to hear her voice. Nancy Kwan cannot help but smile. She smiles a triumphant grin, one that makes her crow’s-feet curl up into tiny waves that seem to crash into her twinkling eyes. It is a smile Harumi never did enjoy.
“What?” Harumi says finally.
“Thank goodness! You’re not weird, Harumi. You are a snob. It’s much easier to have a snobby daughter than a weird one,” she sighs in relief.
“I’m not a snob.”
“Yes you are. You want a perfect man.”
“No I don’t. I went out with that guy who had his leg amputated. What was his name?”
“Ah, yes. Lee Wachi, Hapa Haole Brad Pitt. And you think that makes you sincere? Please, Harumi. You would never date a man who looked like a gecko no matter how good his personality, how large his IRA among other things, nor how big his heart. You’re a snob. You want someone perfect.”
Nancy Kwan clasps her hands together. “How fabulous! You must be my daughter!” She stands up and begins clinking her teacup with all the other customers and shouting, “Kampai!” as if they were at a yakudoshi party.
Harumi continues to eat her scone in silence waiting for her mother to finish her latest hoorah.
“Harumi,” Nancy Kwan begins as she returns to her seat, “Listen to me. You have nothing to worry about. I, Nancy Kwan, have never birthed an ugly child and I don’t intend to let you marry one either. All right?”
“All right,” she murmurs and Nancy Kwan clinks her glass.
They have a long lunch. They talk about how there is too much traffic in Waikiki. They talk about if Harumi wants her Uncle Hiroshi to come to her future wedding, she’ll have to get him a room and a driver because his one good eye is filled with cataracts. They decide on the Turtle Bay Resort. They decide Harumi has too many friends.
“You really should try to get rid of the clutter, Harumi. Get rid of some friends every year and then you’ll be able to afford your wedding.”
They decide that spaghetti strap dresses with bra cups are the most flattering for Harumi’s thin body. And the best flowers are orchids because they last.
Nancy Kwan laughs all of a sudden. “But all this is for nothing. You have no man. All you have are gecko-chans—half possibilities. You always do things backwards,” Nancy Kwan says in a loud voice. The patrons turn to look at Harumi.
Harumi can do nothing but smile defensively.
It’s 2:30 p.m. and Nancy Kwan wants to go home.
“I forgot my cellular and that lady with the fountain in her bedroom might call me again.”
“Why do you help her if she’s so much trouble?”
“I feel bad. She keeps telling me her brain is shrinking. It’ll happen one day to all of us, Harumi. So I help her.”
“I hope it doesn’t happen to you, Mom. How will I ever deal with the geckos?”
“Don’t worry. It’s the good that die young. I’m going to live forever.”
When they reach her house, Nancy Kwan leans in as if she were about to reveal her adjusted gross income and tells Harumi, “I had fun today.” She smiles gently at her daughter and in that moment her face loses the harsh lines, the wrinkles of silent protests and revenge.
“Remember Harumi, you’re never going to find someone perfect. Every man has an inner gecko waiting to come out.”
“An inner gecko? This is supposed to help me?”
Nancy Kwan sighed. “This is all your father’ fault. Fathers, you see, like to tell their daughters the Disney version of life.”
“And what is that?”
“That life is black and white. This person is evil and this person is good. This person is handsome and this person is ugly.”
“And it’s not like that?”
“No. Life is messy. Love is messy. There are no absolutes. I can feng shui your place again and again but it’s you that has to change, Harumi.”
“I guess you’re right, Mom.”
Nancy Kwan gets out of the car and shuts the door. She sticks her head in the open window. “Don’t worry about the geckos, Harumi. Make friends with them. They’re harmless.” She smiles at Harumi and walks toward the house.
As the door closes, Harumi hears her mother’s voice, a faint echo in the garage, “Helloooo Harumi. I’ve been waiting for you all week.”