This Side of “Paradise”

posted in: Ruminations | 34

I enjoy tea a lot. All kinds of tea. I haven’t taken this passion to the next level of home DIY experimentation, drying out leaves and whatnot, but lately it’s crossed my mind. Typically at around this time of the year, I return to the comfort of tea. Having a propensity toward being cold all the time, I like having hot drinks to sip on much as a fish likes to have things to fill its gills with. As temperatures began to inch toward the mild fall range yesterday, I found myself with a craving at work. So I opened my office kitchen cupboards and was delighted to find a nice assortment of individually-wrapped teabags. Lemon… no. Peppermint, not today. Mandarin Orange Spice?

Naturally, I’ve seen this trademarked tea blend from Celestial Seasonings with its Mandarin princess on the box countless times throughout my life. But today I actually felt like drinking it. So I did. Yet as I sipped, instead of being soothed, I was more and more peeved by this:

Her eyelids are lowered in a sultry glare. She offers a bounty of oranges, but you know there’s more.

For me it’s a well-known, almost accepted fact that tea marketing clownishly fetishizes Asian cultures. Perhaps more so than any other not-necessarily-Asian product. From Tazo’s ugly packaging and fourteen-year-old-getting-high-for-the-first-time pseudo-spiritual “The Art of Tea” campaign to Snapple’s “lovably” clueless tourist reacting to grizzled sages in their commercials for white tea, it’s clear that American tea companies are not exactly vying for the Asian American market. Fine, then. But I draw the line at this image. And this copy, from Celestial Seasonings’ website:

Deliciously spicy and teeming with flavor, Mandarin Orange Spice Herb Tea embraces the essence of an oriental paradise. At your fingertips, the flavor of luscious oranges mingles with piquant cloves to create an exotic and 100% natural feast for your palate. Mandarin Orange Spice Herb Tea is a medley of aromatic flavors with the allure of the mysterious Far East.”

Hey, guess what? The mystery’s been cracked! We’ve already opened the vault to the secrets of the Far East. I think it was on Indiana Jones’ getaway raft in The Temple of Doom.

Now, I might be the only person in the world offended by Madame Mandarin over here and if that’s the case, then I’m prepared for and okay with it. The problem is, I really like this tea now. I like that the product is all-natural and I find this blend of herbs delightful. But I can’t stand the packaging. Can’t I enjoy my drink without being reminded of the sexualization of women of my heritage? Also, let’s not forget that the tea is not exactly “Mandarin” in any non-imagined sense – the blend of warm cinnamon, cloves, herbs and orange peel riffs on Christmasy mulling spices more than anything else. Or those oranges stabbed with cloves that I once made from a craft book as a child. So what the hell is this “oriental paradise” all about? I am so not in it.

Now, a good rant come off me, let’s start talking homemade tea.

34 Responses

  1. mark

    Hey Cathy,

    Did you find any calming, ‘non-rant’ tea? This is very funny since I would never have noticed the picture. I grew up in Boulder where Celetial began and always just giggled when their name came up. The founder “Mo” was nuts and was always the best entertainment in town.

    You should try and send a note to their parent company that is in your neck of the woods, Hain-Celestial is based on Long Island. Give them a piece of this rant, they need an occasional lashing.

    Nice piece though, being a male, I kind of think we are just suckers for these images…it’s our fatal flaw I guess….

  2. joanne

    No comment on the packaging. I don’t buy that stuff. I prefer to wander around Chinatown and find a nice tea shop and taste the loose leaf available. I’ve got my mom shopping in Hong Kong right now for tea. I prefer Dragon Pearl, a lovely whole leaf jasmine scented leaf hand rolled into little balls. Or a black tea scented with Litchi fruit. Or a good Wulong tea to warm me up in the mornings. I drink tea year round. In the warmer months, I brew a gallon and lightly sweetened in the fridge. I brew at least one gallon a day the way my family consumes it. I do use whole dried rose buds with the Dragon Pearl for a little extra flavoring.

  3. Ricky

    I dont buy this stuff either. I’m not a big fan of flavored teas, especially ones where they claim to be natural and one of the ingredients is “natural flavoring” or “natural coloring” which could be dried bug casings for color.

    Check out Itoen’s store, its pricey but cheaper than going to kyoto, which has some amazing tea btw. They have a great selection of teas from China, and Japan. They have a few flavored teas as well.

  4. AP

    It doesn’t really solve the problem with CS’s marketing campaign, but I actually like Constant Comment better–it’s Bigelow’s orange spice-y tea. And I don’t think it fetishizes the British.

  5. Ohiomom

    While herbal teas are technically not a tea but an herbal infusion, this is what I drink.

    My favorite is Chamomile/Peppermint. I buy dried herbs and make my own blends of herbal teas.

  6. Hannah Mae

    I have to say I love the taste of the stuff too – I think it dates back to when my mom drank it when I was way too young to pick up on the problematic aspects of the cover lady (I just thought she was pretty). Celestial Seasonings has updated some of their other antiquated box designs over the years, so one can only hope that this one is next on the list for a new look….

    I always thought that the “Mandarin” in the name referred to mandarin oranges, but now that I think of it, it’s not really a tangeriney taste, is it?

  7. olduvai

    Having just spent a year in England, where I’m not ‘Asian’ but ‘Oriental’, that word just makes me steam (no hot drink pun intended). One of my favourite teas – baimudan (white peony). But my (nearly) everyday one is jasmine.

  8. lindsey

    um…this was my favorite CC “tea” and has been since i was a kid. and as a kid i loved the box because i thought she was so pretty, like a mysterious princess. mysterious because i didn’t know a thing about any asian country or culture. i distinctly recall cutting out her picture a time or two and gluing it to my notebooks.

    i don’t see the sultry gaze and come-hither offerings in this picture that you see, and i’m usually the first to jump on feminist issues. but i could be blinded by my childhood love of the image.

    also, it’s fine if i’m a dumb american for buying into the mystery thing, but i don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with being attracted to or romanticizing cultures you don’t know much about. and while sometimes companies do a lame job of milking that tendency for marketing purposes, for the most part i’m okay with it as long as it’s not derogatory (aunt jemima, say). i would guess most of the drinkers of this tea are female, and most of us would rather *be* pretty madam mandarin, than have her submissively massage our feet.

    i think russia is mysterious too, and there are few vodka companies who won’t work that angle to sell me a bottle.

  9. lindsey

    i don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with being attracted to or romanticizing cultures you don’t know much about.

    if there is, then everyone under the planet has been doing italy a grave disservice for centuries…

  10. cathy

    See, this is all about sharing different perspectives and I’m grateful to everyone for offering theirs. I completely respect your thoughts, Lindsey — thanks for chiming in. I grew up in an environment where things that are normal to me are deemed “mysterious” by most. As you said, it implies that people know less about Asian cultures, hence are more ignorant to them. I would like to see the US become less ignorant and more aware of it is all. I don’t think we use “mysterious” when describing Italian culture.

    Joanne and Ricky: Thanks for the awesome tea advice.
    Mark: Trust me, next time I’m grabbing the Tension Tamer!

  11. Kristin

    Just a thought – I think the problem with this sort of romanticization (is that even a word?) that I have is that it makes a culture diminutive by focusing on stereotypes. I actually think the idea of Aunt Jemima falls along the lines of advertising an image of all Asian women as Geisha-like characters. It is perpetuating a stereotype that is not helpful or useful, and people rely on this as a description of this culture of which they are ignorant.

    On the other hand, being interested in another culture. I think that’s quite different than making it diminutive.

  12. Yvo

    Sometimes I get mad/annoyed about stuff like this too and other people tell me that I’m overreacting or they don’t see it the same way. And that’s fine- everyone’s entitled to their own opinion- but it makes me wonder about the thin lines between discrimination that people draw…
    Anyway, this guy says it the best I’ve ever heard it:
    At one point, he says- and this speaks to me deeply- that “Ching chong” might not be meant offensively, but that to someone who grew up hearing it chanted at them while they were being kicked in the ribs… it is horrifying.

  13. janet

    The rant is right on. I agree with Kristin that you can be interested in a culture that is ‘mysterious’ to you and not be reductive (or blatantly wrong and demeaning, as Celestial’s copy for it’s Far East “flavors”… can you hear the gongs and flutes?).

    Stuff that involves race like this, as innocuous as a box of tea may seem, is always much more complex and far-reaching than it seems on the surface, especially with the exotification implications and I think Cathy brought up a good point with this post. A lot of discussion surrounding “ethnic” foods tap into these types of issues and grow out of a certain type of ignorance, especially casting minorities who are *also* American, as the eternal foreigner. Boo to that.

  14. danny

    that’s kind of interesting, i never would have seen the situation from your perspective. maybe it’s because i don’t drink tea, and don’t like fruity flavors in warm tea… but the picture just makes me think about a lame attempt at the green tea that asians like to drink.

    would it be offensive if it was a mint tea or something and they called it italian and offered an italian woman on the box?

    anyway, mostly it seems like ineffective marketing to me. her picture != mandarin oranges.

  15. lindsey

    I don’t think we use “mysterious” when describing Italian culture.

    (note: i tend to think of mysterious as complement rather than a slur – mysterious means it intrigues me and i want to find out more. mysterious is the hook that starts the impetus of learning.)

    i’m hard pressed to find the difference between the romanticism in CC’s hyperbole copy for the tea, which sounds like any marketing jargon for any product, and the romanticism popular culture has thrown italy’s way. “under a tuscan sun”? didn’t that whole movie tell me the sensual, life-changing mysteries that italy would unfold for me would solve all my problems if i could just get myself to a villa?

    and we paint, to a fault, parisian women as sensual and mysterious…is the difference that they are somehow empowered while the asian woman is submissive?

    i’m not really arguing with you, actually, because i agree with your rant. i don’t like stereotypes that diminish people, especially women, either. i’m just piping up for one of my favorite herbal teas…CC seems like innocuous tinder for this particular fire. the snapple tea sensei/xiānshēng ads get under my skin much more.

    anyhow, i still adore your blog. 😀

  16. Pete

    Hey Cathy. I’m glad you’ve finally found Celestial Seasoning’s mandarin orange blend. It is a flavor deeply ingrained in my cultural DNA, the aroma that I grew up with. I could never forget the countless mornings in which my mom would wake up before Buddha and the roosters, put on her best geisha makeup to pick mandarin oranges (or as we called them, “oranges”) in the mist. As we sipped these delicate cups of mystery, we always commented, in quiet awe, on mama-san’s ability to create these tireless allures every morning. “How, Under the Great Wall, was she able to combine the flavor of luscious oranges mingles with piquant cloves, which evokes pretty much Everything We Are About?” I cannot tell you how many times my brothers and I have sipped the tea, then nodding in agreement, as if to say “yes, yes, this is exactly who we are as a people.”
    So yeah, that’s really crazy that you’re drinking that tea right now, ’cause it’s almost as if you’re drinking yourself. Drink yourself to sleep, drink yourself to death, drink yourself, Cathy, to the Far Eastern Oriental Mysery Paradise Blend of Exotic Fingertips.

  17. cathy

    Pete: That is an interesting perspective as well.
    Lindsey: Thanks for the kind words! And you’ve proven that this debate extends much farther than one package or one minority. As Janet said, ethnic foods often tap into these issues. We could be here all year discussing them, and frankly, I wouldn’t mind it. Thanks again!

  18. lorelei

    Cathy, I completely agree with you about bogus “Oriental” marketing. And I recommend the teas at Adagio, delicious and no funky marketing crap. I especially love their English Breakfast and jasmine varities.

  19. Lilster

    I think Celestial Seasonings may have heard you, as recently in the stores I’ve seen a bunch of the CS teas repackaged with new boxes, finally changing the look they’ve have for years. Not sure if Mandarin Orange Spice is one of them, so I don’t know if she’s still on the box. I’ve never liked black teas — they don’t sit well, and especially now that I’m pregnant, I’ve been drinking a lot of these fruity non-caffeinated ones. For the orange spice kind, I prefer Yogi Tea’s Moroccan Orange Spice, although that also has a woman on the front of the packaging. However, last week in Whole Foods I noticed that Yogi Tea also seems to be moving to image-free boxes.

    As herbal teas go, CS isn’t my favorite brand, but I have found when traveling or in places that have limited shelf space or unadventurous buyers, CS is most likely to be the only herbal tea variety in the shop, and it will do.

  20. Lilster

    I saw the new box in the store today. She’s still on it.

  21. Jasmin

    Girl, you need to get yourself some loose-leaf tea! (Pref, organic and fair trade 🙂

    Our ancestors, they are WEEPING. What is this tea bag you speak of? 😉

  22. Stasigr

    Hello, very nice site, keep up good job!
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  23. Enrico

    Was watching “Gangs of New York” and heard the term ‘celestial’ used towards Chinese people and it got me thinking. Searched for its roots and found your piece on celestal seasonings tea – any connection to the racist term from the 19th century? I never drink it anyway, but its surprising there isn’t more talk about the implications.

  24. Tea!

    I always read it as “Mandarin Orange” Spice tea, as in a type of Orange, if that helps with the rantiness 😉

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  30. Morey Hall

    I could drink tea all day. I usually drink decaf green tea but the teas in Teavana are great as well.

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  32. Kenneth

    Note from a 73 year old, self-described “curmudgeonly codger”. Day by day I watch the disappearance of grace and beauty from a world become obsessed with erasing every trace of these for the sake of a “progress” that has been foisted upon its youth complete with pseudo-political “laws of the appropriate”. But then, as my generation is already “circling the drain, onward with your “progress”. Onward! Onward until every iota of beauty, mystery, Eros, romance, have been replaced by the nondescript or merely outlandish, by the irreverent, by the pornographic, the robotic and, finally, by a desolate void of meaninglessness… By the way, CS has changed the box. Too bad. I thought she was rather pretty.

  33. Kenneth

    P.S. To Enrico regarding “Celestial” as a “racist term”. This information from “Celestial was a term used to describe Chinese emigrants to the United States, Canada and Australia during the 19th century.[1] The term was widely used in the popular mass media of the day.The term is from Celestial Empire (Chinese: 天朝; pinyin: Tiāncháo) a traditional name for China.”

  34. Kenneth

    P.P.S. Since it is one of those notions that I wrongly tend to suppose is also “common knowledge” among the present generation, I neglected to suggest reading even an overview of the psychology of the Rorschach or “ink blot” test in which persons looking at a random and abstract blot of ink will describe what they subjectively “see” according to their own personality characteristics. Also of interest may be the Wikipedia article on Pareidolia, described there as “a psychological phenomenon involving a stimulus (an image or a sound) wherein the mind perceives a familiar pattern of something where none actually exists”. If this isn’t helpful, try the book “Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life”, by Paul Ekman.

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