“Osmanthus and Tea Roses”

post by: Ticana Zhu

Summers for me meant family reunions. More times than not, I’d spend nearly three months in China. For each phase of my childhood, a different scent painted the backdrop.

In my younger years, there was jasmine and gardenia. Little girls or old ladies from the country often sold blooms. Thin wire twisted around the stems, and you could wear them in your hair or clipped to your shirt. Sometimes, they were even tied to a string and you’d have a bracelet. Playful and innocent, just a whiff brings me back to my grandmother’s bedroom.

As I grew taller, and school got harder, chrysanthemum seeped into my world. I had nosebleeds a lot during tween years. My mother often made me consume mung bean soup and chrysanthemum tea. “To lower yang energy in the body.” I soon became a fan of the flower’s flavor. A bit bold, and acquired, but made me feel grown up. Plus, I loved playing with the petals in my glass. Yes, I took my tea in a tall glass. It felt elegant!

Osmanthus and tea roses became my world when I came of age. It was around the time I held adult discussions with my relatives. I’d long known the phrase, “吟诗作画.” It inspired my parents when they selected my Chinese name. Loosely translated, it means “Words of poetry paints.”

Because I was behaving more maturely, my grandfather let me borrow books from his library. My grandfather spoke fluent English. His library included British literary classics that his most of children and grandchildren couldn’t read. Many were from his years studying English at Beijing University. 

I recall one summer, he had smatterings of osmanthus around. His sun-drenched office seemed warm, despite dustiness… and once, a smooshed mouse my cousins and I found under a heavy volume! We screamed and ran away! To this day we couldn’t figure why he left it there!

With volumes tucked under arm, I’d walk back to my uncle and aunt’s where we stayed. The scent of guihua (osmanthus) lingered on pages as I read, curled on the couch. For a few weeks straight that summer, my aunt brought home tea roses from the market. She said they struck her fancy. She placed them in a tinted jar in the living room, catching just the right angle of light from the sun. Beside it, I poured over my grandfather’s books. The fragrances swirled around me as I awakened to my name. Like the books I read and the phrase that inspired my parents, I so wanted to paint with words.

I picked up a pen that summer and made a concerted effort at writing. I didn’t have a tale in mind. Instead, I described the world around me. I wanted to illustrate vivid images, like ancient poets. I wanted to record feelings, transcribed eloquently. 

I refused to show my works to anyone, feeling embarrassed. Innately, I knew my work wasn’t ready. Unbeknownst to me, in picking up our room, my mother stumbled upon a few pages. “You’re only describing colors, and the way things look,” she critiqued.

Fidgeting in awkwardness, I responded, “But paintings only show you what you see,” I alluded to 吟诗作画.

“Writing gives you more (to work with) than paint,” she explained.

My mother handed the pages back to me. For a few days, I thought about her words. Little me came up with a slew questions. What is a painting? Is it just a photograph before the age of photographs? Why do people take photographs? To remember something, right? Why remember? Because it made them feel good?

I asked what made me feel good that summer. It could have been the taste of the homemade dumplings, the feel of the cool stone moon gate in the garden, or the scent of thunderstorms. I realized in that moment, seeing was only one sense. To truly paint with words, one needed to immerse the reader in a world of senses.

I picked up a pen again. This time, before the ink hit the page, I closed my eyes. I imagined myself in a world of gray. A blank canvas. If I were to share my trip to China with my friends back home, how could I illustrate it?

I pictured the pathway between my grandparents and my uncle and aunts. The pebbly parts glistened playfully whenever it rained. Sometimes in a flash storm, water cascaded down steps like a miniature waterfall. The sound reminding of a softer Niagara Falls. What about taste? Should I include the sensational food only locals ate? I could share my favorite recipes. It then struck me it might not be something teens cared about. Then why should I write? For whom should I write?

At a loss on where to start, I squeezed my eyes harder. Clearing my thoughts, I tried to focus on all senses, except sight.

The cicadas buzzed in chorus… The empty page, smooth beneath my fingertips…

Yet… louder than all, the scent of osmanthus and tea roses.

Slowly, I lifted my eyes. A grin alighted my lips. I took a moment and enjoyed where I sat in the little room, etching it in golden memory. Breathing deep of lovely fragrances, I set my pen to page. I can’t say what I wrote was glorious, or even good at all. Yet, it allowed me to understand why I wrote. It was to record moments that could be easily forgotten in time.

Now, whenever I think of when I started to feel like a writer, the scent of osmanthus and tea roses come to mind. I’m sitting once more in my uncle and aunt’s living room, or my grandfather’s library. Even though the same buildings are gone… and my grandparents have passed. Reunions will always exist for me, because I’ve painted them vividly in my journals.

As Anais Nin wrote, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”

Now, I’d like to share other experiences with the world. What new medley of senses could I illustrate, transporting the reader into new worlds?

Thank you for reading! Ticana Zhu will have a new post every third Tuesday of the month. Next post on Space-Tigers.com, Ava Reiss (posting every first Tuesday) chats about her present writing project.
This is not a sponsored post.

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