Not your cup of tea?

Ten of us were having dinner at a private style restaurant. Unlike mom and pop “family style” diners, which serve standardized fare at similar prices, a private style restaurant caters to the discerning rich, who have a good relationship with the owners. Trust and taste define this good relationship. Guests trust that the owner will provide quality tea, food, and service for a price that includes a “reasonable” profit. In turn, the owner trusts that these guests not only desire, but also can afford high quality teas, expertly brewed, seafood delicacies and soups adorned with beautifully shaped fungi. There is a menu, but it seems to be used for pedagogical purposes, including the health benefits of particular foods and herbs. Consequently, guests don’t order individual dishes, instead a meal’s host discusses a menu with the owner, who then plans the meal. The price of the meal is either set ahead of time (the host setting an upper limit, for example) or, if the guest returns regularly, the owner can plan a meal based on the number of guests. Special requests for imported seafood can be accommodated with 24-hour notice. Private style restaurants set the stage for intimate displays of taste and friendship. Sharing a meal of this quality, for example, enabled my friend both to demonstrate how much he cares for us (because the food is outstanding) and to show off how very good his good life is (because really, the food is that outstanding. And the tea. Wow.)

Bourdieu, of course, has reminded us that elites use aesthetic distinction or good taste to solidify class identity, arguing that cultivated predispositions to certain foods, music, and art enable us to recognize relative social status; we “like” that which is appropriate to our social position and “dislike” that which is not. He also famously emphasized exclusion and snobbery in his analysis of the French bourgeoisie; distinction as a way of excluding others. Indeed, much social analysis of distinction focuses on how elites viscerally maintain their superiority because upon encountering the culture or art of another class, he or she feels “disgust provoked by horror or visceral intolerance (‘feeling sick’) of the tastes of others.” However, last night there was no active disliking going on. Instead, we gathered in a private dining room precisely in order to indulge our common taste. Indeed, our meal encouraged guests to engage in a bit of competitive — albeit friendly — reminiscing about refined consumption in other settings — drinking expensive whiskey in London, gaming in Las Vegas, and shopping in LA and NYC were all mentioned. “See,” our stories emphasized, “My likes are like yours. We are us.”

The morning after, I’m thinking about the importance of recognizing ourselves in others and how quickly likes and dislikes escalate to experiences of exclusion and loneliness. Last night, for example, our host told the story of another friend who had moved to the US, where, “He has everything we want, but isn’t happy. He lives in a huge house, with four bedrooms and large garden, but he lives in the suburbs far away from any action. So he wanders into his garage where he has two beautiful Harleys, but ends up polishing them because he doesn’t know where to go.” Another laughed and added, “Exactly, so many people live like that. That’s why they end up returning to China.”

So, how do we get from a desire for homecoming, which seems universally human to Bourdieu’s claim that taste is a weapon of class warfare? In other words, how might taste underlie ideological confusion and justify harming others?

I think that once we like tea, once we train our tongues to notice subtle variations in tea aromas, and once we identify with tea drinkers we have a choice. Does tea remain a refreshment or do we turn it into something else? There’s actually no reason that liking one kind of tea should lead to disliking another kind of tea. There’s even less reason that identifying with one tea party should lead to disliking cola clubbers. However, when tea is not just a drink, but also a symbol of me and my like then abruptly human-object relations are inverted. First, we choke on a sip of fizzy cola, gasping “Yuck. Dislike.” Next, we realize, “Not for me.” Then we’re at dinner with friends happily sipping tea and find ourselves, saying, “I think we should ban cola drinking downtown.” Our friend excitedly responds, “We could use that space to expand tea production within the city limits.” And before we can ask, “Have you tried the dancong, it’s amazing,” the idea that tea plantations might bring about world peace makes intuitive sense.

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