China Power

Coffeehouse Education

Getting Chinese students to open a coffeehouse highlights cultural barriers to co-operation.

A Shenzhen Middle School student once told me he wanted to go to the United States to become a chef. He had a wide-eyed, honest look as I stared at him in disbelief: ‘So you want your dad to pay $200,000 for you to go to college so you can become a chef? ’He smiled, and nodded.

After we parted I couldn’t get him out of my head, and thought to myself: well, if the boy wants to be a chef, why not? And that’s how I decided that starting a coffeehouse at Shenzhen Middle School would be a good idea.

It was, in fact, a terrible idea. What exactly was my experience or qualification for starting a coffeehouse? Well, I was Cantonese, and what else did we Cantonese do except open restaurants and Laundromats? My father and my two uncles were cooks in Toronto restaurants, and my father had been talking about opening his own restaurant for ages. I had worked in the Yale dining halls as a dishwasher. Oh, and I liked to eat at restaurants, and I had watched and liked Mark Burnett’s reality series ‘The Restaurant.’

But what did opening a coffeehouse have to do with applying to American universities? Well, nothing really. But I wasn’t about to tell anyone that.

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It took me exactly one meeting with the coffeehouse students to regret the idea. They tried to convince me that the coffeehouse needed to have Taiwanese sausage sticks, instant noodles, and packaged fried eggs (don’t ask) on the menu. I pointed out that these foods would make the coffeehouse stink. And then they pointed out that no students at Shenzhen Middle School actually drank coffee. I replied that in the West a coffeehouse was not necessarily a place to drink coffee but rather a public space for people to talk and to discuss, to debate and to argue: contact + conflict = thought.

But the problems just got worse and worse. I had divided the coffeehouse into three departments: design, marketing, and management. I immediately discovered that to be a mistake because the students had apparently been culturally indoctrinated to like and be good at bureaucratic warfare: they refused to communicate and co-operate, and criticized and complained about each other. The design team had spent weeks drawing up a coffeehouse that looked like the bar of a five-star hotel, and when I told the kids that the school could not in fact devote this year’s budget to building one coffeehouse they looked deflated and crushed.

Yet, the biggest problem of all was that the students liked to have meetings, and did nothing but have meetings. I wanted them to get their hands dirty: to hang out at Starbucks in the evenings, to intern at coffeeshops on weekends, to flip through design books at the city library. But that meant taking risks, leaving their comfort zone and walking into uncertainty, and they much preferred having meetings and creating long lists of why this coffeehouse project could not work.

I was frustrated with them, and I kept on switching team leaders. Finally, some students joined the team who had initiative, and they made the others get their hands dirty. The students turned a classroom into a laboratory for experimenting with different menu options, and went to look for unsuspecting classmates to test their concoctions on (cucumber juice was a favourite).

Meanwhile the renovation of the coffeehouse was delayed; the design team leader was making decisions without informing the others, and had decided to cover the coffeehouse backyard with bathroom tiles. I replaced her, and warned the rest of the students on the importance of communication and consensus.

The students kept on finding reasons to delay the opening of the coffeehouse, and so I just ordered them to open one day. The night before opening, and the students scrambled around and argued with each other, the air thick with fear and anxiety. The next afternoon, when they finally opened, the coffeehouse was a roaring success.

Working together on the coffeehouse, the students learned process, communication, and co-operation. They learned how to trust themselves, how to take risks, and how not to fear failure. All their lives they’ve been told by their parents and teachers that risk means danger, and the students learned to rationalize this internalization and institutionalization of the fear of failure.

The opening of the intimate and friendly coffeehouse not only changed the physical space of the school, but also altered the school’s psychological landscape as well. Everyday when the students sat in the coffeehouse to do homework or to chat or to drink taro milk tea they could see for themselves what was possible if they simply dared to believe. After the coffeehouse, we started an English magazine called the Green Room (, a daily paper of translated articles from the Western media called The Eyes (, and a daily newspaper of school news (

By far, the Special Curriculum’s most successful activity was also its most challenging and gruelling: the daily newspaper. Shy introverted students out of necessity learned to be smiling outgoing reporters, and reticent self-absorbed editors out of necessity learned to be effective communicators and managers of reporters. Staying up until one or two in the morning to put out the paper, the newspaper team developed intimacy and mutual respect.

The coffeehouse, the daily, the Eyes, and the Green Room all have certain similarities that are aligned with the education goals set out. They’re so time-consuming and complex that they require a team that understands process and communication, co-operation and co-ordination. There’s a clear concrete purpose to each activity: the publications must increase circulation, and the coffeehouse must increase its profit margin. All these activities also have instantaneous feed-back loops that tell the students how they’re doing, and how they can improve: readership feedback for the publications, and profit margin for the coffeehouse.

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Moreover, all these activities force students out of their comfort zone, to engage the world and to learn empathy: a reporter must learn to win an interviewee’s trust, and a waiter must please his customers. And finally and most important these activities help develop students’ interests, and give them a good sense of career possibilities.

In other words, these activities are meant to develop passion among the students. In my next entry, I’ll discuss why passion is such an important education goal, and why it’s so difficult to encourage Chinese students to be passionate.