it's complicated

A Fight About Tea Almost Destroyed My Relationship

Photo: J.V. Aranda

I nearly broke up with my white American boyfriend over chai tea.

It’s true. Not cheating, not disparate life goals, not some fundamental personality mismatch that slowly drives two people apart. Chai tea.

Or more accurately, just chai, because the term “chai tea” is the single most aggravatingly redundant term white people have used to describe anything coming out of a south Asian kitchen. It actually manages to get a tiny margin over naan bread.

I told him as much one day, during a mid-afternoon text conversation. And that’s how it started: Actually, he replied, it wasn’t redundant, because in the Western world, “the word ‘chai’ is used to mean a certain kind of flavor rather than just tea.” It didn’t make sense to me, but I also viewed the term as a larger issue — to me, it was another example of the lazy manner in which white people consumed south Asian culture to seem woke or cool without really bothering to understand it.

Both of us clung stubbornly to our points, going around in increasingly exhausting circles until finally, the subject escalated. Wildly. Somehow, a texted discussion about tea turned into a raging argument about race and cultural appropriation and microaggressions, one that spanned across many different time zones — he was finishing a semester of school in New York at the time, and I was in Beijing, where we had met. Soon enough, both of us ended up abandoning homework and work respectively to focus on this fight.

When I thought back on it hours later, trying to understand exactly why things had spiraled the way they had, I realized the reason why the disagreement had touched such a nerve: because for that half-day, the man I was in love with seemed to be acting very much like the tone-deaf white people I knew who had thrown an “Indian-themed” party. Or the guy from Tinder who casually asked if I was “a lighter kind of Indian.” Or the close friend who, once when we were both royally drunk, decided to imitate my accent.

Cory was suddenly all of those people. Would he ever really understand me, the way someone with more cultural common ground would? And was I always going to see him as a white guy first? On the other hand, were we supposed to argue as though we existed in bubbles, pretending our backgrounds hadn’t left us both with very specific biases? It was territory we hadn’t realized we were struggling to navigate.

The incident was something of a milestone for us. It wasn’t our first big fight. But it was the first time since we had begun dating that Cory and I had confronted this elephant in our relationship. And it was the moment we began to acknowledge all the baggage, and all the tricky little bits, of being in a cross-cultural relationship, things we hadn’t really noticed in the early days of getting to know each other.

I first met Cory in March of 2017, when the Beijing winter was still refusing to give way to spring. We met in a bar tucked away inside a hutong — one of the ancient, winding alleys the capital was known for — and quickly bonded over a shared love for learning foreign languages (Korean and Mandarin for him, Mandarin and Italian for me) and podcasts, and a mutual hatred of beaches. As we grew closer, powered by curiosity and hormones, we began dipping enthusiastically into each other’s cultures: I introduced him to the sublime beauty that is paneer butter masala and a perfectly crispy batata wada, and in turn, wondered why I had gone all these years without ever trying Southern barbecue. Or cheesy grits. Or fried okra. I was only used to loving okra the way my mom made it, tempered with garlic and curry leaves and fresh green chili.

The tricky bits had existed then, too. But they’d always been external, easier to shrug off and forget about. There were the frequent, almost-imperceptible double takes by other white people when Cory and I were out, ones I’d see over his shoulder as we sat at the bar. There was the time we went to an Indian restaurant. I remember walking toward a free table, and then realizing it was right opposite one full of young Indian men guffawing loudly, who quieted down noticeably when they saw us. I kept walking on to another table further inside, feeling their eyes tracking me and Cory across the room. As we looked over the menus, I could see them nudging each other and stealing glances over at us. I knew exactly what they were thinking — “Hum mein kya kami thi jo iske saath chali gayi” (“What was it we lacked that made you want to go with this guy?”) I was familiar enough with this particular train of thought.

I knew what else they were thinking: White people, especially the men, are all obviously low on morals and obsessed with sex, which, by association, made me a slut. Indian culture can be a fair bit prudish about sex, having come a long way from the time we literally produced an ancient treatise on sexuality. And I hadn’t even realized how much of it I had internalized until I found my eyes darting around after Cory leaned in for a kiss in public, every time we were anywhere within a mile of other desis.

It wasn’t something I brought up; living outside my country for the first time ever, I was learning what a luxury it was to be able to blend in, and I tried my hardest to sandpaper the rough edges down — the way I spoke, the food I cooked, the music I played around roommates. Which is why it’s kind of funny that Cory — whose life was so foreign to me in every way — was the person who made me feel comfortable enough to slowly be more of myself. I played the ’70s Bollywood songs I loved around him, and even very badly sang a few sometimes. The fact that he actively, genuinely wanted to know more about this other life, the one that I’d carefully packed away around friends and dates, made me want to share more of my Indianness.

And I hoped he felt the same, when he’d tell me stories of his childhood in Gloucester, Virginia (“Wait, why is it pronounced Gloss-ter?”). They reminded me a little bit of old American storybooks I grew up reading. His stories had barbecues and cheesy grits and a grandma who lived in an old southern house with a porch, and also strip malls and Lunchables.

We both loved language, so we sat down and deconstructed each other’s accents — the excessive aspirations in American consonants, the desi rolled R’s. Over time, around him, I fell back into my old habit — one I’d previously made an effort to squash — of peppering my sentences with inflections and terms in my native language; he learnt what my accha and chalo and arre yaar! meant, and began to use them, too. Early on, before we were exclusive, I’d sometimes accidentally let those words slip while out with other guys and register the look of confusion on their faces. Cory would have understood, I’d smile to myself.

Though there was that time we were walking home after dinner when he stopped, gently kissed me on the forehead, and called me his aloo ka tukda.

Piece of potato.

I must confess I did wonder then if the cultural exchange had gone too far.

If we’ve learned anything from Teagate, it’s about not letting the external interfere in our relationship. It’s an ongoing, constant learning. We know that we both have our respective cultural baggage to carry, our own insecurities and blind spots and things we struggle to identify with. We also know — and are constantly reminded — that the only way to navigate this is to listen more, learn more, replace snap judgments with more questions.

As I type this, I can look up and see, across from me on the kitchen counter, the present I bought for Cory at duty-free on my way back to Beijing after my annual India trip. It’s a brightly colored Mumbai-themed mug, with the word chai all over it. It made him grin wide when I gave it to him — a record of a maddening time that we can laugh about now, a time that brought us closer after almost breaking us apart. It makes me smile too, because every time he looks at it, my sweet boyfriend will remember what the goddamn beverage is actually called.

A Fight About Tea Almost Destroyed My Relationship