Abeer Untapped: India Inc.


Chai Tea leaves


Where’s the line between cultural appreciation and exotic™ marketing?


By Abeer Yusuf


I was walking along South Granville some time back, when I chanced upon a billboard outside a Blenz Coffee store. The billboard caught my eye because it said “MUMBAI.” As someone who identifies Bombay as home, I looked at it more closely.


The ad was pitching a new product from the coffee store, a “Mumbai Orange” juice tea, displaying said juice with artfully laid out spices and ginger root. Although the ad made no claims of authenticity, I rolled my eyes at yet another attempt at exoticization.


Ever since I’ve come to Vancouver, I’ve realized things about my people that I never knew before. For example, I never knew that the right way of saying chai was chai tea. As far as I know, chai IS tea.** I’d also not known that chai could come in the variation of a chai tea latte, or that tea could even be made as a latte.


I’ve talked to many Vancouverites who’ve asked me if a particular blend of chai latte tastes just as authentic as “back home”—I don’t have the heart to tell them that what they’re having is just a commercial machine marketing a product that fits an entire nation into a tea bag. It’s frustrating to think that so many people probably think Indians drink spiced tea all day, because while the statement of tea-addicted Indians may be true, the cinnamon, cardamom and cloves they’re consuming in tea only shows up in our food. If the same people were to travel around India, they would be hard-pressed to find a store that sells a chai tea latte with matcha infusions, unless it were a Starbucks.


Reaching new levels of absurdity, Oprah Winfrey launched her own blend of chai tea, which is “rich in cinnamon, ginger, cardamom and cloves, blended with black tea and rooibos.” Rooibos is a plant indigenous to South Africa, and I assure you, cannot be found in an Indian chai. According to Oprah, who came up with the line especially for Teavana, a subsidiary of Starbucks, “this is what tea should taste like.” It should also come as no surprise that this tea is trademarked.


In a video promoting the tea, Oprah also says, “I love spicy tea, that’s what chai really is.” India thanks you, Oprah. After making a complete fool of herself at an Indian home and expressing shock at Indians eating with their hands (on her 2012 India tour), this step in tea entrepreneurship is sure to make up for past follies.


Tea-hawkers like Oprah aren’t the only culprits. I’ve probably met more people that practise yoga in Vancouver than in Bombay. There are probably more kinds of yoga here than in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh—and it boggles my mind.


Why is it that patented yoga moves and star anise-flavoured tea are the rare elements of India Vancouverites understand? Perhaps it shows how little people in the developed north know and are willing to know about the people from a different world.


These examples miss India’s cultural pluralities, and when they fall into the hands of corporations, the complexity is completely erased. So the next time you go out to your local artisan coffee shop, please keep in mind that adding cinnamon and cardamom to something and naming it after a metropolitan city doesn’t make the thing authentic or exotic.



**NOTE: Chai is the Hindi/Urdu word for tea, usually made with milk and black tea. In people’s homes and upon special request at tea stalls, you can get ginger-infused chai or cardamom and ginger-infused chai, which is then called masala chai (spiced tea)—though the commoner only drinks black tea boiled with milk and sugar.