My mother’s tea: Skepticism and love of family traditions

By Yia Lor | April 12, 2022

  • Yia Lor's mother, Lisa Chue Thao, with her herbs and teas at her home. (Photo by Yia Lor)

Yia Lor's mother, Lisa Chue Thao, with her herbs and teas at her home. (Photo by Yia Lor)

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Many of us grow up questioning our parents’ methods and traditions, only to find ourselves embracing them later in life. That was definitely the case for writer Yia Lor. She tells us about her skepticism and love of her mother’s tea.


My Mother’s Tea

When I would get sick, my mother would rummage through the cabinets pulling out crinkled Ziploc bags filled with twisted roots that once clung to the earth, golden leaves touched by King Midas, and of course, the trusty, old tshuaj pob zeb.

The tshuaj pob zeb was our family’s medicine rock — this white, clay-like crystal my mother would scrape into a powder before boiling it into a tasteless tea. Then she’d order me to drink and ask no questions.

I had many. I drank anyway.

Lisa Chue Thao holds her tshuaj pob zeb. (Photo by Yia Lor)

Lisa Chue Thao holds her tshuaj pob zeb. (Photo by Yia Lor)

My mother comes from a long line of healers. Her father was a shaman who traveled between both worlds. She is an herbalist who interprets dreams. I happen to be the skeptic of all things.

When I was eight, I lost one of my front teeth. Months went by and still no tooth.

“How did you throw it away?” my mother asked because, you see, there’s a special way of disposing of one’s tooth.

If you lose a tooth along the top, you must hold the tooth up to your forehead and let it fall into the garbage. Our teeth at the top grow down so the tooth must also go down. My mother did not witness how I had thrown the tooth away and became concerned.

One day, she said, “When we go to the garden, bring an apple.”

Across our garden was a grassy field, and in that field lived a horse. I was instructed to offer the apple to the horse and say, “Horsie, horsie, my tooth will not grow back. May I have one of your teeth, please?”

Shortly after that, it grew back. I remained a skeptic.

I was embarrassed by my mother’s unconventional ways. Many times, I demanded to see the label of her ingredients. My mother said her tshuaj didn’t come with labels. She would say, “Peb Hmoob hu li no.” We, Hmong, call it this. And this never seemed to have a good translation. For example, ‘tshuaj kub taub hau’ literally means ‘medicine hot head.’ When you Google it, it pulls up hot flashes and menopause, which I don’t think I was experiencing at fifteen. I refused to drink my mother’s tshuaj from then on.

The following ten years, I did what most everybody does. I went to the doctor. Sometimes I was told to go home and let things heal on their own. Take some Advil. Apply this cream. Here’s some antibiotics.

Something was always missing, though.

I started to explore how others healed themselves and became fascinated with rocks, these everyday things that could be a billion years old. Imagine the stories they must hold. I wondered if that was what my mother thought when she untangled roots or collected leaves for another herbal concoction.

During my rock phase, I learned about selenite, known as a healing stone. It’s sometimes sold in thin, long slabs. I ordered one for myself, and when it arrived, I noticed it was soft. A bit dull and somewhat chalky.

That’s when I realized I had seen this before in my mother’s kitchen. The trusty old tshuaj pob zeb. The tasteless tea I drank as a child. This was it, just in a different form.

I was babysitting my nephew when he lost a tooth. He wanted to put it under his pillow for some tooth fairy money.

“Bud,” I said. “Do you want tooth fairy money, or do you want your tooth to grow back?”

There we stood in front of the garbage bin.

Sometimes the universe has its way of leading you back to your mother’s tea.

Each of Thao's ingredients help with a different ailment. (Photo by Yia Lor)

Each of Thao’s ingredients help with a different ailment. (Photo by Yia Lor)


(This story originally aired on April 21, 2020.)

MUSIC: “Being” by Roary

“Have A Cuppa Tea” by The Kinks

Yia Lor

Yia Lor

Yia Lor is a storyteller and writer from Eau Claire. She shares her time with her family, yoga mat, and 30+ houseplants.

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