A cup of life-saving coffee please

Sep 22, 2022 - Written by Ananya Mangwani

A cup of life-saving coffee please

It was a dark June night. The cool breeze hit my cheeks and blood rushed back into my body. The smell of impending adventures and airplane fuel wafted through the air and it was a warm welcome as opposed to the cold stale air of the metal box I was trapped in for 7 hours. Walking towards my taxi, I could feel the roar of the city getting louder as I prepared to welcome my new life. I could not wait to find myself in this new city and if I’m lucky, some answers.

As I made my way to a small apartment in the heart of Saigon, reality hit me like a moving train and my pounding heart was a loud reminder of the life that was waiting for me. I felt lost and my eyes searched the crowd desperately trying to make sense of everything but standing at the gates of RMIT University around five thousand kilometers away from home, a surge of calm came over me.

“I am here, there’s no running away. Let’s do this.”

Drinking coffee is a huge part of the Vietnamese culture and there was a small hut that sold soft drinks and snacks right across from my apartment. One month into my stay, I finally summoned the courage to walk upto the lady serving and buy a milk coffee. That was the cup of coffee changed my life.

She was in her mid-70s and adorned a headscarf and an apron was tied to her old over washed dress with her signature hat on at all times. She was mostly alone at the shop, sometimes accompanied by her young grandson. She would always be found chatting with the security guards and customers. She was loud and everybody knew that she was open for business, spreading smiles as early as 5 AM.

As I suspected, she barely spoke a word of English and I hand gestured to the milk coffee image on her tattered billboard and placed my order. She handed me the cup with the brightest half crooked smile I had ever received. She said something to the boy standing at the back and lightly chuckled. Her grandson looked over at me and said something to his grandma and they both softly smiled.

Since then, it was customary for me to buy a cup of coffee first thing in the morning. I even picked up a few phrases and my accent and attempt to express gratitude to her in her language made her smile. Whatever time of the day it was, as soon as I walked out the building gate towards her, she would lazily drag herself out of her hammock to make my coffee by herself and smile.

Our material exchanges progressed from coffee to food. She would watch my exhausted sleep-deprived face in the dark with the phone light hitting my face in the most unflattering way and furrow her eyebrows. On such days she would casually stuff a sandwich into my hands and nudge me to go home. Throughout the day, she expressed her kindness with unconditional love for her customers, grandson, security guards and the stray dogs she raised. Being on the receiving side of these acts, I felt undeserving of her generosity and questioned her reasons, puzzled how she knew that I was not okay and struggling without saying a single word.

Just as I had grown used to her kindness, a global pandemic hit and as a student that recently got laid off, I moved into a cheaper flat far from my favorite coffee shop with plans to return soon. On my last morning interaction with her, I vividly remember buying two coffees.

She laughed teasingly and said “Two?… Boy?”.

I laughed and softly replied, “No it’s for a girl”.

From past experiences with adults her age, I expected a reaction on the lines of disgust or confusion but instead got that signature wide smile and the words “Good, very good”. At that moment, these felt like the most reassuring words in the English language.

I returned roughly 7 months later not as excited to return back to university as much as meeting and drinking Thuy’s coffee. I was met with pin-drop silence at the shop with her grandson lying on his hammock and idly scrolling on his phone. It was an eerie feeling in the hut that afternoon and I could sense something bad had happened. I felt my stomach churn as his grandson broke the news to me that she did not survive this horrible virus. This was the first time I realized the severity and impact of this issue in a way that plenty of people have suffered with. Something that posed an “inconvenience” to some of us was devastating to a lot of families.

While breaking this news to me her grandson mentioned how she’d had a soft spot for me. He recalled how I reminded her of the daughter she’d lost at a young age. My eyes filled with tears and I stood there not knowing what to say. Indifferent to my reaction, he prepared my coffee and went back to his phone. Out of sheer habit, I eagerly looked at his face as he handed me my drink, expecting a smile but he left me standing there with good coffee in my hands but an empty feeling in my heart.

Ever since this loss, life has been different. Kindness seems like a necessity and my struggles suddenly seem to come with a silver lining. Every feeling or action I make is like a choice that inevitably impacts my surroundings. We are all similar in a lot of ways. We all feel pain and we all have problems, but there is immense power in a stranger’s kindness. It was her choice to wake up every day and make someone’s life better. I don’t remember her much when I drink coffee but every person who smiles because of me reminds me of her.

Keep the chain moving and who knows? Maybe you’ll end up saving two lives at the same time. I know there is someone out there that will or must have saved your life in some way or the other even though I don’t know your story, here is mine.


About the author

I am Ananya Mangwani and I was born on August 20. I am all about my dogs, my camera and my music. I love creating, travelling and experimenting. I believe life is too short to be serious all the time, so if you cannot laugh at yourself... call me. I'll do it for you.