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The Search for Nanjing’s Perfect Study Spot

I, like many of my college-student-kind, like to have that one special study spot.  When your room becomes too dull and the library too depressing, it’s the one place you can always count on to spark your productivity.  However, finding it is a task unto itself.  That challenge is only compounded when you throw a foreign country into the equation. 

Coffee shops have always been my kryptonite.  Give me a nice mocha and some background chatter and I’ll be set to go forever.  Just from my first few hours in China, I knew I wouldn’t have a rough time finding one.  I may be halfway around the world, but coffee shops seemed to be just as ubiquitous as they are in Chicago.  As the semester started up and my search began in earnest, I would find this to indeed be the case (which, of course, didn’t make my task any easier).  At least I knew what I was looking for: a place with the comfort of what I’m used to.  One thing I’ve discovered in my travels is that no matter where you are, coffee shops can always offer the same atmosphere.  Or at least a similar one.  The other thing I’ve discovered is that China tends to deviate from the expected.

Luckily, I haven’t been alone in my search.  A few weeks in, one of my classmates shared with me his “secret” coffee shop, a place down the road called Three Coffee.  It wasn’t exactly a secret of course, but we students need to protect our study spots.  As soon as I went and got settled down to work, I knew it would be my new destination of choice.  Plush seats, a wall of books, that alluring smell of fresh coffee.  Throw the resident cat into the mix, and it was perfect.  I ordered a mocha and had a wonderful session of productivity.  It took the next few subsequent times for me to do the math: 32 kuai for my drink.  Divide by about six and you’ve got the American price.  Now, if you’re from New York, I’m sure you’re chuckling right now, but $5.33 is a lot to pay for Chinese American-style coffee.  Ever since that point, I couldn’t in good conscience go there regularly.  My search would continue, if not reluctantly.

 I’ll take a sidebar here and address some thoughts you may be having.  Yes, things tend to be a whole lot cheaper here than in the States.  If I pay more than $3 for lunch, I’m doing something wrong.  So why is coffee so expensive?  It’s the same reason I can’t find a reasonably priced hamburger or even spaghetti: it’s foreign.  Coffee and the shops that go with them aren’t the destination of those without spending money, of students, or even of business people heading to work.  It’s a place for young adults on the richer end of the spectrum to go on dates or hang out with friends.  You’re paying for the status you’re expressing.  While this may be to some extent true of every coffee shop I’ve been to around the world, in the ones I’ve been to in China, this seems to be almost exclusively true.  In order to get to Three Coffee I walk by street vendors and stray dogs, making the divide even more apparent: there are two Chinas cohabitating, yet never mixing.  As a foreigner, I’m drawn toward the end that has adopted many of the things I’m used to, like coffee and hamburgers, as their status symbol.  For me, this means prices oftentimes even more expensive than the States.  I also have to pay for the right to be in this world, closed off from the street outside.

So what to do about this dilemma then?  I ended up straying from the coffee shop scene for a while, until a new place opened up right across the street.  The first time I passed it I had to convince myself I wasn’t going crazy for not seeing it earlier.  It wouldn’t be my first time in China being surprised at the rate of change, even after being here for only three months.  When I finally went, I was pleasantly surprised at how American it felt.  I thought there wasn’t a difference between Three Coffee and what I’ve been used to, but going to Lotus made me realize the subtle differences there are.  There wasn’t any ice cream being served out of a loaf of bread here, but a simple dedication to high quality coffee, a detail that seems to be overlooked in a lot of Chinese coffee shops where “black” really means “cream and sugar and a little more sugar.”  The price was even better, 22 kuai for a specialty.  I’m not sure if it’s the style of the shop or its newness, but it didn’t seem to attract a coffee shop’s usual crowd, either.  I saw some friends chatting quietly without taking pictures of themselves on their phones, which is something that happened often enough to annoy me at Three Coffee.  I even saw students huddled down to study, which doesn’t sound like a huge difference, but it’s enough to make one nostalgic.

Shortly after finding Lotus, however, I discovered what I am now firmly calling my new study spot.  I’m even sitting there right now to write this blog post (and look at how productive I’ve been!)  What it really took to find the perfect coffee shop is to go to a book store.  While coffee shops aren’t study locations for Chinese students, libraries and book stores are.  Put a coffee shop on the inside of one, and (in my opinion) it’s the perfect combination of cultures.  The space is no longer a status symbol, but one for the purpose of quiet study, an interesting combination between a library and an American college town coffee shop.  All this time all it took was for me to learn from the people around me: while in China, study as the Chinese do.

While I may only have a few weeks left of studying in the perfect spot, I’m glad it was a long road to get there.  Coffee shop culture is a topic I never considered as being different from America, but rather a part of an increasingly permeating global culture.  It took these months of experiencing what each of these places means to the average Chinese person to learn how even a global culture has its unique influences.  Especially in China, you can’t expect anything to be how you envision it, but I also wouldn’t want it any other way.

Kathryn Miles in Three Coffee


Librairie Avant-Garde near Wutaishsan


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