For this piece, I am going to relate heavily to themes interpreted through the Hayao Miyazaki film “Spirited Away.” If you haven’t seen that film I apologize, and highly recommend you pick it up at your leisure and give it a watch. There is a strong relationship between consumption and identity within the film. In this case, consumption is shown to take away rather than to give. Consumer culture has dominated as an identity-defining ideology for well over a century now. Consumer culture points at the soul as a vacuum or void that needs filling. We consume items that we are sold in order to better fill this gap and project our identity.
In the Western tea scene, this is embodied in “tea haul” photos, flashy and interesting buys of hyped items, frantically buying up hot new releases, and in some cases spending recklessly on tea, tea ware, and other related merch. I am by no means free from this cycle of consumption or consumer culture either. I do not mean to directly point this in any solid direction or at any specific individuals. Lately, as my purchasing habits have become more cautious and refined to my own personal preferences, I have also been looking at my behavior: encouraged by both my selfish desires via either recognition or inclusion, and through trends I see in groups I frequently participate in.
Throughout Spirited Away, our young protagonist Chihiro removes corruptions and impurities that poisoned or confused other characters in the spirit world, returning them to a state of calm and recollection. Before Chihiro finds herself working in Zeniba’s bathhouse and losing her name, she witnesses her parents sitting down at a food-stall, their eating increasingly violently and determined, until they eventually turn into pigs. Through their brash consumption, they lose their original identity and no longer recognize their own daughter.
No-face is the most obvious example in the film. No-face quite literally lacks both a face and voice. His consumption of foods symbolizes his hunger to fill himself, a hunger for his own identity. He begins consuming patrons of the bathhouse, acquiring their voices and traits. He continues to eat, eventually reaching a frightening size and causing havoc in the bathhouse. With Chihiro’s help, he regurgitates everything he devoured in his frenzy. Absolved of the violent consumption he subjected himself to, he is finally able to control himself. Chihiro experiences a similar process to the other characters. Only after she is stripped of her name and identity can she confront her emptiness, fears, and passive nature. “Spirited Away” drives home the message that there are critical points in life, learning, or growth in which we must lose our identity to gain experience.
What does this have to do with tea?
Tea is a product not only to be physically consumed, but one that passionate members if its cultural community like to attribute part of their ” consumer identity.” In some cases (usually Western) this may translate to flashy Instagram posts, boasting of how much tea one drinks, “haul” photos, and what kinds of teas and communities they associate with form identity. Through our consumption, we build ourselves a new face, represented by the companies we choose to patronize, the types of teas we drink, how much we spend, or how in the loop with current community events and drama we are.
We consume for the promise of meaning, personality, and identity. To be fair, any market is going to experience a similar phenomenon. It is, however, most visible to me in tea, due to my exposure to this particular group’s culture. A conclusion I often struggle with is that my personal exposure to this group and consumption of ideas within it has caused me great stress in terms of identity. I struggle to step away; worried I will lose information, knowledge, and possibly fall behind in areas in which I strive to remain current and competent in. My price paid has been my personal growth – certain aspects of it at least. As of late I have found new value in slowing down, embracing personal views and internalizing them rather than using them to externally prove or flaunt some newly obtained and consumed fragment of my identity. People build a carefully tuned face they wish to present to the world. I would like to take steps to improve my personal reflection. It’s time to expel some of the clutter I have consumed along the way and wander lost for a while in an attempt to grow.