“Ni hao!” The barista called out, as I stepped into a Starbucks cafe in downtown Shanghai.
“Ni hao!” He said again. I looked up and realised he was talking to me. A 20-something chap with a cherubic face and trendy eyeglasses beamed at me, waiting for me to say hello back.
“Ni hao,” I said, weakly, still finding it strange to roll these words around my mouth. I had only been in Shanghai a day and was still finding my bearings.
“What can I get you?” he asked, politely. I broke into a relieved smile: he spoke English. My immediate thought was that I would not have to point at things, mime or load up Google Translate. One of us spoke a language that worked for both of us.
As a stranger in a strange land, Starbucks has become like home: comfortable and comforting. I know my way around a Starbucks cafe so I don’t feel as untethered and lost as I do just outside the doors.
Recognizable food and drinks relieve the stress of ordering. Bar stools with tables on which to place my laptop and plush chairs to read in give me a defined place in which I can situate myself. This, even as I know I will soon explore the new cuisines in my new land, even as I know I will leave the familiar corner for new spaces and great, unknown adventures. The green mermaid on my cup smiles impishly at me, almost winking at me, I am sure. You’ve got this, she seems to say, it’s not scary out there and you’ll be fine. I feel myself relax and grin back.
At Starbucks, I feel a sense of acceptance, which has a heightened urgency and value to it at a time when the rest of the city is still checking me out and deciding if we fit. Inside Starbucks, I’m not weird for not speaking the language, for not having a digital wallet, for not having lighter skin, smaller eyes, less pronounced features.
That’s why it’s like home. At home, I have a place for me, always. I have a family that accepts me for all my warts and imperfections. I have a resting pad to gather my spirit and resolve before I launch into the big, wide world.
And that’s the other reason Starbucks is like home: I will leave it to venture out, to taste new things, make new friends, experience new adventures. And I will come back, from time to time, to reconnect, recover, and replenish. It is an umbilical cord that extends as far as I want to go and still tells me there is always a home back home.
So thank you, Starbucks, for being my home and family.