A day at the Lan Su Chinese Garden

Having received a vaccination, I recently had a “normal” day out of the house for the first time since last March; I have to say, I missed it.


As more people get vaccinated for COVID-19 and restrictions on public gatherings are loosened, it can be a nice treat to get outside a bit more. Go meet up with a friend for some outdoor dining, go to the art museum or have a house party with everyone you know that’s been vaccinated—and make sure to do everything safely, of course. While it’s still a good idea to be cautious, this summer won’t be like last summer. Enjoy the fresh air and sunshine!


Before the pandemic, I made a ritual out of visiting the Lan Su Chinese Garden at least once every quarter. A friend and I would spend an afternoon walking around the garden, drinking tea out of gaiwans in the wooden teahouse, getting our fortune told and watching the koi swim around in the lazy river. When the pandemic struck, the Garden, like most other things, closed indefinitely. It wasn’t until recently that it reopened, and, after I got the vaccine, I knew I had to go back.


Lan Su was built as a collaborative effort between Portland and its sister city, Suzhou, in China’s Jiangsu province. The Garden’s name is meant to represent Portland and Suzhou, with the words “Lan” and “Su” translating to “Orchid” and “Awaken,” respectively.


We got there at about 12:30, close to high noon. The sun beat down on us from above as the day felt almost more like summer than spring. The peonies and magnolias were in full bloom, and a wave of perfume washed over us as soon as we stepped in the gate.


We walked along the path, over to one of the many covered porches overlooking the Garden’s river. To facilitate social distancing, visitors are only allowed to walk in a single direction around the garden, and all of its branching paths have been converted into one-way walkways. This turned out to be somewhat of a mixed blessing. Restricted to only one path, I found myself paying more attention to what I saw, knowing I would have to walk all the way around to see it again.


We stepped into a side room, shortly after entering the Garden, which held a little display of teaware in the back, in front of a window looking out onto a bed of flowers. On the walls were about a dozen framed art pieces, made with paper cutouts layered on top of one another to create depth in the image. You can buy these pieces, if you want—sadly, I didn’t have $900 on me, no matter how much I wanted to hang an awesome paper dragon on my wall.


After stopping off in the art room, we continued along the path; here, we got a full view of the river, looking down its entire length as we watched a gasp of koi encircle each other, coming to the surface every once in a while to make a big “O” with their mouths and gulp for air—which, after reading about it, may not have been a great sign.


Finally, we ducked into the tea shop at the far end of the Garden. This is what I think of when I think of Lan Su—most of my memories of the place revolve around drinking tea in the upper floor of the tall, narrow teahouse, sipping a cup of pu-erh or oolong out of a gaiwan, taking care not to accidentally swallow any of the loose tea leaves.


Things are obviously different because of the pandemic. No more can you go upstairs. Instead, they’ve set aside space by the river for patio seating, and you can sit inside at a few tables by the window. In order to protect both the customers and the employees, there is no more table service. If you want to get tea, whether you’re getting it to-go or to drink there, you order at the counter and receive your tea in a paper cup. Their menu has shrunk significantly as well. Whereas before you had dozens of loose leaf tea varieties to choose from, now you’re limited to the basics—like Earl Grey, jasmine and matcha—served in a tea bag, to make it easier to grab and go.


My friend and I chose to sit at a table by one of the large, open windows overlooking the Garden. I made a remark that came to my mind seemingly out of nowhere: “I miss the feeling of ceramic on my teeth.” And it was true. The inner wax coating of a paper to-go cup doesn’t feel nearly the same as the hard ceramic of a gaiwan. Despite being in the same garden I remember from a year ago, things have inarguably changed.


Of course, none of that is the Garden’s fault. Things are different because they have to be. No one chose to live through a pandemic, and the best we can do is reach out for the things that feel just a little bit normal. 


One thing that hasn’t changed is the stark white wall that surrounds the Garden. Despite being in the middle of Old Town, with busy city streets all around, the Garden feels almost completely removed from the outside world. I say “almost” because there’s still a bit left—you can still see the tops of tall office buildings and hear the faint sound of the MAX outside the walls. There’s a somewhat magical feeling that comes from this. It’s a sense of being isolated and surrounded by activity, at once. It’s the feeling of being in a pocket of serenity in a world of noise. Even the pandemic hasn’t changed that feeling. The more things change, the more they stay the same.