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Q&A with Rong (Co-founder of Shifting Senses and CIAO)

Photo Credit: Shifting Senses

Q: Can you give a brief introduction of yourself? When did your tea journey begin?

A: Hi! I'm Rong, and my connection with tea runs deep. I was born in a region of China known for its tea. Its aroma filled the air every spring. To me, tea is more than something to drink; it reflects the essence of life — constantly evolving and transforming.

As a little kid, I was fascinated by the care people in my hometown used to pluck and roll tea leaves into dragon balls. Tea also played a significant role in my hometown’s daily rituals, like when welcoming guests or honoring our ancestors on the 1st and 15th of the lunar month.

My tea journey began at the age of 7, when my sister and I embarked on a journey to reunite with our parents, who had discovered an emerging jasmine market in the southern province of Guangxi. The two of us climbed up into a huge truck carrying tons of tea, starting the thousand-mile journey from our hometown. Two men took turns driving through the day and night. Along the way, my sister bit into an apple and lost a tooth. It was customary to hide a lost top tooth under your bed, but since we were sleeping in the truck, she hid it under the seat!

While our hometown in Fujian had an established tea industry, Guangxi was emerging as the new epicenter of jasmine production. Summers there were perfect for jasmine to bud and bloom. The currents of life were guiding us all towards Guangxi, where we eventually re-settled. There, my parents established connections to source jasmine buds and sell them to tea dealers.

I have vivid memories of living near the jasmine market, where the fragrance of jasmine filled the air after school every day. As a teenager growing up, I wanted to find out who I wanted to be and was always trying to connect the dots. I would ask myself, what’s the thing that keeps recurring in my life? And the answer was resoundingly, “tea”!

Q: What inspired you to start Shifting Senses?

A: "The Finger That Points the Moon" is a famous teaching in Zen Buddhism that conveys the difference between concepts and reality, or the difference between description and direct experience. In this metaphor, the moon represents the ultimate truth or enlightenment, and the finger represents teachings, doctrines, or guides that point to the truth. The lesson is that one should not confuse the pointer (finger) with the thing it is pointing to (moon). One should not be so engrossed in studying and analyzing the finger that they forget to look at the moon. Shifting Senses is a guide, a gateway, a pointed finger, for people to discover their moon, to experience life with all its clarity, to find their own path.

There are craters and rivers and there are thousands of moons out there. The moon is the quality that we all have—who we are. There is an idea that before we learn to differentiate in the world, there’s only one original or primal awareness. And that awareness is that you can hear what you taste; you can taste what you smell. As the finger that points at the moon, we hope everyone will be able to see the moon on their own. It’s basically returning to a pure, simple, subtle way of life. It takes much practice and a lot of work. You have to put so much into your brain and body that it’s difficult to throw away to find our original self. Book of Dao said when you go back to being a baby, your senses are way more sharp. It’s about clarity in a way. Life is so interesting!

Q: We would love to hear from you the story behind the name CIAO.

A: CIAO is a greeting. A hello. A salute to life. It's an invitation to join us, to be part of our journey. It's also a tribute to my mom, a strong and respected voice in the tea industry. A woman of clarity and determination. CIAO is all these things, a reflection of the welcoming and lighthearted spirit that we are trying to create in the world of tea.

Confucius once said, "Isn't it a beautiful and joyful thing to have friends coming from afar?"[1] We believe that CIAO captures that sense of joy and warmth. It's like the energy of a bright summer day, full of sunshine and good vibes. And that's exactly the energy that jasmine captures as it blossoms during those sunny months, and we get to revisit in our sips when drinking CIAO.

Another reason we chose CIAO is because it sounds like one of the characters in my mom's name. We wanted to pay tribute to her expertise and professionalism in the tea industry. Despite being surrounded by male voices, my mom has her own strong and respected voice. She was a force to be reckoned with — clear, determined, and highly regarded. People would always bring tea to our teahouse, seeking her opinion.

Photo Credit: Shifting Senses

Q: Can you elaborate more on how important understanding Chinese culture is in the context of tea?

A: It's very important and not very important. It's great if you have a sense or understanding of Chinese culture. But my understanding of Chinese culture… well, everyone's understanding will be different. What's more important to me is trying to live my life with full consciousness. To me, that’s the essence of Chinese culture. It can be reflected or embodied in clothing, music, tea. It’s an ongoing process, meaning I live it moment by moment. I go drink my tea. I wear my clothes. I deal with my “today”. What’s that tea smell? It means nothing unless I have tried it and tasted it. Why do others' words matter? It's what I think that matters. If I'm curious about what someone said, I have to try it for myself. If I don't like something, can I do something different or did I do something wrong? When I'm doing something new, I'm saying “CIAO!” to the world with open arms — I'm challenging myself. If there is something that I have no idea what it is, I'm going to give it a shot. But it’s okay, because I’ll keep learning about it, and the more I learn about it, the more I know.

A friend of mine once said all the messages from ancient China are to slow down so we don’t lose the present moment. Rule of Dao says everything wanders in nature and ancient China has developed ways of capturing this change… in instruments, in sculptures, and in tea.

Q: Can you share with us about CIAO’S jasmine teas?

A: CIAO's jasmine teas are inspired by the 24 Solar Terms, which are part of the traditional Chinese calendar. Our aim was to create teas that accompany people throughout their journey. To reflect the four seasons, we named our CIAO teas accordingly.

Drinking jasmine tea is like immersing yourself in the essence of flowers. It brings a fresh energy from the Earth into your body, like a blessing that uplifts and delights your senses through its aromatic aroma.

From the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine, jasmine tea is considered a neutral tea that can be enjoyed throughout the year. Jasmine flowers possess a balance of neither being too cold nor too hot, bringing your body back to equilibrium. Some may find green tea to be "cold," and that's where jasmine comes in to create a harmonious balance.

It's a luxury and honor for us to share this pure jasmine tea with the world. CIAO consists solely of flowers and tea leaves, without anything additional. We believe in the power of purity, as it allows us to harness the energy from the sun. To provide a sampling of our offerings, CIAO provides two tea bags and two loose leaf options representing the four seasons, inviting people to explore the wonderful world of jasmine tea.

Q: Can you give us insight on the process of scenting the teas with jasmine flowers?

A: Choosing the flowers is a crucial step in the process, and the best jasmine flowers are harvested in the fall. It's important to avoid picking the buds during or after rainfall or on extremely hot days. The ideal harvest time is after a couple of hot days.

When making jasmine tea, you truly understand the essence of love and patience. The buds typically blossom around 9 pm, and they need to be picked promptly. Tea farmers acquire the buds and immediately commence the tea-making process. Being present and personally witnessing the blending of flowers and tea is vital to allow fresh air to permeate. If the temperature rises too much, it can potentially burn the tea leaves, resulting in a different taste. While we cannot control the weather, we do our best to work in harmony with it.

CIAO involves multiple scenting sessions. "Scenting six times" means scenting the tea over six nights, although the nights may not necessarily be all in a row. There is also a specific ratio to follow—1 weight of jasmine buds to 1 weight of tea. Purity comes from that ratio, that concentration.

Q: When do farmers harvest jasmine buds?

A: Farmers typically harvest jasmine buds from early summer until October and November. The highest quality jasmine flowers are found during fall.

Interestingly, the quality of jasmine flowers can be influenced by the direction of the wind. During the fall, jasmine flowers prefer the cold and dry wind from the northwest, while the wind from the southeast tends to be wet. So the time of year and the direction of the wind play significant roles in determining the quality of jasmine flowers.

Q: Could you explain why a lighter color of the tea liquor often signifies better quality?

A: Nature and Dao teach us the value of subtlety and elegance. A lighter color in tea liquor signifies a gentler rolling process, preserving the delicate characteristics of the tea. It results in a balanced flavor where the natural sweetness of the buds takes center stage over the astringency of the leaves.

Q: What are your tea company/brand’s goals?

A: Our goal at Shifting Senses is to touch people's lives through the transformative experience of tea. We aspire to educate and provide a unique experience to our customers, sharing the details, origins, and rituals of tea that we hold so dear.

To me, tea is more than a beverage—it's an inward journey of self-discovery and mindfulness. We don’t try to define what tea should taste or smell like for everyone, but rather to guide each person to explore and experience the world of tea for themselves, awakening their senses to its nuances in their own unique way. Even if one person feels inspired or intrigued by this journey and seeks our support, it validates our efforts.

Q: What is your favorite way to brew CIAO teas?

A: All ways, always! The beauty of CIAO teas is the variety of ways you can enjoy them. Experiment with different brewing utensils, pair them with dessert, or use them as a morning pick-me-up. The possibilities are endless with CIAO teas!

[1]: Book I, Chapter 1 of The Analects (论语)

Dear Tea Co is so grateful to offer CIAO as a part of our collection!

Please check out Shifting Senses and learn more about Rong and Levi and their teas!

We hope that by mindfully curating teas and tea brands that align with our mission to create a community that truly uplifts and serves all tea drinkers, we will be able to strengthen the tea culture and movement in the United States!

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