Vignettes from Life: Cream and Sugar
By Dhruva Bhat
I had never been to a Starbucks before. Their green-and-white signs punctuating every street were an exciting reminder that I was in the U.S. for the first time; they hadn’t quite launched in Chennai before I left. (Five years later, they haven’t quite landed in Chennai either, still struggling to break into the market. Coffee is a Tamil ritual—dark decoction made in a tall filter, mixed with boiling milk and a mound of sugar, served steaming in a steel tumbler in a larger saucer, consumed at home, in restaurants, on the side of the street, under a banyan tree. For those who enjoy that sort of thing, a grande latte is a pale imitation that costs about ten times as much). I had heard of Starbucks, of course— seen the insides of their stores in TV shows and scrolled past selfies on social media of friends traveling abroad with their Starbucks cups. I had just never been to one.
I didn’t want to do anything so crass, so nouveau middle-class as to take a photo with a Starbucks cup; I didn’t even want to make time for a trip to a Starbucks, to put it on my list of things to see and do in Atlanta. That behaviour reminded me too much of the families in India who would dress up in garishly sequinned saris and crisp khakis to spend the day at a mall, who would totter at the bottom of an escalator gripping the handrails being too nervous to get on, who would talk too loudly and eat too messily and visit all the shops but buy nothing. I didn’t want my American cousins to give me the look my friends and I gave those people when we went to the mall; I had traveled internationally before, I knew that America was just one of a hundred and ninety other countries in the world, I was going to Harvard for God’s sake—I just also really wanted to go to a Starbucks.
When I saw one in the middle of the CNN Center plaza, I decided I would get coffee there. I could justify it; I was jet-lagged and tired. We had been walking around Atlanta, it was a hot day, and I needed something to cool me down. More specifically, I wanted a cold coffee: the kind I had had so many times in Chennai, milky, creamy and saccharine sweet, more a caffeinated milkshake than actual coffee. And so I headed over to the Starbucks, asking my father if he wanted anything. He said no. I had guessed he’d say no— he had probably converted the price of coffee from dollars to rupees and immediately decided against it. I knew you weren’t meant to convert currencies in your head when buying things because that would paralyse you; moreover, that was something middle-aged Indian men who were in the U.S. to visit their sons did before exclaiming: “Can you believe coffee costs so much in this country!”
The iced coffee was $2.65. About a hundred and sixty rupees. I hoped I would eventually stop calculating that instinctively.
The barista looked confused, so I spelled my name, and then spelled it again. He still got it wrong. When I picked my coffee up, the d, r and a in my name that I thought I had enunciated clearly had transformed into a b, an i and an e, but I was more amused than annoyed at the “Bhiuve” scrawled on my order; I felt like I was finally living all those op-eds I had read on cultural assimilation and belonging in the United States. My first microaggression, how exciting! What surprised me, however, were the contents of the cup. Through the clear plastic I could see a black brew, not the sugary pick-me-up I was expecting. I braced myself and took a sip— I don’t think I had ever tasted anything as bitter before. I walked over to my father, and explained to him that iced coffee clearly didn’t mean the same thing here as it did in our corner of the world. I gave it another try, grimaced and gulped.
“You can throw it away if you really don’t like it, you know?” he said in Kannada.
And so I threw away a hundred and sixty rupees.
My father and I sat at the white marble table in the large suburban house that my uncle, aunt and cousins lived in.
“The aquarium was incredible!” we told them.
“A Coca-Cola museum is the most American thing in the world,” I said. That reminded me of the coffee misadventure, so I described it to my sixteen-year-old, Starbucks-card-toting cousin. She looked confused.
“Why didn’t you just add cream and sugar?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Like—they have cream and sugar on the side, why didn’t you just add some to your coffee?”
I tried to laugh. There was little else I could do, because I certainly couldn’t explain that the op-eds on microaggressions didn’t explain that I was expected to add my own cream and sugar, that I had never done it before, that I hoped she didn’t think I was an idiot.
“I didn’t know,” I said.
I know now, of course. I know the difference between an iced coffee and a Frappucino (or a frappe, since I’m in the land of Pret for grad school). But I’m unlikely to have either a Frappucino or a frappe; I’d much rather find a tucked-away café and order an Americano or a 4-dollar flat white. I’m used to the bitterness now—in fact, I quite like it.
The last time I was home, I took my fifteen-year-old sister to the mall. We waited behind a woman in a bright sari as she tried twice to get on the escalator, each time nervously pulling her foot away as the flat surface formed a step. My sister rolled her eyes dramatically; I shrugged.
We made our way to the food court on the top floor, where a large new Starbucks had just opened. I ordered, and we waited.
“Do you want to taste this?” I asked her after picking my coffee up.
She tentatively took a sip, and thrust the iced coffee back at me. “Why would you do that!?” she shrieked at me. I rolled my eyes.
“There’s cream and sugar there, if you need it,” I said.
Dhruva grew up in Chennai and is currently a doctoral student at Oxford’s Department of International Development. Before this, he completed a master’s degree in the same department as a Rhodes Scholar, and a bachelor’s in economics at Harvard. He has been writing since he was six.
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