The Coffee Ritual – Part 2


Being your typical 2-10 cups of coffee a day teacher, I spend many hours and rmb (Chinese
currency) getting my fix. Often going to the local Starbucks, of which there are three within walking distance of my apartment in a quickly westernizing district in my coffee-post-1city. If I have time and am feeling adventurous I look for new coffee shops to do work in, and try to get a cappuccino comparable to those I love back in Canada. Coffee seems to be on the rise in Jiangmen and new spots pop up all the time. I like to find new places and try things out; it’s part of the adventure of a new city. I keep my old favourite places, ones for stopping in for a to go, “Dao bao” brew, and then there are shops I spend hours in, marking student work or planning lessons.

I do spend a lot of time at Starbucks. It’s convenient, it has AC, and the people smile and know how to write my name on the cup now (only took me 8 months). I think part of the reason I love that so much is because its great knowing that I am part of a community. I like familiar things, so it makes sense that each time I find myself in a new home, I try to become a part of that new community. Seeking out and drinking coffee in a new community is another chance I have to make connections and get to know the people around me. Learning how to ask for coffee in Chinese is the first step of crossing that line between living here and being a part of here.

It was nice to return to Jiangmen after a two month hiatus and find that the girl at Starbucks still wrote my name on the cup. Coffee means community to me, maybe not directly, but in an indirect way, seeking coffee shops and coffee-post-2becoming a regular and meeting new people has helped me familiarize myself here and feel at home. Of course tea is popular in China, much more so than coffee, with a whole culture behind it. Part of being in the community of Guangdong province for me, is learning what is important to the people here, and discovering how it can be important for me.

I am slowly learning my way here, and finding my place in this east meets west, tea meets coffee community. I look forward to the next coffee shop I find myself in as I explore new parts of my city, and the people I meet and the opportunities which that might bring me. Maybe you can find me hooking up to the WiFi and drinking a flat white at Starbucks, or maybe I’m searching for a tiny shop, trying to  find where I belong in China.


IMG_20151014_163737.jpgAs a kid, my exposure to coffee was limited to the weekly cold coffee/frappe with breakfast, which was a Sunday morning ritual of sorts. And while I absolutely loved that, it wasn’t something that was an integral part of my life. As I grew up, the occasional coffee with friends became a little less out of the ordinary, though having been brought up in a house of tea drinkers (my mum and grandmother guzzle tea like it’s life nectar), coffee was never big on my agenda. But things changed dramatically when I moved to Bangalore for college.

Coffee to the southern parts of India is what tea is to the English – it’s more than a hot beverage, it’s a way of life. And along with the late night study sessions and rainy days perfect for hot beverages, my love for coffee grew at a steady pace. By the end of my fifth and final year at college, I had begun to identify myself with coffee and coffee with me. The joy of sipping on that hot, milky concoction was unparalleled and got associated with countless memories – sitting on the steps of our little on-campus shop discussing life, gossiping in a friend’s hostel room, cramming away to glory for tomorrow’s exam. Having been instilled with a deep-seated fear of getting addicted to it by my parents, I frequently did self-checks by denying myself so much as as sip for a couple of days, just to convince myself I could live without it. But soon after, fully reassured, I would happily go back to drinking coffee.

coffee-post-mansiAll of this was thrown into a frenzy yet again when I moved to the UK. The weather was different, which made it next to imperative to have a hot drink in your hands. The culture was different, which meant that tea was the drink of choice for most people. And most importantly, the coffee was different, in that it was horrible. Forget the expertly made filter coffee that one found in Bangalore, coffee in the UK was so bad that I had to seriously re-think my life to the extent that it revolved around coffee. And to make matters worse, I began to hate coffee shops because they could never, EVER spell/pronounce my name correctly. It wasn’t until I had figured out a couple of coffee haunts and/or started making my own that life seemed normal again. And as I travelled more, it also became my comfort companion – I would walk around a new city, a coffee in my hands, and just take in the sights, the people, the noises. I know people who can’t survive without their early morning coffee, as soon as they get out of bed. I know others who drink it only at night for good sleep (I know, right? So bizarre). For me though, coffee has always been an all-day thing, gently spurring on countless conversations and ensuring that the awkward pauses can be filled with slurps, until there are no more and conversation is free flowing. I call it the catalyst of memories.


img_20150928_141316Oh Coffee! What a glorious thing. Coffee is always involved in every country or city I have lived in or visited. It is a constant in the midst of all the change and I find that being in a café provides a refuge from the craziness of the world you just encountered before you stepped into the café and some precious time for thought and calm before you step right back out again. It is also the perfect place for people watching! I love seeing how the people, atmosphere and coffee itself changes whether I’m in Vienna or Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (the birth place of coffee) and then again how it is strikingly similar. A microcosm of what I have experienced living abroad – the differences as well as the remarkable similarities between peoples, cultures and languages. Oh Coffee!


Challenging the Single Story

imag1842One of the best parts about living somewhere completely new is that a place that was once flat and one dimensional to you – shaped by a few narrow facts and stereotypes – all of a sudden comes to life. Living in this new place has the power to challenge your narrow understanding and single storyline. As you go about your daily business you meet the people whose complex experiences and situations make up the very fabric of your new home. It is like going from reading a two dimensional children’s book with a simple plot to a pop-up story which weaves in multiple narratives, sometimes seemingly contradictory.

If you haven’t already seen the talk by the Nigerian novelist and storyteller Chimamanda Adichie, please do! She speaks movingly about the ‘dangers of the single narrative’ – when the complex experiences and situations that make up a people get reduced to a single narrative. Adichie uses the dominant narrative in the West of Africans as the pitiful poor as one example of this single narrative in action. Yes, there is poverty on the continent; however, this is not the only, or even the dominant, narrative that shapes the lives of the people who live there. She sees the danger of the single story being that when you reduce peoples’ complex human experiences into a single narrative you inherently take away their humanity. To you, they are the faceless other.

The beauty of living abroad is that it counteracts this flattening of peoples’ experiences because you get to know your new community on a personal level – they are your neighbours, friends and colleagues. They are the people you wait in line with at the supermarket.

When I first move to a new country I carry with me my own single narrative of that place.  However, almost as soon as I land these preconceived notions are challenged. As I’ve lived in these countries I’ve realized that ‘The English’, ‘The Germans’, ‘The Belgians’, or ‘The Ethiopians’ cannot be equated with a single set of experiences, desires or attitudes. When I’m asked how ‘The English’ feel about a given issue I have to say there are a number of competing viewpoints. Their reasons and answers are complex and can’t be reduced to a single word answer.


The danger of the single narrative is also playing itself out in today’s politics. The narrative of the other, whether it be ‘The Chinese’ or ‘The Americans’ is reduced in the popular imagination to the single narrative broadcast by some politicians and media. The image Donald Trump has painted of Mexicans throughout his campaign speaks to the dangers of the single story narrative. He is an obvious example of someone who leverages it to whip up emotions for his own political advantage. For good insight into the dangers of the single narrative in American politics, please read David Brook’s Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, where he explores how American political parties push ‘single storyism’ at the sake of truth and its dangerous consequences in the US and abroad.

Living abroad is a real privilege and it continues to challenge my own ‘single storyisms’ and allows me to develop a more complex and nuanced appreciation for my newly adopted country, city and community. With this opportunity I also feel a sense of responsibility to share the complex human stories I encounter and to avoid playing into the popular single narrative.


A Baptism of Fire


This was not supposed to happen.

I never planned to live abroad, let alone make it a way of life. My introduction to the nomadic lifestyle was truly a baptism of fire. It was not graceful or particularly easy but, looking back, it is this year where I lived abroad for the first time – at the age of 16 – which has most shaped me and started me down the path I’m now on. If you talk to other nomads, many have a similar story of a time and place that was a turning point that led them to choose such a life. Maybe you have experienced this too?

My induction was an international Rotary youth exchange for which I – voluntarily – moved to a small town in Rheinland, Germany to live with a host family for one year, attend high school and to generally immerse myself in the local culture and language. I’ll never forget arriving at the airport in Cologne, a naïve, non-German speaking 16 year-old who had never really traveled abroad before and being greeted by my new host family ‘Herzlich Willkommen in Deutschland!’ –  Oh dear God, what have I done.

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