I know Tea, but not my ABCs: Exploring ceremony and ritual in heritage language maintenance (by Aya Halliday)

Aya Halliday, our guest blogger this fortnight, is an Okinawan-Japanese Canadian from the unceded territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and səlilwətaɬ Nations (Vancouver), currently residing in Tiohtià:ke (Montreal). She received a BA in Linguistics from Simon Fraser University and is an incoming PhD student in Applied Linguistics at Concordia University, with a research focus on heritage languages and critical policy analysis. Aya is on a lifelong journey to learn Japanese and Uchinaaguchi and support the vitality of minoritized languages in Canada.

This week’s blog post includes a linked audio file. Just click on the link below if you would like to hear the post read aloud. Scroll down to read the text.

Upon stepping into a Japanese tea room (right foot first), I immediately sense the calm that the space brings. My sensei enters wearing a dusty lavender-coloured kimono, her white tabi-clad feet shuffle quietly as she makes her way into the tea room. She is holding a Chawan (茶碗 tea bowl) in one hand and a Natsume (棗 tea container) in the other. As she sits and sets the utensils down, she turns slightly towards me and fixes her kimono. The ceremony begins. We bow together, and I can smell the fresh yet earthy scent of the tatami mat only a few inches from my nose. She pulls a bright red Fukusa (袱紗), a silk cloth used for both physical and spiritual purification, out of her obi, and begins a complex folding pattern. Her well-practiced hands make the intricate folds look easy and elegant, and the movements lure me into an almost trance-like state. She uses the Fukusa to cleanse the Natsume, the Chashaku (茶杓 tea spoon), and finally, the Chawan, in preparation for matcha and hot water. Before I take a sip of the delicious and delicately foamy tea, I bow to the host, my sensei, and thank her for making the tea for me. Otemae chodai itashimasu.
茶の湯日々草 “Chanoyu Hibisou” by Mizuno Toshikata, 1896 (source: https://ukiyo-e.org/image/metro/581-C009-009)

This phrase is not one commonly used in Japanese, and while the literal translation of these words is lost on me, their form and pronunciation are etched into my memory. Through years of practicing Chado (茶道 The Way of Tea) and countless embarrassing moments of mispronunciation and forgetfulness, the ritual language of Tea has become a reflex. Like a dance, I anticipate the coming phrases and accompanying movements. When I manage to execute them to my own satisfaction, I feel a deep sense of accomplishment, as though I have passed the test of belonging. I trained for this, and I deserve to be here. I am proud of the progress I have made practicing Chado, yet my inability to understand and speak Japanese fluently has always been a source of embarrassment, shame, and frustration. Like many other immigrants, my mother tried her best to impart her language through stories, lullabies, games, and daycare programs. But as my brother and I grew up in an English-dominant environment, it became more and more practical to speak English, pushing Japanese further to the background. As a teenager, it was easy to see my lack of language maintenance as an individual problem, and my mother was often the target of this parenting “failure” in the Japanese community. I am ashamed to admit that I too, blamed my mother at times for not teaching me Japanese, not realizing what a daunting task it must have been, and how many invisible walls were in front of her. During one of the first tea gatherings we attended together, there was no shortage of comments aimed at my mother about the poor state of my Japanese. The older members of the community nodded and whispered in quiet agreement; such a shame.

I put the now empty Chawan back on the tatami mat, and bow slightly as I inspect the bowl’s unique design. Here in Montreal, the cherry blossoms bloom late, and the pattern on the chosen Chawan reflects this; small pink blossoms run along the smooth ceramic surface. I return the bowl to the host, being careful to turn it twice so the front faces her; a sign of respect. She starts her closing routine by pouring hot water into the bowl using a Hishaku (柄杓), a long-handled bamboo ladle. As the guest, I must ask her to close the ceremony. Dozo oshimai kudasai. She replies in turn. Oshimai ni itashimasu.
“Wa Kei Sei Jaku” by calligrapher Takebe Seiyu (source: https://jyuluck-do.com/np70011.html )

Tea rooms the world over are set up in the same way. In the corner, you will find an altar of sorts, wherein several items are placed that change seasonally; a calligraphy scroll, a flower, an incense container. In Japan, 24 distinct seasons are recognized, which can be even further divided for a total of 72 seasons in a single year. As I write this during Rikka (立夏 ), the beginning of summer, I am passing through the seasons when the frogs start singing (蛙始鳴 Kawazu hajimete naku), worms begin surfacing (蚯蚓出 Mimizu izuru), and bamboo shoots are sprouting (竹笋生 Takenoko shōzu). The seasonality of Chado is one of the many things that keeps me coming back to the tea room, where I am constantly reminded that every moment, even simple ones, are worth cherishing. The four main principles of Chado; Wa Kei Sei Jaku (Harmony, Respect, Purity, Tranquility), permeate every corner of the small space, from the soothing sound of the boiling kettle to the unconditional respect given to each participant of the ceremony. Chado is a highly respected art form in Japan, and learning together for years before I moved across the country was one of the many ways that my mother chose to continue our cultural heritage. For me, it was also a cherished time to spend enjoying a cup of tea together. Furthermore, as Okinawans, a historically subjugated people who have been ostracized in Japanese society, I suspect that practicing Chado was also a way for my mother to assert her Japanese identity, and in some ways gain respect amongst the Japanese community in Canada.

The author hosting Chanoyu (tea ceremony)

My feet start to go numb after sitting for so long on the tatami floor, and I wiggle my toes discreetly in an attempt to regain some feeling. My sensei has finished the closing ceremony and is waiting for me to ask a question. O natsume to chashaku no haiken itashimasu. I speak slowly, and struggle a little with the pronunciation, but she obliges my request by placing the Natsume and Chashaku carefully in front of me. This part of the ceremony allows us to discuss the different utensils, who made them, their names, the choice of design. It’s an opportunity to pay respect to the craftsmen. I delicately pick up the utensils one by one, holding them lightly in my fingertips. My toes tingle incessantly, but I try my best to remain composed as the ceremony comes to an end. As soon as the paper door slides shut, I take a breath, allowing my body to relax a little.

Nowadays, I have a better understanding of how language shift and loss is not an individual failing, but rather a systemic phenomenon that impacts many minority language communities. In fact, it is unlikely that immigrant languages continue to be used past the third generation (Alba et al., 2002). While I am well-practiced in the language of Tea, I still carry the shame and embarrassment of not being able to communicate with my fellow tea practitioners in our heritage language. I can barely write my own name in Japanese kanji, yet I am able to host a ceremony that many would deem a high art form. I realize now that my language struggles are just one result stemming from a long list of decisions, policies, and histories that happened long before I ever drank a cup of tea. My Japanese may not be fluent, or even close to it, but through Chado and the patience of those who promote this art in a foreign land, I take pride in the beautiful ritual aspects of the language that I am able to practice.

In Canada, there remains an invisible pressure on immigrant communities to maintain their culture and language to a high degree, while simultaneously integrating into Canadian society (Haque, 2012). We are often praised for our “fascinating” and “exotic” cultures, yet simultaneously treated as outsiders who pose a threat to the Canadian identity. Growing up both proudly Okinawan-Japanese and Canadian, I can not yet say that I’ve found a harmonious balance in my identity. The shame and frustration caused by my Japanese language ability certainly contribute to this, but the continued practice of Tea allows me to appreciate the inevitable nature of change. Maybe one day I will find the balance I am looking for. I try to give myself a little more grace, as I recognize that I am only at the beginning of a lifetime of regaining my language and culture, and I will step into this journey in the same way that I step into the tea room, right foot first.


Alba, R., Logan, J., Lutz, A., & Stults, B. (2002). Only English by the third generation? Loss and preservation of the mother tongue among the grandchildren of contemporary immigrants. Demography, 39(3), 467–484. https://doi.org/10.1353/dem.2002.0023

Haque, E. (2012). Multiculturalism within a bilingual framework: Language, Race, and Belonging in Canada. University of Toronto Press.

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