Brown, Like My Coffee

After almost an hour of traffic, I’m nearing work, though I’m furious that this succession of delays means that by the time I get there, it will be too late to get fresh breakfast. Now that I’m off donuts, there’s not much left in the “continental” spread that I feel like eating.

WasnÂ’t there an amazing indie coffee place around here? I remember grabbing something hurriedly before my pre-wedding mani/pedi a few days agoÂ…I hadnÂ’t expected much, but after my first sip of perfectly brewed espresso, I was a believer. The place had a cutesy nameÂ…there it was: The Bean Counter. Unfortunately, parking was not allowed in front of it. Fortunately, I snagged a coveted “zone two” spot right around the corner. Go me.

I knew they were famous for a Cuban sandwich or similar, i.e. something I could never eat, but I wondered if they served breakfast. As yummily necessary as coffee was, it wasn’t a proper meal. I started to read the menu which was framed to the left of the front door—

“Just go in, I’m sure it’s fine.”

I slowly turned and found a very well-dressed older black man smiling at me. In my peripheral vision I noted a gleaming black town car, illegally parked.

I started stammering, I had been in my own little world before he yanked me out of it.

“Um, yes. It, um is. It’s good—really good actually. Excellent espresso.”

“That’s what I heard from the woman down the street. Thought I’d check it out. Well, I don’t want to crowd you, so…”

“Thanks you, I mean, thank you.”

My goodness I was an idiot first thing in the morning. Fine, second thing, too.

I went back to the menu but the only thing which appealed contained nutellla, which IÂ’m staying away from, since IÂ’m weaning myself from sugar. Just coffee then, I guess. I went in and walked all the way to the back of the narrow space, to the register.

“How many shots are in a large?” I asked, slightly ashamed that I knew exactly how to order my desired drink in Startwat lingo. I didn’t want to betray my shameful secret, so dumb questions were in order.

“Three.” She had a rather thick accent I couldn’t place.

Madre de Dios, thatÂ’s a lot. I remembered my junior year at Davis, when I went to Roma off A street right before a final exam and ordered a triple shot drink. I spent the majority of our two hour test period puking my brains out, leaving me a whopping 20 minutes to fill a blue book with my suddenly very shaky handwriting. Thank goodness it was just poli-sci. ;)

“Large, single-shot latte then.”

“Single? You single?”

DidnÂ’t I get enough of this shit at the wedding this weekend?

“Yes, I want a single shot. But I still want a large. I like milk.”

“Single?” she continued, still a prisoner to her disbelief.

I sighed. My parents have ruined me for “normal” coffee. I started drinking kappipala before I was two. Milky coffee is just what I love, thatÂ’s not going to change after three decades.

“Okay.” She was shaking her head, eyes wide. “Low-fat?”

“Yes, please.”

I looked down at the box labeled “Customers” in front of the cash register, so grateful to have something else to focus on besides the people behind the counter, who were still exclaiming “single!” to each other. Please don’t misunderstand– I wasn’t irritated about “single” in the context of relationships, I was irritated that a single shot was creating this kind of reaction. Whatevs.

I donÂ’t like carrying around feeble little cards which grow weaker every time some cashier punches a hole in them to signify a purchase, but I think rewarding loyalty is a sweet idea. This café was a new favorite because of their system for recognizing frequent customers; the aformentioned “box” was a small plastic container, the kind I used to file index cards full of evidence in when I did that lesser form of debate which requires TWO people in high school. There were dividing tabs with all the letters of the alphabet. After “Z” there were a few blank cards. You wrote your name at the top and then listed your drinks on the ruled lines below, getting the tenth entry free. Simple. Old-skool. Fantastic. I was deeelighted. Take THAT corporate coffee clones.

She handed me my drink and said, “Here is single, honey”. Here it is, indeed. I walked away, to the island of sweeteners and Nissan flasked-milks by the front door. Mmmm, foam, I thought to myself, as I enjoyed the top of my much-needed latte.

“Excuse me, miss-“

Jay-Z started playing in my head. Damn it. I had been humming along to the Pixies.

“I just have to ask-“

Of course you do.

“Where are you from?”

I fucking hate this question.

“May I…hazard a guess?”

Well at least if they guess, itÂ’s kind of entertaining to hear what they come up withÂ…I was suddenly less annoyed. I wonder if people are going to ask my children this shit.

“Are you…middle eastern?”

If I were elsewhere, I’d think he meant desi by that, but this is D.C., where Saudi royals can be found in every third pair of Diesel jeans. I suddenly had a flashback to my first year of grad school, when I used to take cabs home to my Logan Circle apartment every night because my classes finished between 10 and 11pm. After I stated my preferred destination, a cab driver had once asked me, “Are you Kuwaiti?” I remembered being so amused by this, because it was the first time anyone had guessed THAT. Possessed by a silly whim, I said, “Sure.” GW was chock full of Arab kids. It wasn’t a stretch.

I suddenly felt a little queasy, because my next thought was obviously a memory of 9.11, which only emphasized how innocent I felt back in 1999, the year of my memory. IÂ’d never do that now and I felt slightly ashamed but mostly sad. This is what we lost on that day, this freedom from fear, panic and anxiety. Has it already been five years? Mein gott.

The dapper inquisitor looked perplexed at my pause.

“No…I’m not.”

“Can I try again?”

“Sure!” I smiled at his hesitant enthusiasm.

“Southeast Asian?”

ThatÂ’s kind of impressive, considering I know desis who think thatÂ’s what we are. Not bad, not bad at all.

“Not exactly—“

“Indian?”

His single-word question brought comments from Sepia threads past rushing back to my consciousness. I am Indian, I am not Indian, I cannot be Indian because I do not have a passport, I have the right to self-define, I do not have the right to choose “Indian”…I suddenly felt a bit dizzy.

“My parents…they’re Indian, I was born here.”

“Ah, I thought, with the name, you couldn’t be Indian.” He was eyeing my work I.D., clipped to the bottom of my pale pink shirt. I was in no mood to play name games. I smiled back at him, he reminded me of a certain “Brown” Mayor who had a penchant for Brioni and Borsalino.

“So you’re American?”

“As American as Fenway.”

“You from Boston???”

“Nope.” I had just seen “Fever Pitch” on cable last night.

“Have a good day, Indian princess.”

I willed every muscle in my neck to freeze, to prevent me from shaking my head. Don’t roll your eyes, either! Let’s forget for a moment that I’m a born Amreekan citizen: “Indian Princess” oddly felt more Native American to me, possibly because I remember some Girl Scouts knock-off troop which the kids across the street had joined with that name and premise. No wonder I pictured feathers, not red dots.

The door closed gently behind him, setting off a little bell, which reminded me of little girls’ ankles. I took a cleansing breath. It was too early in the morning for me to fall in to my head with the questions I could consume myself withÂ…who has the time or energy for that shit? Not me. Especially not when it was time to take my South Asian American commoner kundi to work.

“This happens to me every damned day”, I thought, pondering why I have desi friends who NEVER get asked this (presumably they never get accosted by Scam-way types either). Lucky me. Then I thought of this weekend, and what being “other” has gifted me with, even as it prevents me from just “fitting in”. Lucky me, indeed.

102 thoughts on “Brown, Like My Coffee

  1. Hi…. you wanna no sum in!! ppl ask me dat evry day to!!! My father and his family were mostly from italy, but his mother and her mother were northen irish. But m moms side is all greek cypriot. I was born in greece in 1990. And well yea ….its so annoying having to explain things to ppl bout where you from…all i say in reply is….God knows where!!! and they dont know how to react to that.

  2. I loved your entry. You write extremely well. I can’t even remember how I came across your page but I’m glad I did, because it was an enjoyable read. I have to add my two cents, that I can relate to you. I have been mistaken for everything under the sun. My dad is Bangladeshi and my mom is originally from north India, but her family also settled in Bangladesh. Bangladeshis are usually shocked and do a double take when I interrupt them in Bengali and realize I understood them all along. It’s great. But, latino people usually assume I am a Latina in their presence. So do Persian people, and I have to tell them I don’t speak Farsi. Arab people assume I’m Lebanese or such. I went a Brazilian restaurant recently and the servers didn’t bat an eye and assumed I am Brazilian and proceeded to speak to me in Portuguese. I was getting in my car a few nights ago and some men asked if I was Armenian. That’s the first time I’ve gotten Armenian. Usually people cannot tell I am from the subcontinent, even if they are themselves- though there was an Indian man last year who asked me if I am Indian. I have to say I really like the fact that people can’t tell where I am from, and I can blend into so many cultures. I like the feeling looking multi-cultural, and keeping people guessing. The only down side, is that I have tell people that I can’t speak Portuguese, Farsi, etc. It makes me really want to learn many more languages.