Coffee, not Coffee

I’d just been in Shanghai a month earlier. There, most people know what decaffeinated coffee is. Here in Seoul, fewer seem to understand what it is, and those that do, I guess, only do if you can speak the language well enough to explain what you’re after.

Having arrived at Incheon Airport near ten the night before, and then getting to my hotel in downtown Seoul around midnight, I’d no immediate desire for coffee. The next morning, however, in the hotel restaurant for breakfast, I’d needed my coffee fix, and I tried to ask several of the wait help if there were decaf about.

I am half Korean. I’m embarrassed to say that I speak maybe ten words of the language. It was English only in my house growing up.

No one had an inkling about what I was attempting to describe, and I knew that trying to explain decaf primarily with hand gestures and facial expressions was probably an exercise in futility to begin with.

Even Google translate failed me, as I supposed every sentence I tried did little to get to the essence of my question. Frustrated, and fairly sure after numerous attempts that there was no decaf available in the hotel restaurant, I headed out the door.

Would there be a Starbucks nearby? Not quite with the pressing need of an opium addict, but with a need spurring my desire hard enough, I held my breath in anticipation of locating one quickly.

First, I looked across the street, scanning like the Terminator, from left to right, and then back. Hey, I acknowledged, this wasn’t Seattle, this was Seoul, South Korea. And even if there were plenty of Starbucks in China now, that would certainly not mean that there were automatically plenty of them here. All of Asia might not be jumping on the Starbucks’ bandwagon.

I felt a bead of sweat tickle down my back. My right eye twitched. Why can’t they all get the hell onboard, I wondered.

Just then a smiling couple walked by on their way into the hotel. Of course, they were feeling good. They were carrying, of all things, Coffee, Bean, & Tea Leaf cups. Wow, I thought, they don’t have those in China, or anywhere outside of Hawai’i that I know of.

I stuck out my shaky hand and stopped them. “Can you please tell me where you got those?”

“Oh,” the woman said sunnily, “right next door.” She pointed to the left.

I nearly fell to my knees, like Tom Hanks at the end of the Da Vinci Code.

My turn came. I was having some trouble breathing. “Hi,” I said to what looked to be the equivalent of a local high-school student earning some pocket money on the weekends, “could I please have a large Americano decaf?”

Her eyes narrowed. Her head tilted. I took this to mean she did not understand my question.

“Decaffeinated coffee. Do you have coffee with no caffeine in it?”

She turned and called her fellow teenaged barista over.

“Ah,” I thought, “this must be the English-speaking one.”

The second young lady smiled at me. “Yes?” Her accent was not half bad.

“I would like a large decaffeinated coffee,” I said.

Her eyes narrowed as well. She looked at her compatriot. They both shook their heads and stared at me as if I were crazy.

“Wait,” I said, reaching for my phone. I brought up Google translate and was about to show my sentence to them, but a kindly Korean man behind me said, in perfect English, “Let me ask for you.”

He shot out a few words in Korean. The girls both smiled at him and nodded, then smiled and nodded to each other.

“Eureka,” I thought, “decaffeinated coffee, I have found you.”

As if they’d choreographed it, the two looked at me, both not smiling, held up their hands at the same time, and both crossed their index fingers in an X.

I looked at the man. “I’m guessing that means no?” I asked stupidly.

He translated. “Yes, that means no.”

My palms were sweating, and my heart felt like it might be planning a brief sabbatical. To the door and out on the street I mumbled, like a madman maniacally in search of his white whale, about how on Earth it could be that a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf wouldn’t have decaffeinated coffee.

Once outside, I noticed I was perspiring more than should have been the case, given the 50-degree weather. Then, I got smart.

I busted out my phone, brought up the Starbucks app, tapped my way to the store search button, hit it, and held my breath. My hands were shaking so I could barely read the screen. Could it be? I took off my glasses to make sure I was seeing correctly. Hallelujah! God bless you, Starbucks, there was one less than a half mile back in the other direction.

As I walked again past my hotel, a voice called out. “Mister Lee, there you are. We were looking for you. Please go to the bus, we must depart now.”

I looked at our guide, then down the street, then dropped my head and shuffled to the bus. As we took off for Seoul Tower, we travelled in the direction of that Starbucks. A group of joyfully laughing young women were exiting. No fucking wonder. They grasped the familiar green and white cups in their warm little hands.

I thought about yelling for the bus to stop.

People ask me why I even bother to drink coffee if it has no kick. I tell them I love both the smell and the taste of coffee, so for me, a morning cup is critically important to kickstarting my day.

True, I could probably learn to live without my decaf, but until that time, however, as I now travel the world in my retirement years, I think, in my unfortunate way, I’ll always play the Ugly Decaf Coffee American.

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