Are You Ready for Tea?
The pain is sharp and sudden from the inside. It’s my first night in London, and I’m five minutes into a fifteen-minute walk to somewhere. There is a slowly shrinking stretch of sidewalk before me, a quickly lengthening one behind me. What if I don’t make it?
Emma’s brother, Paul, and his friend, Adam, two proper English blokes, Londoners, are maybe six steps ahead of us—Emma and I—and they’re going on something about music. Paul is a bassist; Adam is a drummer. They are both working musicians, which means: What if I don’t make it in front of two working London musicians?
Emma’s arm wraps into mine, and she skips along beside me in contentedness, seeing her “little” brother for the first time in over a year. She notices I, on the other hand, am tense teeth, biting down on liquid, groaning out each step with: What if I don’t make it when Emma hasn’t seen her brother in over a year?
The wind snaps at the collar of my coat, the back of my neck, whispers mocking-whistling tunes around my ears. My head sinks fast into my shoulders. My hands fidget inside my pockets as if I’m a pedophile overlooking an elementary schoolyard. I’m the one terrified: What if I don’t make it on my first day in London, first day in England, first day around Emma’s family, my hands in my pockets?
We stop in the town square, the entrance/exit to the “tube” station. My eyes dance, whiz, search. They can’t decide where to go; I can’t decide what to do. The others discuss casually the location of some proper British pubs, looking at me for acknowledgement. I can’t even fake caring about that when: What if I don’t make it all the way to a proper British pub?
There is a destination, a just around the corner destination, a place. My knees shake. We meander on in no particular rush. Paul and Adam point to it, and I can see the door, just ahead of us: Twenty steps, nineteen, eighteen, What if don’t, seventeen, make it, sixteen, ten steps, fifteen, outside a proper, fourteen, English pub?
The pub is one big roar of jolly-timers that kicks me in the gut. The chairs are draped with pea coats and scarves and the arms of London sophisticates. Paul and Adam lead us to the bar, asking what we want to drink. A beer? Yes, and: What if I don’t make it while waiting for a beer, in front of so-called English sophisticates?
My hips sway, as if dancing to a slow song. There is no music. Two musicians, no music. No one else is dancing. I shift again, become the shiftiest person ever seen in London, anywhere. “Where’s the toilet?” Emma asks, familiar with the tuneless tango I’m stepping beside her: What if I don’t make it at the same time Paul is explaining the location?
What if I don’t make it before I pass this table on my way?
What if I don’t make it as I pass the girl whose chair back is too far out to scoot by with out bumping my leaky bladder?
What if I don’t make it when I reach the men’s room door?
What if I don’t make it the five steps from the door to the urinal?
What if I don’t make it while fumbling furiously at the buttons and zippers, holding the bottom edge of my pullover up out of the way, eyes wide and tearful and staring down at my hand pinching in front of my legs wiggling underneath my bladder screaming from inside of my body with muscles tighter than the head of a snare drum and my penis filled with more anticipation than a virgin on top of his high school sweetheart?
I made it. Oh, dear god, thank you. Thank you, god. What if I collapse from the relief?
Last week, I began teaching one of my classes a book called British Life, which like most books my school chooses is full of insulting stereotypes. For example, British Life tells my group of twelve-year-old Koreans about the terms “Mick” and “Paddie” in relation to the Irish, cautiously noting to only use these terms with close Irish friends. The Irish not being British to begin with makes their inclusion in British Life a curious choice; furthermore, the book’s “close friends” assessment of when to use derogatory terms seems to be tickling the notion of bad taste. Now, I know bad words for the Welsh and Scots as well—a wealth of new knowledge for my class and me. Nonetheless, this is our book.
British Life informs readers, despite all foreign perceptions and the afternoon tea reputation, that the British do not only drink tea. Coffee is popular, too. In fact, my class and I, the token American teacher, are informed that the average Brit drinks about three-and-a-half cups of tea a day and one-and-a-half cups of coffee. It all sounds very scientific, the statistics and decimal places, but, having been to England personally, I can safely say that individuals in the particular areas I visited are more inclined to have something like six-point-two cups of tea with three-quarters of a cup of coffee per day. In addition, as Emma’s American "guest", a person to be seen after the with highest of British hospitality, I was offered something like twelve-point-four cups of tea a day, so if I managed to get by accepting only half of the offers, then my consumption fell right on average.
Sometime into the second week of our visit, and after about thirty-seven dirty-man-with-his-hand-in-his-pocket-looking-for-a-“loo” episodes, sometimes without the cloak of darkness that I’d not had time to relish that first night with Paul and Adam, I really became worried. I’d grown more comfortable with England and Emma’s family, even resorting to terms like “limey” and “redcoats” at appropriate times, but my condition worsened. I’m going to have to get this checked out, for Christ’s sake, I’d think, the droning thud of my urine beating against the side of a church tucked in some alleyway. The stonework here is just amazing.
It wasn’t as if I could hide my affliction from my hosts, an assortment of titles: aunt, uncle, gran, cousin, mom, dad, brother’s friend I’ve known since I was eight months old. I’m much like a child when in a state of “having to go”: I pee-pee dance; I stumble over words and things; I touch myself involuntarily. (In Korea, you are likely on any given afternoon to see a child, pants-to-ankles, going for it in the sidewalk flowerbeds. If not a risk of incarceration, I would have been quite content to practice this method in Britain.) When members of Emma’s troop of welcomers seemed to notice my nervousness, I did what I do and made jokes. I swear I should just stand over a toilet while I drink this delightful tea, thanks so much, really, so nice, I’d say, thinking My god, Auntie Ginny, my penis is about to explode.
It was like a snake milked of a lifetime of venom in a matter of days. The jokes were there to be made. The dances kept coming, arriving like interpretive performances for my impressions of Albert Dock or Strawberry Fields or wherever we were, followed by a mad, undignified rush to find a WC. Public restrooms are few and none between in England. In America, in Korea, there are so many public toilets that you wonder why places like Bourbon Street smell like piss or why a kid needs to go on the sidewalk, but in England, you wonder why more people aren’t pissing on the street. We’d rush through the tube station, no bathroom, through the department store, no.
I’m going to have to get this checked out, for Emma’s sake, I think. Imagine the embarrassment: Here’s my new boyfriend, you’ve heard about him; he really needs the toilet. My unadulterated urination became an actual topic of conversation with some of Emma’s people. (How do you like England? Excuse me just a minute while a piss all over it.) Then, someone finally says something about tea other than “Do you want another brew?”. Emma’s fourth-cousin-third-removed says, tea is a diuretic. That means it makes you have to go more.
So, tea makes you—really makes me—have to “wee,” and that leads to a return of the second issue: bathrooms, more appropriately (I was laughed at for saying “bathroom”) toilets. In England and the vast fluids that flow in and around and through it, the notion of bathrooms and bladders became a real intellectual stump for me. It was like being potty-trained for a second time, and I ran into problems.
When we stayed at Paul’s house, a four-bedroom flat, and a midnight tiptoe to the loo was in order . . . When we settled in at Emma’s mum’s, a “semi-detached” (duplex in American) three-bedroom home, and the house filled with Emma’s friends attending a dinner party, meeting me for the first time, seeing Emma for the first time in over a year . . . When we visited Lizzie, one in the list of Emma’s best friends, and Lizzie’s four-year-old had to go, too, the both of us showing the same symptoms of dance and stilted talk . . . When at Auntie Kath’s huge abode, large enough to fit three generations of family and still have me, a guest, saddled in a bed for the weekend with a constant cup of tea or libation on my bedside table . . . It seemed everyone’s home had one toilet and someone else was using it.
Literally, I ran into problems: Trying to duck into the facilities unnoticed for the twentieth time that afternoon, and I’d catch a shoulder-full of locked door and hear the faint apology of the current, enviable occupier. Stumbling back, wiggling in place, I’d pace the hallway, groping at myself when the fear that my insides might fail was just too much. What kind of sick culture insists on round after round of tea then designs houses, houses for entire families, with only one bathroom? It was something out of an even more demented version of Alice in Wonderland.
I find myself sweeping through my girlfriend’s mother’s side door en route to the back “garden,” fully intent, and searching for a shadow and a bush, praying to the god of bodily functions for “please, only thirty seconds,” fearing one of these lifelong friends of my girlfriend would amble out for a “fag” and find me hidden in the hedges with my willy out, wondering how to explain that my bladder and “she’d been in the bathroom for at least fifteen seconds” or “we all do this in America” (would they buy that, I ponder), until finally the track of my zipper whishes back up and I saunter back to the party with beads of sweat on my forehead, pretending nothing has happened.
In the case that one does manage to slip through the cracks and procure a toilet in England, it seems that the commodes are all equipped with anti-flushing devices. The handle goes down, but the usual roar and whirlpool into the abyss has been replaced with a silent, lazy-river like current of water. At not one home in England did we stay where I didn’t wind up wandering into the bedroom to ask for Emma’s help flushing. I felt mocked, finally relieved, but now stuck with the results. Imagine my dismay when my battle with tea and pee turned into a war with pie and . . . the disappointment of standing over a toilet watching it all swimming in a circle.
Of course, after learning this diuretic information, suffering the indignity of my girlfriend having to flush for me (a kind of childlike call from the depths—“I’m ready.”), and the mad dashes to the back garden and semi-vacant alleyways, I back off the tea. Unfortunately, this new resistance was only effective until about dusk, when the lot of us (whoever with and wherever located) made way for the pub.
That first night struggling behind Adam and Paul, some part of my subconscious, a part of my brain not caught in the What if I don’t make it battle, was turning back-flips at the thought of a real English pub. I’d been to “English pubs” and “Irish pubs” before, in America, where next door in the strip mall was Hooters and, on the other side, some low-dive Mexican restaurant. But, in England, there are no Hooters and very few Mexican restaurants, and pubs are naturally (not thematically) quaint and cool and better “bloody well” have Guinness on tap and not just some pull-the-lever crap but one where the bartender pumps and pumps to get your beer into a proper pint glass that matches the brand.
That’s right. Old fashioned pump taps, Guinness in an appropriately labeled glass, a shamrock drawn in the foam—things done with a certain British sophistication and class. So, everywhere we went and everyone we saw offered a new, official, proper pub experience. I don’t know if beer is a diuretic, but everywhere pub we went to and everyone we saw there got to witness the blather that is my bladder: It just rambles on incomprehensibly. Up and down, I’d go, to and fro, as if the drink simply dropped down my gullet and into launching position.
My bathroom habits came to resemble, for me, a big glowing pimple on the face of decency, and my problem became most glaringly apparent when Emma and I accompanied her Auntie Ginny and Uncle Jim to the pub to watch a Liverpool “football” match. Emma and Auntie Ginny left Uncle Jim and me to ourselves, the two of us imbibing pint after pint, eyes glued to the TV, Uncle Jim occasionally answering some amateurish footballing question for me. Eventually, he sighed, his eyes following the “lad” who’d gotten up for the third or fourth time to take care of business. “Watch this,” he said, covering his mouth a bit under his hand. “That lad goes to the toilet more than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
I sat squirming. Should I go now? Has it been long enough? When Liverpool scored the second goal, I broke for the loo in a bout of celebration. Can I slip under the radar of Uncle Jim the Hall Monitor? Do I need a pass? Necessity overcame desire, and I took a little detour when getting us another round (This ones on me, Uncle Jim). What if I don’t make it until the end of the game? What if I don’t make it in front of Uncle Jim? But, once you break the seal . . . I got up again. Will I replace the Liverpool Pee King as the most prolific urinator in all of Lancashire? Is that a title I really want? By the time the soccer team had won, there was no doubt that Uncle Jim would have to retract his former statement regarding the Liverpool Pee King. A new, undisputed water-weight champion had come to town, my belt in a permanent state of being loosened.
I’m lucky to be dating a British girl. Really, it’s fun. Many nights and afternoons we have endless silly discussions about how people (we) tend to assume, because we’re both from English-speaking countries, that our cultures are basically the same, and we “take the piss” at phrases and pronunciations and customs each other’s country celebrates. It’s a bottomless source of entertainment, even having been together for over a year. We met in Korea, so neither of us has truly experienced—other than TV and movies (Emma is a Friends fanatic)—our partner’s culture.
The truth is my struggles with tea, beer, and the English began “well” before I ever set foot on that island. My sorrows began with Emma in my apartment in South Korea, some astronomical distance from any scent of the Atlantic Ocean or the British Isles and long before any plane I was on set down in London.
“Do you want a brew?” she’d say at the onset of our relationship. “Sure,” I’d tell her, kicking my feet up awaiting a frosty mug of Hite (Korea’s favorite, not so great) beer, when minutes later she’d arrive with a steaming cup of milky tea, setting it on the table in front of me with a pleasant grin and sitting next to me while blowing the steam from her own cup. “Do you fancy a brew?” “How about a brew?” Brew, I learned, ain’t beer in England.
Then, by the time I’d adjusted to the whole “brew” debacle and learned to enjoy a cup of tea, (What was I supposed to do? Not drink it after I’d said, yes, that’d be great?) “Are you ready for tea?” she says. I think doesn’t she mean, “Fancy a brew?” Am I ready? Is there some kind of schedule we’re keeping, a time specific that I’m unaware of? So, I say, “Of course. Yes, that’d be nice.” And, I kick my feet up awaiting a hot mug of tea, when minutes later, having watched her chopping vegetables, I feel cheated, as if she has forgotten the agreed upon beverage. Then, I found out: “Tea” ain’t tea in England.
“Tea” is dinner; tea is a “brew”. A “brew” is a tea but not “tea” as in dinner, tea as in the rest of the world’s version. And, if you want a beer just say beer, don’t try to be catchy and spout off some yuppie quip about a brew. But, to the point, when your “tea”, “brew”, or beer has coursed through your body, ask where the “toilet” is, forget about the “loo,” bathroom, restroom, men’s room, water closet or any such decorative terms and go for the gusto: toilet. Because, lord knows, if you need to relieve yourself in England, there is precious little time to quibble over appropriate nomenclature.
Emma has anxiously awaited me to write something about England, and when I’ve told her little jokes about the English tea-pee situation, she’s been able to laugh in retrospect, without the awkwardness of me dancing and steaming from the ears in need of a “toilet” with no hole in sight. And, when I feel that I’ve all but uncovered the true motivation behind America’s Boston Tea Party, she finally hits me with: “Is the whole thing going to be about you peeing? Why don’t you just hold it? I do.”
Hold it? She does. Every one does. Why don’t I?
I think back to our British holiday one more time, and it hits me. In England, for the first time in a long time, I’d found myself appreciative of America and her excesses. From my head of disquieted thoughts to my feet that rushed towards that much needed destination, I relished the fact that, when we got to America to visit my family, at any moment at just about anyone’s house, a selection of toilets would be there for the choosing. Why, where I come from there always a place to relieve myself. I pictured portly politicians at their podiums with promises of grandeur: “A bathroom for every bloke; a boudoir for every bonnie.” Isn’t there something about this in the Constitution?
My nation was practically calling me home: Oh, say, can you pee . . .