The pungent odor billowing from that apartment had to have been alcohol. Unfamiliar and foreign, like the 1960s America that had become her home, my mother rushed my brother Khalid past the space during their morning dash to school. Her father-in-law’s prophecy–that America’s very air would be infused with the forbidden–had come true.

Or so she thought – until now.

I measured out two tablespoons of coffee for two cups of water. She sniffed, leaning in, and spontaneously revised her own personal history. “This is what I smelled outside that apartment.” Turns out the alcohol she smelled outside that apartment decades prior was the earthy redolence of coffee.

Despite living in the apex of the so-called West, I grew up in an Indo-Pakistani chai bubble. A bubble made with black tea, milk or non-dairy creamer and a sweetener. I went from microwaving generic, bland tea bags to boiling loose leaf tea hailing from the mountains of Assam – but nowhere along the line was there any mention of coffee. It’s not surprising, I suppose now, seeing how my mother reacted to its smell.

Funnily enough, according to popular legend, it was Muslims who introduced the brew to the ‘Western world.’ Yet coffee was so unfamiliar that it bordered on the forbidden until my coffee meltdown, triggered in a crazy sort of way by the heartbreak of September 11, 2001, and the questions of national identity and loyalty it unleashed for many Muslims and immigrants.

I had always been absolutely in love with America, and also in love with my religious and cultural identities. I knew both to be possible. But somehow I felt a link was missing. I felt like an outsider, sharing my drink of choice with Indians and Pakistanis rather than Americans. Not being able to relate to coffee — in a land where coffee is not just a pastime, but a patriotic duty — began to trouble me. Coffee had, after all, replaced tea after the Revolutionary War as the red-white-and blue’s caffeine jolt.

I wasn’t expressing my American-ness enough, and that needed to change. Though the world might be divided between coffee and tea drinkers, duality is possible. I wanted to be a knowledgeable drinker of both coffee and tea.

My journey to coffee enlightenment needed to begin at the Mecca of coffee. I had to go deep into the trenches of coffee. I had to go to Starbucks and apply for a job as a barista.

[bctt tweet=”To begin my journey to coffee enlightenment, I had apply for a job at Starbucks.”]

The thought of being a barista somehow seemed glamorous to me. But how could I tell my parents that the daughter they’d cradled and nurtured had made this choice? All the sacrifices they had made in leaving their parents behind in Pakistan, in building a life for my siblings and I here in America, all the money they poured into the education that gave me a master’s degree in economics – how could I tell them that it would all be channeled into my job as a barista?

I did what any dutiful daughter would do: I kept it a secret.

So off I went on a rainy January afternoon in 2004, my chai-making skills and master’s degree in hand, to Starbucks’ regional interview for baristas. I began work within a week. My learning curve was steep, likely because of my nurturing but despotic manager. From the get-go, she would call me in to cover shifts at the busiest times of the week, like Saturday mornings. I zoomed from not knowing the difference between instant coffee and drip, from knowing nothing at all about the range of espresso drinks, to whipping out white chocolate mochas and cappuccinos.

My favorite time of the day was opening, at the first light of 5 a.m., with the earthy aroma of coffee floating on a breeze, and the interplay of sounds: coffee grinding, blenders churning, milk foaming and human conversation, all inaugurating the day in unison.

Construction workers and executives, nurses and doctors, students and teachers would come for their democratized need for caffeine and kind words. Some bought the paper; others glanced at the headlines; others paid no attention to the newspaper stand at all. People spoke on their cell phones, or kept to themselves, taking in the spectacle.

“Are you getting the usual today?” seasoned baristas would ask. There would be personalized requests: “Room for cream,” “No room,” or “Can you drop a few ice cubes in it?”

By daybreak, the hustle and bustle of the store calmed. The overhead lighting radiance paled from the brightness of the sun. Welcomed by birds hopping near the tables outside searching for sustenance, off-shift employees would come to say a quick hello to their on-shift coworkers. Lonely people would come to satisfy their need for simple human contact. A beautiful day.

I wanted to end my coffee ignorance. And I did it. By working as a barista, I acquired a taste for coffee and can honestly say I now enjoy drinking it. I know which drink to order when I’m standing in front of a green-apron-clad barista. I order my espresso drinks extra hot with whole milk. I feel more sophisticated and worldly, and in a way, I even feel more culturally balanced. And in case you’re wondering how the whole barista experience turned out – I was fired a few months later, of course.

That same day, I went home to make myself an old country cup of chai.

  • Raised in a Southern California beach town by Pakistani immigrant parents, Saeeda Hasan grew up walking the cultural tightrope. She flavors her analysis of culture, food and tradition with sweet sensitivity.