The small mountain of plastic coffee cups began accumulating in my car about a week after I got my driver’s license, and just kept piling up from there. My friends and I joked that the workers at the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through had basically become my family, and my actual family complained endlessly about my routine of buying iced coffee on the drive to school.
Zhège kāfēi dōngxī? Bùnéng kòngzhì, my parents complained. This coffee thing? It’s getting out of hand. But neither of my parents had spent their summer afternoons walking our neighbor’s rowdy dogs in the sticky Florida heat, so I argued that I could use my money however I wanted. By February, though, the empty Dunkin’ cups began encroaching on my car’s floor space and console. As my mini-mountain of junk grew, so did the dent in my savings. I reluctantly agreed that it was time for an intervention.
If it were up to my mom, I would’ve just started making coffee on the ancient Mr. Coffee machine she used to brew her own morning fix, but I dragged her to the nearest Bed Bath and Beyond instead. We stood in the appliance section, surveying shelves of coffee machine options. I knew I would never be able to figure how to use the French press. And a newer generation of my mom’s beloved Mr. Coffee machine would be too boring.
But a Keurig, complete with a pack of generic brand K-cups? Perfect. When I cringed at the $96 price tag, my mom assured me I’d save money in the long run. Paying at the cash register felt like a weird rite of passage — I’d never spent that much of my own money at once, especially not on a kitchen appliance.
On my first adventure into the world of the Keurig, I felt determined to replicate my favorite drive-through iced coffee with household alternatives: Dunkin’ Donuts roast substituted for K-cup coffee pods. Caramel swirl replaced with Trader Joe’s caramel sauce, and cream with Organic Valley half-and-half.
My creation tasted exactly how it sounds: terrible. The half-and-half made the coffee watery, somehow, and the caramel stuck to the side of the glass in globs. My kitchen workspace descended into disaster, the tabletop splattered with spilled caramel sauce and haphazardly strewn with containers. Plus, in my trial and error of learning how to work the Keurig (you essentially just press a button, but I was figuring out the settings, okay?), I brewed way too much and ended up with a giant tub of black coffee.
My mom and I spent a weekend finishing off the leftover coffee. Tǐng hǎo hē de, she said one morning. It tastes pretty good. We were both surprised by this positive reaction, since my mom had sworn by the exact same Folgers roast formula all 17 years of my life. So the next time I brewed a cup of coffee for myself, I grabbed another K-cup from the cabinet and made a mug for my mom, too. And the next time. And the next.
In order to fully understand my feelings about becoming an accidental home barista, it is important to also understand this fact about the Chinese language. Although the direct translation for “I love you” is Wǒ ài nǐ, the phrase is just not part of anyone’s common vernacular. The only people who use the word ài are probably white, and definitely got the 爱 character tattooed on their lower back at some point in their lives.
Instead of saying the phrase, or hanging a sign in their hallway that reminds everyone to “live, laugh, love,” Chinese families relish in making each other food and drink — spicy Má pó tofu, vibrantly garnished noodles, green tea brewed from Longjing leaves. And of course, fruit. My mom brings me cut fruit constantly. A plate of cubed mango after we’d argued meant “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you.” A bowl of pomegranate seeds might signify “congratulations” or “good luck.” But mostly, there is no occasion. My mom offers me fruit during mundane moments: at the table after dinner, as I study for finals, while I watch Netflix, the act as ordinary yet as affecting as being tucked into bed as a kid.
I recognized this assertion of love, but completely failed at participating in it. When my mom attempted to teach me how to break down a pomegranate to separate the seeds, I accidentally sliced my palm with the knife. Once, I tried to microwave a hard boiled egg and caused a small explosion. Whenever I actually completed the task of making fried rice or an American dish like alfredo pasta for my family, it just tasted bad.
But I could make this Keurig coffee, and my mom genuinely enjoyed it. She enjoyed each morning cup with a smile, and carried the mug with her throughout her morning routine. At the end of February, the Mr. Coffee machine got relegated to the pantry. It became second nature for me to brew two servings of coffee, one for each of us.
Then in March, Covid-19 struck, shrinking my life to the confines of my house. In the face of a long and lonely summer, I became truly obsessed with perfecting Keurig machine coffee. I learned from TikTok how to froth milk in the microwave. I tried making matcha and chai lattes. While on a quest for the best coffee pod formula, I stumbled upon the K-cup reusable coffee filter. Between my old penchant for drive-through Dunkin’ Donuts and my new fixation with the Keurig, I could finally enjoy coffee without wasting an inordinate amount of plastic.
Most importantly, I kept making coffee for my mom. The act morphed into a daily habit, an essential step of my morning just like brushing my teeth or eating breakfast. For myself, I made a glass of Keurig coffee poured over wedges of refrigerator ice. The recipe constantly shifted between cow’s or oat or almond milk and maple or sugar or vanilla, but never reached its ideal form. For my mom, I followed a constant formula: a mug of hot coffee with a splash of half-and-half. Even on mornings when I didn’t make myself a cup, her patterned floral mug sat faithfully on the kitchen counter, the coffee inside slightly steaming.
Through my ritual of using the Keurig, I could set aside 10 minutes a day to do something entirely for my mom. Although unintentionally at first, I would fill that time by thinking about her, and the two of us. As I filled up the water reservoir, I hoped she would have a good day at work. As I fiddled with the machine’s settings and set out the carton of half-and-half, I wondered about her health, even worried about things like her blood pressure (I could never figure out if it was too high or too low) and periodic headaches. As I poured and stirred the drink, I thought idly about news articles or stories about school and my friends that I thought that she would enjoy.
My dad dislikes the taste and idea of coffee — he thinks that it causes caffeine dependency. But I’m confident I’ll be able find an avenue to express my love for him too, because through my newfound coffee-brewing routine, I finally understand my parents’ perspective.
I’d always seen my mom’s elaborate meals and carefully sliced plates of fruit as a fun quirk, but the cultural differences in my and my parents’ approach to relationships still created tension and sometimes, even resentment. When we argued, I would gripe, “Why can’t you just say ‘I love you’? Is it really that hard?” My parents preached that real affection was found in actions and not words, but that always frustrated me. My parents provided me a safe place to live and made my meals and literally kept me alive — what kind of action could I take that wouldn’t immediately pale in comparison? But my coffee-brewing proved that the gravity of the action didn’t matter. Instead, what counted was the routine, the consistency, the small, daily gift.
I imagine that my mom and I are having this elaborate conversation through our cooking and brewing. This cup of coffee means “I’m sorry.” This one means “Thank you.” This one means “I forgive you for being annoying and making me feel bad about getting Dunkin’ in the first place.” But every single cup proclaims, “I love you, Mom.” Thanks to the Keurig, I can finally speak her language.
Katherine Oung is a high school senior from Florida whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Teen Vogue, Balance the Ballot, and more.