Starbucks was the place, Hot Chocolate was the name.
The barista greets me, we say our obligatory hellos, and I request a Hot Chocolate, size small. As is customary for Starbucks, the good barista asks for my name so that she can write it on my cup. For a moment, I contemplate transforming myself into my European counterpart, “Nikki,” merely for the convenience of the name.
But then, a thought strikes: Why? I’ve seen countless white people saying their name with not a care in the world, watching as it is efficiently and effortlessly written on their respective cups. Why not me? Am I not deserving of the same…privilege? I am, I most definitely am, I tell myself.
So, I gather up my courage and say my Sri Lankan name aloud: “Nipuni.”
Hearing this foreign name escape my lips, the barista makes eye contact with me briefly. The air gradually thickens with the stench of judgment, and I get the distinct impression that the barista — for whatever reason — is now somehow awaiting my slow unraveling.
The clock ticks.
The face-off continues. The barista’s face starts looking much like how Tom the cartoon cat would look every time he waits — albeit unsuccessfully — for Jerry the mouse to surrender himself: cocksure and puffed up with an entirely unjustified sense of self-worth.
I let the suspense build, giving the arduous awkwardness between myself and the barista the appropriate amount of time necessary to settle itself around us like a heavy bog.
I let the suspense build, giving the arduous awkwardness between myself and the barista the appropriate amount of time necessary to settle itself around us like a heavy bog. Why, I wonder, should I go to any lengths at all to make this situation feel comfortable for the barista, when the she hadn’t so much as lifted a finger to extend me the same courtesy?
Finally, once I deem the silence the appropriate amount of unbearable, I fix the right little ray of sunshine that is the barista with an unblinking gaze while casually rattling off the spelling for my name: N-I-P-U-N-I.
Oh well, guess my European counterpart isn’t making an appearance tonight.
She-at-the-other-side-of-the-counter narrows her eyes, loathe to admit defeat, nonetheless brandishing a felt tip marker out of nowhere to start writing on that cup with an unnecessarily dramatic flourish.
And there it is, I think, observing this behavior with some mild fascination — the ever-popular “Starbucks experience” that people love to talk about. Does this so called “Starbucks experience” also come with a side of humiliation, a slice of scorn and a big juicy dollop of ruffled composure for the customer, I wonder.
But then I think to myself: perhaps I am being too quick to judge. Perhaps me not visiting Starbucks all too often has rendered me unfamiliar to good ol’ Starbucks’s modus operandi. Perhaps the barista’s “this is how we do it around here” swagger with its pretentious pomposity is somehow meant to be endearing. Maybe it’s me and I’m just out of touch.
What I know for certain though is that this unique “Starbucks experience” somehow has the disconcerting effect of taking me straight back to my old high school days — the average kid with the average life somehow finding herself at the not-so-average-popular table almost entirely by accident.
I cannot help but feel a flutter of anticipation as I await the sound of my own birth name.
Lost in my thoughts, I stand at the end of the line of customers awaiting my order. As every white face in front of me is addressed by their birth name by the barista, I snap back to reality. I cannot help but feel a flutter of anticipation as I await the sound of my own birth name. No more being addressed by some inconspicuous European name too dull and insipid to be anything but insignificant. No indeed, today, I am Nipuni: the name given to me by my parents themselves as a way of recognizing my Sri Lankan birthright.
Aah, but then Starbucks, a true visionary, in all her clairvoyant glory, deems “Hot Chocolate” a name more worthy. For you see, when my turn comes, in place of my name, what I hear instead, is:
I look around; hesitant to go up lest someone else has also, shockingly enough, ordered his or her own cup of this remarkably commonplace beverage. But no other customer makes any indication of it, and I see an older lady looking down, trying to hide a smirk.
And so, with my head held high at being called this ever-so-dignified name in front of a sea of pale faces, I graciously accept my newly bequeathed moniker in mock-pride as I receive the cup from the barista with a murmured “thanks.” Surely those half smiles I see on those pink lips I pass on my way to my table are smiles of envy and not of pity?
Indeed, why would they pity me? For I am Hot Chocolate, a swirling cup of milk and chocolate, topped with sweet whipped cream and chocolate syrup. I come in small, medium, large and extra large sizes, or, if we’re using proper “Starbucks lingo”: Short, Tall, Grande and Venti. You may meet variations of me in a variety of stores, and I am especially great to drink on cold winter nights next to a merry old fireplace that’s busily crackling away.
Once, I used to go by the name Nipuni, and Nipuni used to be this Sri Lankan girl living in Canada whose one true love was writing.
Once, I used to go by the name Nipuni, and Nipuni used to be this Sri Lankan girl living in Canada whose one true love was writing, but rumor has it that one day, Nipuni walked straight into a Starbucks store and was never to be heard from again. No one knows what happened to her.
It’s almost as though her identity had been completely…erased.
Never knew a mere name held power so great.
* * *
Nipuni Panamaldeniya’s previous work has been published in the Sri Lankan newspaper The Island and Hellogiggles.com — an online community for women. She recently started a blog to post viewpoints and stories from a Sri Lankan perspective, called alittlesliceoflanka.tumblr.com, and she also blogs at eloquentgraffitti.tumblr.com for other issues that inspire her such as women’s rights issues, arts, culture and history. Nipuni was born and raised in Sri Lanka, migrating to Canada at age 16.