Islands of Familiarity

What do you do at a coffee shop? is a question posed in a blog by “Fighting Reality“. My answer is that we sneak in there to catch a glimpse of a life outside of China. For us, coffee shops have become familiar islands in the sea of foreign culture that surrounds us on a daily basis.

There’s still something surreal about finding oneself in Starbucks in the heart of communist China, but these are spaces that beckon us when we need a more Western moment. In 2003, the Starbucks in the heart of the Forbidden City, Beijing, looked and felt totally out of place, but we forgave the commercial motives that had placed it there because to us it was a haven in the bitter cold of a winter morning.

Don’t get me wrong, the Starbucks (and other) coffee shops across China are still very Chinese: the characters on the menus, the food, some of the flavour combinations and of course the faces of both the attendants and our fellow customers are all definitely Chinese. But there is just enough of a cosmopolitan edge for us to identify with so that for once we are not mere interlopers. We share a common heritage – Starbucks and the culture of drinking coffee and hot chocolate, like ourselves, was also born outside the borders of China and has been transplanted into this nation.

Before we embark on our bi-monthly grocery shopping (Chinese-style) experience at Carrefour, we often fortify ourselves with a morale boosting mug of coffee/chocolate and a (so very not Chinese) sandwich or wrap at either Starbucks or Costa Coffee. This reminder of our Western roots helps to supplement the energy we feel that is needed to tackle the demanding exploits of grocery shopping in a (semi-) Chinese supermarket.

The Shire Hobbiton Coffee ShopThe cosy coffee-shop culture vibe is slightly at odds with the more traditional concept of large restaurants and tea houses, but as you dig below the surface of Chinese society, you discover that there are many other places in Shanghai and other cities across China where a Westerner can find a similar sense of “home”; sometimes in the strangest and most incongruous of places. When we came across the Shire Hobbiton Coffee Shop in Guilin, we could identify 100% with Frodo when he returned to the Shire after his travel adventures sorting out the Ring.

It was like coming home.


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November 2010
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