It’s hard to find a proper cup of tea in San Francisco. I’m here visiting family, and every time I try to get a cuppa, it’s not quite the same as it is in the UK. Which is funny, because I never drank much tea when I lived here. In fact, I had a lot to learn about British tea culture when I first moved to London. It’s a (very embarrassing) story from my early expat life…
The first time I ordered a tea in London was at a cafe in Knightsbridge. I will never forget it. Not because it was the best tea I ever had. Far from it. It was because it was the most difficult-to-order tea I’ve ever had.
This was primarily due to the fact that, as an American, I walked up to the counter and ordered a “hot tea”. In the US, if you order a “tea” you get an iced tea, so if you want a proper cup of tea the way British people drink it, you have to specify that you want it hot.
The problem with this strategy is that in the UK, you would never order a “hot” tea, because in Britain the situation is exactly the opposite. As such, the girl behind the counter assumed I had a funny foreign accent and was ordering a latte (latte, hot-tea…I kinda get where she was coming from).
When she handed me the latte, I looked at it in confusion and told her that I had ordered a hot tea. At that point it was her turn to be confused, and after an exercise in enunciation, she turned around and made me a cup of tea.
Which is when the next problem arose. When you order a hot tea in the US, the person taking your order asks what kind of tea you want. I was expecting the same in London. Not so. I learned when the girl brought me a cup of English Breakfast tea that if you order a tea (hot or not) in London, you get English Breakfast tea. If you want something else, you had better explicitly state it before your server runs off.
When she brought me the tea, I again looked at it in confusion. I wanted a chamomile tea. Why hadn’t she asked? I told her as much, and I won’t venture a guess as to what she was thinking when she turned to make yet another drink for me. But I will say that I was thankful that I could watch her make my third and final beverage, because otherwise I’m sure there would have been a bit more than just tea in the cup.
One would think that after this episode my expat self would have learned to order tea properly. But no. The next time I ordered a hot tea was at a Starbucks in Marylebone, when the server understood my order as coffee (coffee, hot-tea, I kinda get where he was coming from). At least this time I knew to preface my corrected order with a “chamomile” before he ran off to brew me a breakfast tea.
After a few more failed attempts, I finally got the hang of it. A year later, I could walk into a coffee shop and order a tea like a pro (who knew it was so easy?). And I didn’t stop there. I branched out into cream tea—tea with scones—and afternoon tea, which is pretty much the best kind of tea (even if the tea is mostly an afterthought). I even got myself an electric kettle and learned how to make tea at home (who knew it was so easy?).
Back here in San Francisco, I’ve experienced the reverse culture shock of forgetting to add the word “hot” to my order, or asking for a “tea” and wondering why they want to know what kind (duh, it’s breakfast tea).
As frustrating as these experiences can be for expats, when I look back on how much I struggled to do something as simple as order a cup of tea when I first moved to London, I have to appreciate that I even survived. Renting a flat, navigating the immigration system, and applying for British citizenship were all a lot more complicated than that first cup of tea.
Which is why I think I’ll stick to coffee in San Francisco. Then again, that’s another beverage that causes a world of confusion for American expats living in London (hint: in the UK, there’s no such thing as ordering the beverage we call a “coffee” in the US)…