Why I Wrote “Tea,” Why I Write Anything

Tea is not quiet, but turbulent. Tremblings. So fine you can’t see them. So dense it seems to be standing still.

We Japanese women drink a lot of it. Become it. Swallow the tempest.

And nobody knows. The storm inside. Ever.

We remain… Peaceful. Contained. The eye of the hurricane.

But if you can taste the tea. If it can roll over your tongue in one swallow.

Then the rest will come to you.

When the tea leaves are left behind in the bottom of a cup.

When we are long gone and forgotten. [1]

I am writing about the creation of my play “Tea” because I have received inquiries from many interesting individuals around the world about that question. In all sincerity, I have thought about the question many times, but the inquiries made me consider it more directly and as unequivocally as I can, in this moment. I am motivated by the curiosity of a new generation of readers and/or viewers of “Tea,” and also by the fact that so many more people of mixed race Japanese ancestry are coming into being in this world. Their searching honors my own and I am grateful to them.

I wrote “Tea” because I had to. When I wrote it, I never thought that it would still be produced regularly forty years later. Long before issues concerning Japanese female culture, non-binary ethnic identities, and immigration became topical in the media beyond the white gaze, “Tea” explored those matters with profundity. In addition, it did so through a female Japanese and Japanese poly-ethnic gaze.

When the Los Angeles Times wrote about “Tea” this year (“Why Velina Hasu Houston’s timely play ‘Tea’ continues to be staged around the world” [2]), it also generated further meditation about the play. The actress Hua Lee discussed the play’s relevancy to experiences that plague global societies today, particularly in the United States. The timelessness to which she referred was not a specific objective, but I believe that when we investigate matters of the conscience, a boundlessness can arise that can buttress humanity.

Growing up in Junction City, Kansas, I received an education from many women that I would not fully value until I was a young adult starting college. That education was given to me organically via the lives of women from around the globe who shared their food, stories, and hearts with me when I visited their homes or they visited ours. While most of them came from Japan, they also were from Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, France, England, Austria, Italy, and Germany.

The main source, of course, was Setsuko Takechi, my mother. Over the years, she proved to be not only my mother, but also my muse, mentor, nurse, counselor, and friend. She departed this plane of existence in June, 2022, and it was a transformative moment for me. It continues to be so.

With regard to “Tea” specifically, however, she was the central muse. Sometimes during afterschool hours, she invited a few Japanese women over for tea. No, I do not mean tea ceremony as in chanoyu, but another kind of ritualistic tea. Like chanoyu, the kind of tea time enjoyed by my mother and her friends was an experience elevated from their everyday lives in a small Kansas town. Like chanoyu, it was a way of tea, if you will, that allowed the Japanese female immigrants to weave a sense of community with each other in a safe place that was separate from their daily lives as mothers and wives.

They appreciated the food, the Japanese bowls and plates, the chopsticks, and the tea and rice that tasted so much better than what the military grocery store provided. My mother’s tea time was not merely serving tea to guests, but an event – a table adorned with tiny, beautiful Japanese dishes filled with Japanese foods; delicious rice and tea sent from Japan by my Haruko Obasan (Aunt Haruko), and chopsticks inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My mother liked such chopsticks. The pair she gave me and taught me to use when I was four are rose pink inlaid with mother-of-pearl. I have kept them all of my life and they now rest in my mother’s butsudan.

Before I share (as best as I can) the perceptions and impressions that took me from my mother’s tea table to the writing of my play, “Tea,” I need to make a certain distinction. The reason I need to make this distinction is because, too often, I encounter Japanese and non-Japanese people who think that the Japanese international brides of World War II (often called “war brides” by the general public) are the same as Japanese Americans. Once in a live San Francisco morning television program, a white male broadcaster was incredulous about the idea of a Japanese woman marrying a black man and asked how my parents met on a battle field during World War II. Not only was the remark a senseless and disrespectful thing to say, but it also was painfully obvious that he had not acted professionally and read his advance copy. Despite his cluelessness and incivility, the producers of my play expected me to ignore it, and offer a plastic smile that I could not and would not muster.   

There is another brand of people who feel that being Japanese, being “American,” or being a host of other ethnicities are defined by what nation’s passport or citizenship one holds. First of all, Japanese people and Japanese American people are two distinct cultures. The latter are Americans of Japanese descent (as they steadfastly proved by majority loyalty during World War II). Secondly, ethnicity is not determined by the country you live in or who gives you a passport or what government grants you citizenship, but by the biology of your birth. (In the United States, people born in the state of Hawai’i often call themselves Hawaiian. Hawaiian ethnicity, however, is a distinct entity. Here, for example, is a photograph of a Native Hawaiian [most people thought of as “Hawaiian” today may have no Native Hawaiian heritage]): [3]

My ethnicity is not Californian. When people, as they often do, ask me, “What are you?” if I answered “Californian,” their inquisitiveness would be unfulfilled. 

Concerning “Tea,” let me share some interesting history. Before “Tea” was published, a certain author and her agent vigorously approached me and my representatives in their desire to obtain a copy of the play. Eventually, we sent them the manuscript. A few years later, that author published a book about another group of Asian women. While the stories were different, the ideology of a community of Asian immigrant women had been inspired by “Tea.” It did not matter to me – as it is said, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – but later such stereotypes about Asian stories did matter to me. A white film producer said, “Why ‘Tea’ is nothing but a copy of –.” In the film industry, there couldn’t be two films about a group of Asian women, right? How could one group of Asian women experience anything that was different from another group of Asian women? That was the attitude the film industry reflected.

 “Tea,” in fact, had existed long before the other creation, hence its inspiring potency. While my Meiji approach to the situation allowed me to put it in the past, it percolated again when I met the certain author and she pretended as if she didn’t know who I was and then prevaricated about the vigorous attempt to obtain a copy of my play. Suddenly, the film producer’s attitude about Asians took on a more universal sheen. Anybody could be unpleasant and discourteous. But I think we all know that. Another writer perhaps seeking to dampen the immigrant writing experience or any other writing experience that was not his own kept battering me with the question, “When are you going to write something important?” “Tea” was and is important to me. The best resolution for me is to cut a wide swath around these kinds of toxicity.

Let me address the perceptions and impressions that led to the writing of “Tea.”

My world was my mother and her Japanese friends. I served as their tea-runner, making sure that the old tea leaves were thrown away and that a fresh pot of tea was made as soon as the last drop was poured. Fascinated by what they had to share and by the fact that they were amazed I was fascinated, I listened to their every word. I knew them as so-and-so’s mother or the woman who lived on such-and-such street, but I had never known them as individuals.

When I began college, my many observations of those Japanese women remained etched in my mind. I decided I would travel around the state of Kansas and interview Japanese female immigrants. When I told my mother about my plan, she was skeptical. She believed that most Japanese women would not divulge their stories to me for two reasons: they didn’t know me and I also was a mixed-race Japanese person of African descent. (I am Japanese, African American, Native American, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, and Korean; but I get mis-raced often – Are you Filipina? Are you Sri Lankan? Are you Polynesian? Are you a Spanish girl? [and because of the binary of black-white race that makes anything not white be labeled as black] Are you black?) Despite the fact that I was culturally Meiji, Taishō, and early Shōwa Japanese, they would see me as black and, due to anti-blackness, not want to engage with me. That happens a lot and I have ceased to care about it, but I cared then because I wanted those interviews.

Still, I scheduled the interviews over the phone and resolved to drive around the nearly 53,000 acres of Kansas to talk with women who had come from all over Japan to a small town in the middle of that state.

I should add that these women are the source of heinous stereotypes that seem to have spread globally. Many people use the term “war bride” as if they are saying the “n” word to a black person. The stereotype is that Japanese women who married Americans at the end of World War II were whores and bar girls. The physical and spiritual devastation of Japan at the end of World War II wounded national pride. The women who left and married foreigners were considered traitors, and incurred the wrath of Japanese society. In the U.S., the stereotypes persisted, particularly among Asian Americans because of their anathema towards interracial marriage and their anti-blackness, which I personally experience all the time.

Years ago, I visited a northwestern U.S. city with an Okinawan and Japanese American friend (no, Okinawan culture and Japanese culture are not the same, and deserve the distinction of their unique heritages). After being told that my mother was Japanese, the Okinawan American father (who identified himself as being Japanese American) looked at me and said, “So, your mother is a prostitute.” While his daughter was embarrassed and shocked by his statement, I was not surprised by its abusive and prejudiced violence. I simply smiled, but later I told the man that, given the fact that he concealed his Okinawan heritage, he was the last person who ought to be casting aspersions on anybody else.

My mother came from an affluent family in Matsuyama, Japan, and had a maid until her late teens when the maid left to marry. I am ashamed to say that my grandfather, as the owner of an estate, managed tenant farmers, which, to me, is enslavement. For me, there is irony in that because my African ancestors were enslaved while my Japanese ancestors were enslavers. Once my mother came to the U.S., her class status shifted to being a Japanese immigrant in a provincial Kansas town who was married to a black man. But she was no more a whore than anybody else’s mother or father.

The forty-nine women I interviewed also illustrated a variety of class backgrounds, professions, demeanors, and attitudes that defied all kinds of stereotypes about “war brides,” about women, and about Asians. I packed my car and prepared to drive to the first town for the first interview. My mother came out of the house with a small suitcase and said she was going with me. She declared that she had to protect me from small-minded people, whatever their racial background. It was one of those things that did not have to be explained. We set off for Abilene, Kansas, the site of our first interview. I interviewed women who were the sole non-white presence in their town, who had never seen a Japanese person since leaving Japan. I interviewed women who lived in places where there were a few Japanese female immigrants, but not many. The longest interview was eight hours with two bathroom breaks. That woman at first said not to write anything down or to tape her, but then she asked me to write everything down, then she said we should tape the interview for utmost accuracy. Sometimes, an interviewee’s teenage children would join us. They often were astounded by the stories they heard; never before had their mothers talked about their lives. The experiences were truly altering for all concerned.

In the years since, I’ve read many books and articles about mixed race people. The ones about Japanese interracial couples invariably explore white-Japanese American couples, not Japanese immigrant women who married black or brown men. When they ask me or someone else what they think, they often are asked to go back and interview some Japanese women who didn’t marry white men. I suppose because I am a mixed-race Japanese of African descent and because I have seen that a sense of community is sometimes possible among Japanese female immigrants who marry across color lines, I always embraced all hues of interracial marriages. But then it was the 1960s and it was a small Kansas town…

After I completed the interviews, I sat down and wrote the first draft of “Tea” in two weeks. The play poured out of me. That was 1979. From 1979-1982, I refined the play and the first “real” draft I was willing to show anybody was in 1982. The play had a Rockefeller Foundation workshop production in San Francisco at the Asian American Theatre Company and then opened for its professional world premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club in New York in 1987. Since that time, the play has been produced continuously around the globe. This last year, it was produced in Los Angeles by Hero Theatre, and also in Wisconsin and Princeton. It is studied globally; in middle schools, high schools, and universities. Dramatists Play Service published it some time ago. I adapted it into a musical, then a novel, now a film treatment and opera.

In 2011, I adapted the play into a musical. While it was nominated for a key award for best book of a musical and I enjoyed composer Nathan Wang’s music, the artistic creation was gratifying for me, but I felt the genre was not the right one for the material. Shortly thereafter, I adapted it into a novel, which was a provocative adventure. Now, I am completing a film adaptation of the play, an endeavor I didn’t engage in before because of the barriers imposed against Asian women’s stories in U.S. cinema. My final cultivation of my mother’s tea and the interviews will be an opera, a notion suggested to me by a colleague, composer and musician Carla Lucero, and viable given the nature of the medium and the long association I have with Los Angeles Opera.

I wrote “Tea” because the journey of those women – marginalized figures through whose veins ran a bygone Japanese culture — is core to my worldview. Because I treasured their grace, courage, and internal fortitude, their stories flowed from my soul onto the page. That perspective – of the stranger in a new place that is not their home – remains vital to my storytelling. The life my mother and those women shared with me was like a rich carpet and the rest of the world was cold tile.

When my son was four, I came home from rehearsing “Tea” at the Old Globe and his child care provider showed me what he had written: a short play called “Milk.” Inspired by “Tea,” he created a play about a group of mixed race young boys who gather for reasons important to their circle. I consider that the first non-Velina artistic creation that “Tea” inspired. The life around me makes impressions upon me out of which grow perceptions that feed, enrich, and expand my worldview. From that, stories are cultivated that become artistic creations. Artistic license, fiction, imagination, and inspiration all become part of the enigmatically inexplicable process of cultivation.

I am green tea, sometimes gyokuro, sometimes sencha, sometimes genmaicha; it depends on the day. Sometimes I even feel like kukicha. Moreover, some days, I am “Ceylon” tea — or a blend of them all. A green tea girl in orange pekoe country. Yes, I know in the present climate most people don’t know what “orange pekoe” means. It’s a grade of non-green tea and, in the world in which I existed when I was growing up in Kansas, it was either Japanese tea or orange pekoe (in our case, dark brown American tea). In our family’s home, it was green tea, no sugar please, no additives whatsoever.

My maternal Meiji, Taishō, and early Shōwa Japanese culture is fading away. Even the emerging mixed race Japanese are primarily either Heisei mixtures or American Japanese mixtures. Perhaps that is why my life has been filled with many older Japanese and American Japanese embodied with native Japanese cultures preceding the Heisei era. I don’t know. I only know that I miss having my mother on this plane of existence, but that I am deeply grateful for the culture and traditions she passed on to me. While contemporary and generational influences imprint upon my children as they have upon me, I pass on my mother’s traditions to them and they hold them closely. For this, I also am grateful.

Why did I write “Tea”? Why do I write anything?

Because I must.

[1] Houston, Velina Hasu. “Tea.” From the author’s personal documents. Also available at Dramatists Play Service, 440 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016, dpsinfo@broadwaylicensing.com. Photograph: the author’s mother, 1953.

[2] Cheng, Scarlet. “Why Velina Hasu Houston’s timely play ‘Tea’ continues to be staged around the world,” 4 May, 2022, Los Angeles Times. Downloaded on December 2, 2022 @


[3] Public domain. Walery (Stanislaw Julian Ostrorog). 1 Jan, 1887. Hawai’i State Archives. Call Number: PPWD-16-4.014. Hawai’i State Archives. Call Number: PPWD-16-4-014. The last queen of Hawai’i, Queen Lili’uokalani as Crown Princess Lili’uokalani of Hawai’i, photographed during Queen Victoria of England’s Golden Jubilee.


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