Tea Bricks and Piercings

A brick of tea.
A brick of tea.

An odd match? They are more closely related than you would think in Mongolia.

First, the tea. You can buy large bricks of tea at most any store in the country. Do make the tea, you simple break a chunk of desired size off of the main brick, throw it in some boiling water, and serve. Most people use this type of tea to make tradition milk tea.

It should be noted that this tea is usually of terrible quality, so if you are an aficionado, I would recommend not purchasing it for your personal consumption.

Another interesting use for tea that I recently was made aware of involves piercings.

The tradition of ear piercing is nothing new in Mongolia. Women have been doing it for generations. One of my female students decided it was her turn to self-pierce, so she gave herself a lip ring. She did so over a school break, so when I saw her on our first day of classes, I was surprised to see it. Mainly because her lip looked swollen and not in good shape. I asked her if she was OK, and she said she was fine. She then volunteered the information about doing the procedure herself.

“How did you do that?” I asked. I imagined she used a sewing needle or a pin.

“No, I used a…” She made a writing motion.


“No, pencil.”

I was baffled. Graphite? It didn’t register with me, so I asked one of my English teachers about it.

“Yes, we used to use sharp pencils to make piercings.” She explained.

“Doesn’t that hurt? It seems like it would take a long time.”

“Yes, it is difficult.”

I asked why they didn’t just use needles. She explained that Mongolians don’t trust iron goods for piercing because they are afraid of “iron poisoning” and infection. I didn’t quite understand, but didn’t press the issue. She then volunteered some interesting information of her own.

“Back, long time ago, Mongolia women would pierce their ears. Then, we did not put in earrings. If we put them in, it would… hurt? Make it bigger.”

“Oh, make is swollen. Maybe agitate?”

“Yes, so, women put sticks of tea in the holes.”

I’ve heard many strange things in my travels, and seen an equal amount, but this one didn’t strike me as odd. It made sense. People tend to go on about the health benefits of tea, and you can find a plethora of tea products just about everywhere in the world. I imagine they use tea because of a real or imagined benefit to help the piercing heal properly.

Especially so considering they used a pencil to drill at the lobe for five minutes before reaching the other side.

A fellow volunteer, upon hearing this, noted that she had seen old women with sticks in their ears, and she had always wondered why. Perhaps it was a stick of tea? I’d like to think it was.

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