Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Simple Cup of Coffee

“I’d like a cup of coffee,” I said.

"Uh…" the Chinese kid hesitated. He may have been in his late teens or early twenties. He was probably a student in Jiang Han University which was only two blocks away. He had that puzzled expression on his face that I've begun to recognize in Chinese people when they know a bit of English but are trying to think of what they want to say and are uncertain how to say it. It is a mixture of fear and embarrassment punctuated with nervous laughter. He finally manages to pull the right combination of words from the dusty recesses of his mind to utter the question I've come to both expect and dread. “What kind of coffee do you want?”

And with those seven words the satanic games began.

I didn't drink a lot of coffee before coming to China. I drank it on rare occasions, once or twice a month at most. I frequented Starbucks of course but like most of Starbucks’ patrons in the States I was chugging down Frappuccinos. My first year in China I used Starbucks as an alternative environment to study in when I didn't want to be in the house all day. In this first year there was a gradual shift. Real coffee was less expensive than the coffee flavored milkshakes. It was also something warm to drink during the cold winter months. At the same time I reasoned that it was probably healthier.

Over the second and third year I frequented Mr. Mai’s Coffee House in Zhuan Kou. This was partly because the atmosphere was more comfortable. Fewer people bothered me during the daytime hours in Mr. Mai's. The ones who did want to talk to me I didn't mind as much. The coffee at Mai's was also cheaper. A tall cup of coffee in Starbucks was 32 rmb and most of the time Starbucks in China will not refill your coffee. Mr. Mai’s only had two sizes; regular and large. The regular for 15 rmb is about the same size as a tall in Starbucks. This alone would be enough but Mr. Mai’s offers one refill. I've also gradually come to believe that Mr. Mai’s coffee tastes better than Starbucks.

Unfortunately both of these companies have spoiled me. Starbucks knows that foreigners in China will gravitate to their stores and will more or less come with certain expectations. They seem to have trained their baristas accordingly. In every Starbucks I've walked into in every city I've been to in China they will only ask one of two questions. Either they will ask, “Do you want brewed coffee?” or they will assume that I do and ask “What size?” and all will be right with the world. Anticipating this, when I go to Starbucks I usually will say “Brewed coffee” when I order and they understand immediately. At Mr. Mai’s it is the same. David, who owns Mr. Mai’s, has taught his employees to make similar assumptions. If you ask for coffee at Mr. Mai’s, you get coffee without any other questions.

The problem with all this is that Wuhan is a large city. There are only two Mr. Mai’s here. While Starbucks is busy putting a store on every corner of every street in all parts of the world, they haven’t gotten that far yet. Sometimes you have to go to other places. Sometimes you want to go to other places. 

The coffee shop I was in this day was called Measure Cup. I had passed by on several occasions but had never before gone inside. There are hundreds of independent coffee shops around Wuhan. Some of them are great. Some are not. Many look like Starbucks. Many are obvious attempts to copy Starbucks. Measure Cup looked fancy, bordering on possibly expensive. They had few customers in the middle of the day and several employees. This was not an uncommon sight. Their six employees are all gathered in proximity to the bar waiting for my answer to the most fiendish of all questions.

“What kind of coffee do you want?”

“Brewed coffee,” I said. It was the answer that Starbucks had taught me to give. It was the answer that made the most sense. It was the answer that should have explained everything and expedited the rest of my day. Yet it did none of these things.

“Booed coffee,” he said. I could tell by the look on his face that this was not just a mispronunciation he didn't understand.

“Brewed coffee,” I said again exaggerating the words. He said something in Chinese to one of the others. There was a response given in Chinese.

“I’m sorry,” the other person said. “What kind of coffee do you want?” These two men had been standing side by side the whole time. He had heard the entire conversation. He opened the menu and started showing me different drinks. “We have cappuccino, latte, mocha café…” he said thumbing through the pages.

“No,” I said. “I don’t want a mixed drink.”

“Mixed drink?” When people repeat words like this it is almost always because they don’t understand the words. He didn't know what “mixed drink” meant.

“Regular coffee,” I said trying a new word. It was the first word that came to mind.

“Regular?” he repeated because he didn't know the word.

“Regular,” I repeated because I didn't know how to make him understand. “Yeah, normal coffee.”
He squinted and looked at his friend. They exchanged a few words in Chinese. The friend shook his head. He looked down at the menu.

“Sir, I think all of our coffee is normal.”

“I want black coffee,” I said wondering why I hadn't started with this. “Hei kafe,” I added in butchered Chinese hoping they would understand it. This created some more conversation between them. I had no idea what they were saying. It went on for a minute.

 Finally he asked, “You want espresso?”

If I’d wanted espresso I would have said espresso and not coffee, I wanted to say but I knew he wouldn't understand because he doesn't know the difference.

“No,” I said instead. “I do not want espresso.” I flipped through the menu hoping that I might find brewed coffee. The closest thing I found that I could read was café Americano, watered down espresso. This was what I ended up with. One of them pointed to the café Americano and asked if this was want I wanted. I acquiesced knowing that it would be the closest I'd get. 


While I was waiting I looked around at the decorations they had arranged on shelves and walls. There was a lot of coffee paraphernalia here. Among the paraphernalia there was a vacuum coffee pot. These are sometimes also called siphon coffee makers. There was a coffee shop not far from this one that used the vacuum pots to brew their coffee. It looks a little bit like a mad science experiment and delivers a decent cup of coffee. Near the vacuum pot, on the same shelf but divided by a wall there were two drip coffee makers. I just smiled at this and went to find a seat.