A floral-draped group of elderly ladies stroll by. Amy and I smile, leaning forward. “Hello!” we say in mildly accented Chinese. “Would you like to try some of our tea? It’s to fund education in Yunnan villages!” But before we can get to the “try-“, the ladies have turned to one another and eyed us suspiciously, as if we are trying to sell poison. Disappointed but not disheartened, we turn to each other and shrug, moving on to the next, hopefully cheerier group of passers-by. Luckily for us, this was just one of many, nicer groups that would come to our stall over the course of a few hours. Ranging from shy four-year-olds pointing at the ice lemon tea dispenser behind their mother’s backs to caring grandmas who flustered us with compliments and compassion, my first Xiaohusai Commune Market experience was certainly a memorable, and educational, one.
Our members, Amy Wang, Rei Ang, and Annie Lim at the COMMUNE Market
Over the course of the evening, we tried out several different methods to draw people in. We complemented people’s outfits, waved and grinned, rapped pitches and offered tea with both hands as people walked by. We opened with the tea, with the story, with friendly questions and chatter. When I first arrived, we were more reserved, smiling shyly or bowing at passers-by, waiting for curiosity (the sight of two younger teens standing at a bilingually labelled booth alone was intriguing to many) to draw them near, but it was far from effective. After a while, we warmed up and began greeting people with smiles and complimenting their outfits. As it turns out, it is easy to nod or shake your head or indifferently walk past a quiet booth, but when we shouted out how much we loved the colour-coordinated outfits, eccentric bags, and idiosyncratic masks, people smiled and thanked us, starting conversations and stopping to examine our booth. Finally, when Annie arrived an hour later in a burst of energy, she stood in front of the booth, reciting rapid-fire introductions of Xiaohusai, offerings to try the tea, and jovial greetings, and we soon followed suit. While some people were intimidated, dozens stopped to listen and talk to the cheerful girls on the street and learn about the XHS mission. As the day passed, we got to know many kind strangers, many of whom ended up purchasing with a compassionate “xinkule, xinkule.”
Additionally, we learned to rely on each other both for technical and moral support. While most of the customers were wonderful and polite, several were not, and when they delivered stinging, suspicious looks and scornful glances that made our smiles falter at first, we looked to each other for help and reassurance, offering sympathetic shrugs or cracking jokes. When we were swarmed with several groups at once, we quickly devised ways to split tasks- someone would talk, someone would log orders, and someone else would pour the tea and restock. When language barriers got in the way, someone would try to supply the word or change the conversation. We took turns hastily eating takeaway in the corner and taking bathroom breaks, and discussed different methods to bring people in. This would have been a drastically different article if it hadn’t been for my teammates there.
Most notably, while many people looked disinterested when we promoted our tea, many people were captivated when we mentioned our purpose and mission. Once, about two hours in, an old man approached us and asked expert questions about the tea that we tried our best to answer. He sniffed the tea leaves, held them up to the lighting, and inspected the poster as we nervously smiled. As he scanned the words, his demeanour abruptly changed before our eyes. He put the tea down, looking up- “you guys are selling this for charity?” We nodded happily, quickly summarizing Xiaohusai’s mission and who we were. His analytical disposition completely changed, revealing an amiable, chatty man underneath. Smilingly praising us and Xiaohusai, and touched by the stories we offered of the families whose education Xiaohusai had sponsored, he bought a pack- even though, he noted, it wasn’t the kind he preferred.
In the end, I learned several important values. For one, we learned to adapt and build connections, getting to know some of our customers before convincing them to try a sip of our pu’er. We learned to help each other out and offer support, rolling with the punches, and finally, we learned just how impactful Xiaohusai’s mission is. Truly, “tea with a story.”