Welcome to Life in Chains, Eater's recurring essay series where we share the essential roles played in our lives by chain restaurants — great and grim, wonderful and terrible. Here, writer and editor Anne Burt on the unexpected comfort of a well-placed Starbucks in a moment of extraordinary crisis.
t's March 8, 2014, late morning. I'm wandering the terminal at Beijing International Airport; after a day spent in the air, I'm disoriented by the vast hangar-like spaces that morph in the distance into even vaster hangar-like spaces. I've just flown in from New York via Hong Kong without a hitch; even the legendary smog that chokes the city has temporarily blown away, thanks to a windy cold snap that allowed the skyscrapers of Beijing to loom into view as my Cathay Pacific airplane descended smoothly onto the tarmac. I'm looking for a stranger's face among thousands and thousands of strange faces.
What I don't know is this: while I slept in my seat 30,000 feet above central China, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, scheduled to land at the same terminal a few hours earlier, had disappeared from the sky.
Kuala Lumpur to Beijing is a standard route for Malaysia Airlines, a routine six-hour flight that runs twice a day between the two massive cities, the plane filled with commuters from both countries, and tourists, business travelers, and ex-pats from many more. Flight 370 was the red-eye, departing at 12:35 a.m. At approximately 1:19 a.m., the Boeing 777 aircraft — the same make and model as the one I was on, coming from the other side of the world but headed for the same destination — left Malaysian airspace and entered Vietnamese airspace. Less than two minutes later, it lost all radio contact.
As I emerge from the body-scanning device at customs, I crane my neck to peer at the directional signs in several languages hanging twenty feet over my head in the gray-and-white space. Throngs of people press up against the rope that cordons off the arrival area ahead of me. Later, when I learn what's going on, I realize that in this crowd are friends, relatives, and colleagues of the 227 passengers and twelve crew of the missing flight. What have they been told at this time? That the plane is delayed? Rerouted? Are they just annoyed at what might still be explained away as a routine delay? Or do they know, somehow, that they're at the beginning of an unthinkably harrowing timeline: waiting days, weeks — even a year, it will turn out, though none of us know it then — with no more information about their missing loved ones than the brief report they've already had: The flight hasn't arrived. It never will.
efore this trip, I've never been to China. I neither speak nor read Mandarin, or any of the country's countless other dialects. I'm worried because I'm here on business — I work in communications for a U.S.-based education nonprofit — and I'm convinced I'll make some inadvertent cultural blunder that will shame my employer, and smear our reputation.
That worry overwhelms me in my first moments off the airplane, and my intense focus on not screwing up — plus the disorienting effect of hours of air travel — renders me incapable of reading strangers' faces for any signs of distress less obvious than outright weeping, which I don't see. If the crowds waiting at the international arrivals gate haven't diminished as quickly as they might on a typical day, I wouldn't know. If urgent, increasingly frantic conversations are occurring, I can't tell. My biggest concern at the moment is how I will find the driver assigned to bring me to my hotel.
That's when I see it, a floating beacon in the middle of the vast hall: a line of hanzi characters surrounding a hunter green logo of a mermaid with a double tail
Back in New York — when I still had moxie, before I realized how overwhelming and strange Beijing would feel — I scoffed at my coworkers' suggestion that I stay at a Western-style hotel. This trip would be the first time I'd traveled alone since my daughter was born fourteen years earlier, and I wanted to be the kind of solo adventurer I had been back in my twenties, to see the "real" Beijing. So I found a room in a hotel in the Hutong District, a small building down one of the winding back alleys that hadn't yet succumbed to the economic boom and building frenzy of Beijing's recent times. Shortly after booking online, I received a confirmation email with a short note: "Please excuse but your driver will not have English." Attached was a letter written in Chinese that I was supposed to show to the driver, who would be at the airport holding a placard with my name.
But at the Beijing airport, when I power up my phone to retrieve the email, I discover that the international plan that our IT director gave me for the trip and swore would work in any city in the world doesn't work here. My cell phone service is blocked.
I wander the passenger pickup area, where drivers and tour guides wait in groups six or seven deep, many of them holding paper signs with boxy simplified-Chinese characters and their corresponding Roman names. None of these names is mine. None of them is mine when I walk up and down the lines a second time, or a third, fourth, and fifth. I have no way to communicate with anyone. I have no idea where I am. I have no idea where I'm going.
I move away from the hordes to catch my breath, and that's when I see it, a floating beacon in the middle of the vast hall: a line of hanzi characters surrounding a hunter green logo of a mermaid with a double tail. An unexpected haven. Back home, the experience of a cup of Starbucks coffee is unexciting, even generic. But here, disoriented on a day of exceptional global disorientation, I realize this coffee chain is what I need to give me fortitude to figure out how to get where I need to be. It's familiarity I didn't think I'd want; familiarity I find myself immensely grateful to discover.
As I approach the kiosk, I notice a tall, thin young man slouched against the railing just before the line begins, talking on his cell phone. In his free hand, he holds a cardboard sign with my name. I'm flooded with relief — and amused that my own Western predictability has inadvertently led me to the right place. Of course my driver would be waiting for me at Starbucks, the obvious place any American traveler would gravitate.
I gesture to him that mine is the name he holds. He gestures: Where were you?
I wave my hands at the crowd; take little steps back and forth to mimic my own wandering. He shrugs, smiles, and indicates I should follow him.
Wait, I ask by raising my hands by my face. I point to the Starbucks. Can I get a cup of coffee first?
he original Chinese Starbucks opened in Beijing in 1999, at the foot of the China World Trade Building. 1999 was also the year when I moved from Brooklyn to New Jersey, pregnant with my daughter, and a big factor in my choice of town was that — in addition to an art-house movie theater, a thriving indie bookstore, and plenty of good restaurants — there was a Starbucks. The comfy blue armchairs in my new, suburban coffee shop were identical to the comfy blue armchairs in the Starbucks that dotted the city I'd left behind; sinking back into one with a latte and a laptop softened the transition from one life to the other.
Before special-order coffee became a thing, before co-working spaces became a thing, before widely available public Wi-Fi became a thing, Starbucks was all these things
Back then, before special-order coffee became a thing, before co-working spaces became a thing, before widely available public Wi-Fi became a thing, Starbucks was all these things. But by 2014, the double-tailed mermaid and her coffee mean less to me — the blue armchairs have been replaced with bar seating, gift shelves, and long lines of people waiting to order and pick up. My daughter is in school, I'm working full-time again, and I don't need Starbucks the way I had before.
But China needs it: fifteen years after that first location opened in Beijing, there are hundreds of outlets in mainland China; including Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, the number climbs well over a thousand. It's the coffee chain's second-largest market outside of the United States. Here, I learn, Starbucks represents something very different than it does in America. In a country known for its allegiance to tea in all its subtleties, ceremonial as well as gastronomical, coffee culture is a pure expression of Westernization. There may be some limits — when Starbucks opened a store inside Beijing's Forbidden City, the nearly six-century-old former imperial palace and now the city's largest government-run tourist attraction, it was met with vociferous protest, including an online campaign that garnered more than half a million signatures, and closed swiftly — but still, for corporate workers and university students aiming for an air of global sophistication, a Starbucks cup in hand is a powerful status symbol.
When the opportunity to travel to China came my way, Starbucks was not on my agenda of cultural discovery. My daughter was old enough that I could envision a week without her on the other side of the world. And I pined for the chance to immerse myself in a completely new, entirely foreign experience, to remember what it was like to be alone in a strange place. But when a jet disappears into the ether — a jet that's in the air at the same time I am, that's supposed to land at the same airport, on the same day, at the same time, a Boeing 777 just like the one that carried me away from New York — being alone in a strange place is the last thing I want. The fear of how much I had to lose felt directly proportional to how far away from home I had traveled.
hen everything is chaos, a cup of coffee helps. Standing there in the airport, I learn that Starbucks' brew tastes exactly the same in Beijing as it does in the States. How gladly I welcome that slightly burned flavor in the back of the mouth, familiar comfort in the chaos around me. Later that evening, once my driver and I have made it to my hotel, and I venture out past the tiny web of bicycle-cart clogged roads to purchase a working SIM card, it's comfort again when I spy the green logo a block away.
I have a Starbucks cup in my hand while I explain my technological needs to the patient man at the tech-and-news kiosk — using a combination of signals and sad faces while pointing to my phone. While he replaces my useless American technology with something that will work, I stare at the television screen in his shop. Sobbing families hold each other in the airport where I stood just hours ago. I don't need to recognize the alphabet or understand the language. Their grief and fear transcend any cultural context.
When everything is chaos, a cup of coffee helps
The next morning, the front pages of the newspapers in my hotel lobby show more portraits of desperation. The gentle-voiced concierge just shakes her head when I ask for information. No, she says. No one knows what happened. All we know is that a plane full of people is gone.
It's my sightseeing day, and I'm heading out to visit the Great Wall. I climb the stone steps at the Badaling Section, a stretch of the wall forty miles north of Beijing, moving up and away from the crowds of my fellow tourists. The air is cold, but ascending the multitude of steps, sloped and uneven, is hard exercise. The reward for the winding climb is magnificent: the green, terraced mountains around Beijing, the other winding sections of the wall as it crawls across thousands of miles of terrain all the way to Mongolia, all of it misty and majestic.
At the highest accessible watch point, I'm alone. I'm unmoored, dizzied. I feel like a satellite feed of myself, zooming up into space over China then back down on the opposite side of the planet, where my family and friends are sleeping while I stand in daylight. Does my daughter know about Flight 370? Is she worried it will happen again? Is she worried that I'll be among the people who disappear? I feel ashamed of that reckless confidence that told me I could travel so far. I cannot be one of the unlucky passengers who boards a plane to nowhere.
My English-speaking guide and the driver I've hired for the morning are waiting for me at the bottom. When I climb back into the car, they're listening to the news on the radio; I can't understand the words I'm hearing, but the faces of my companions are riveted, stricken. As we start on our journey back to the city, my guide tries to make small talk, but her heart isn't in it. We're all silent for the rest of the drive.
A Starbucks Grande medium roast with room for milk, small comfort it might be, reassures me that home is waiting, that I will make it back, that planes don't always fall out of the sky, that I will see my daughter again
Over the next few days, I spend my time between meetings wandering alone around the Communist-built fortresses of Beijing, the ancient Imperial Palace, and the winding streets of the Hutong district. For most of it, I carry a white cardboard cup of Pike's Place java in my hand, a talisman I wouldn't trade for all the tea in China. Each sip reminds me of the life I've lived through: hours spent in Starbucks with my baby sleeping in her stroller, mornings spent in Starbucks trying desperately to write before my toddler's preschool pick-up time, afternoons spent in Starbucks waiting for my teenager and her friends while they order outrageous caffeinated milkshakes. A Starbucks Grande medium roast with room for milk, small comfort it might be, reassures me that home is waiting, that I will make it back, that planes don't always fall out of the sky, that I will see my daughter again.
y story of being adrift after the disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370 is a small one, a story on the periphery of thousands of tragedies, stories of people who have lost loved ones, who are forced into the brutal knowledge of what your life is like when a someone you love is gone, when your friend or your colleague or your family member drops out of the sky into oblivion. My trip ends and I return home uneventfully. My flight doesn't disappear.
After I land in New York, I swap in my old SIM card, and power up my phone. At last, I can open that email attachment I'd sent to myself before the trip began, the one from my hotel telling me how to find my driver in the international arrivals terminal, how to find my way out of the Beijing airport. I read it, at last, in the car on my way home to see my daughter. The letter reads: "You will be collected by your driver upon arrival at the airport's Starbucks kiosk. Proceed immediately there."
Anne Burt is editor of two collections of essays: My Father Married Your Mother and About Face (co-edited with Christina Baker Kline). Her prize-winning fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including, most recently, For The Ghosts on National Public Radio's "Hanukkah Lights.".
Editor: Helen Rosner
Photo credit: Starbucks