Finding identity through coffee instead of tea

You’re the first one at the restaurant and the waiter comes up to ask in Cantonese, “Which tea do you want?” As you sense their impatience, you think, “What will it be: bo lei, guk bo, or teet kwun yum?”

Reflecting upon this real tea selection scenario, I wonder why this simple question creates an internal struggle? Why is it more difficult than it has to be?

Perhaps when I’m asked my tea preference, I’m thinking more of my parents and grandparents. It’s not really about what I want, but what my family wants.

At dim sum, the tea is poured from the same teapot. Yet, it’s more than just tea, it’s a literal outpouring of our Asian culture — and, ultimately, the simple question of which tea to drink reveals a deeper struggle of identity.

It’s as if my freedom to be who I am is challenged.

Has anyone in that moment — especially when meeting for dim sum at 8:30 a.m. in order to get a discount — wanted to order a coffee instead? I sure have. But that would be seen as sacrilegious, much like asking for iced water.

Coffee culture has grown among North American Asian Millennials, and it’s more than just a desire for caffeine. If you visit the plethora of coffee shops in Vancouver, Toronto, Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York, you’ll see Asians ordering the latest latte fad from Starbucks or drinking single-origin bean pour overs from the hippest coffee shops.

Photo: Jasper Lau, Cold Tea Collective

So why is coffee culture flourishing among this community?

These trends may be the surfacing of deeper cultural waters that flow within the Asian Millennial. With coffee becoming an avenue to express Eastern and Western values, coffee shops also then create a sense of belonging. Aware of this desire or not, many Asians are inclined to gather at coffee shops.

In the West, we’re taught to value individualism and independence. In the East, Asians are taught the importance of unity, harmony, and respect. Although having spent one year in Hong Kong as a six-year-old, I grew up in Canada learning to balance both cultures.

We’re taught to put ourselves down for the sake of the family, and every decision is seen through the lens of how this would bring respect and honour to them. We’re free to make decisions; however, when we make decisions contrary to what’s expected, we’re labeled and disregarded as being more “Western”.

As first, second, or even third-generation in North America, you understand the struggle. We’re neither here nor there – we embody both cultures. This is true whether you’re born in Asia or North America.

Photo: Tessa Tham

We understand respect is earned but also purely given to those of rank and age. We understand how unity doesn’t mean uniformity, yet we want to be with people that understand us. We celebrate individuality, yet we also celebrate the collective.

For the Asian Millennial, it’s difficult to find anything that paints a picture of what is happening internally. Much like how it’s difficult to define “Canadian” culture, there are only a few examples in our society that pinpoint what it means to be a North American Asian Millennial.

Yet, coffee is one of those mediums that has effectively done so.

Coffee gives tangibility to the cultural complexity in which we were raised. It symbolizes the balance of both individuality and community.

When treating a friend for coffee, you say, “What do you want?” or “Order whatever you’d like!” When we ask someone to go for coffee, we’re really asking for a moment of connection. And in order to connect, you need to be yourself.

In coffee shops, while each cup is an expression of who I am, we still share a common space and experience.

Photo: Stock

Enjoying the smoothness of a pour over made from an Ethiopian bean while someone else enjoys the taste of Laotian beans in his Americano doesn’t mean there’s a divide. In that moment — long or brief — the interaction between coffee, soil, farmers, barista, and your friend all come into one place. The moment you take a sip, they all become part of the experience of connection.

The cups of coffee act like a force that brings people together rather than separate them. Those cups somehow represent our uniqueness while also recognizes our differences.

Instead of the same tea from the same teapot, it’s different coffees in one space. Instead of homogeneity, it’s unity in our differences.

Coffee shows that individuality and unity can gather at the same table. In a world and Asian culture where it’s difficult to be authentic, coffee has given us the opportunity to be ourselves — to embrace both cultures.

Coffee is more than a beverage; it’s has become a language that expresses who we are.

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