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Coffee culture on campus: On the way to maturity

ICE    Public:ICE    Datetime:2012/5/31
Cafés definitely have their place on the long list of features at Xiamen University, and coffee culture at XMU distinguishes it from most other institutions of higher learning in China. It has been five years since the College of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering opened the first café at XMU. Now, shall we explore the various cafés on our campus?
In 2007, the College of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering placed an automatic coffee machine in the hallway of the Lu Jiaxi Building and in doing so, established the first café at XMU. Since that time, under the auspices of XMU President Zhu Chongshi, more and more cafés have appeared, all with the goal of introducing coffee culture to our campus. In November 2008, ´Lakeside´ Café opened; one year later, ´1921´ Café made its appearance. Our newest café, ´Flaming flower,´ opened on October 19th and is situated on the second floor of the library. Currently the Medical College is planning its own exclusive café on the new Xiang´an campus.

More than coffee
Freedom and communication constitute the essence of coffee culture. A café provides a platform for people of different backgrounds to freely communicate. To merely drink coffee in a café, is a waste of resources.
I met Mr Li Wei, a lecturer from the Medical College, when he was discussing academic issues with several undergraduate students in 1921 Café. Everyone present seemed relaxed as they spoke freely, laughing from time to time. A number of tourists looked on enviously. If only I had such experiences! The scene aroused envy in me, too, for back in my college years, students in China, including me, were largely in awe of teachers and dared not speak to them.
Mr Li had studied in the U.S. and became very accustomed to academic exchanges in cafés. At his university, each college has its own café, where he and his classmates generally carried out their academic communication in the peaceful, quiet ambience. After he returned to China in 2007, he tried to incorporate the role of the café into his teaching. He regularly takes his students to a café, where in such a relaxed environment, even shy students feel encouraged to speak. These informal meetings greatly improve teacher-student relationships, while also providing Mr. Li with feedback from his students so he can make adjustments to his teaching plan.
Coffee is said to be a favorite beverage of the Dutch. But Vincent, an exchange student from the Netherlands seldom regards a café as a place to drink coffee, but rather a place to meet friends, chat and gain inspiration. Nancy, a Korean girl is a regular café-goer. According to her, cafés in Korea attract customers with WiFi service and an atmosphere of relaxation and freedom despite the high prices. If she wants to discuss academic issues, going to a café is high on her list.

On the way to a mature culture
In China many consider coffee an exotic drink. So it is not surprising that it has taken a long time for coffee culture to take root in China. The cafés on XMU´s campus however, are well on their way to developing a mature coffee culture.
Since its opening, Flaming flower Café has received strong support from the University. It is operated by three graduate students from the School of Public Affairs who received help during their preparation from both principals and teachers, including President Zhu Chongshi. President Zhu for example, suggested they extend the operating hours for the convenience of their customers.
Likewise, Lakeside Café is managed by Zhang Tianchang, a student who wants to make it an informal communication center for XMU students. Lakeside Café is easily recognizable to many students in XMU in part, because the TV series ´Let´s go watch a meteor shower,´ shot a scene in the café.
The managers of these cafés have done much to promote coffee culture at XMU. Mai, the manager of 1921 Café said he had made great efforts to improve the café, such as introducing special equipment from abroad and setting up a professional coffee bean roasting room. Mai also asked for class notes and students reflections upon graduation to be displayed in the café, so that they could be passed down as part of the campus culture each year, but unfortunately he collected very few. He bought a piano and a guitar, but they were seldom played with the exception of a few music majors. According to Mai, overseas students who frequent ´1921´ would like to chat happily with the oft-hesitant Chinese students after a ´Hello´. By contrast, it is hard to get Chinese students to open up and talk. They often go in groups with their laptops, order a cup of coffee, and sit for a whole afternoon without even a word. So Mai thinks that coffee culture has not taken root in XMU, because its core lies in the inspirations and sentiments developed over coffee. But he is confident that it will develop in time.
The College of Foreign Language and Culture (CFLC) holds ´Dean´s Coffee Time´ every year in which both undergraduate and graduate students are invited. At first students mistook it for a meeting and felt nervous, but once they were soothed by the relaxing atmosphere, they began to speak freely with the dean. Speaking of coffee culture, the Dean of CFLC Yang Xinzhang said that, historically, going to a café to communicate was more of a western habit practiced by students in European and U.S. institutions. A typical Chinese person regards the teahouse as a counterpart to the western café. Teahouses, however, are generally shunned by young people. Prof. Yang explains that the most important difference between Chinese and western students is that ´Chinese students are afraid to discuss academic research with others.´ That might be another obstacle that is slowing the growth of coffee culture in XMU.

Freedom or extravagance?
Many Chinese people view coffee as an extravagance or a way to show off. While in China it is considered a high-end drink, coffee is as ordinary as cola in the U.S.
Fu Shilong, a student from the School of Physics and Mechanical & Electrical Engineering, is a frequent café-goer. During his university years in Beijing, he often lingered in the cafés in colleges and universities there, such as ´Paradiso´ Café in Renmin University and ´Sculpting in Time´ Café in the University of International Business and Economics. ´I mull over questions while sipping coffee, and experience the taste of success through the sweet-tinged bitterness when I solve a problem.´ In his eyes, coffee stands for freedom and thus it is more fashionable and suitable for younger people than tea.
In contrast, Yang Xue, a student from the School of Law, does not go to cafés even though she likes coffee. She regards the café as an extravagance for students who are still financially supported by parents. So Yang prefers cheap instant coffee. And a lot of students agree with her opinion. A case in point is Wang Ning from the School of Economics, who said, ´Going to a café is not affordable for poor students, and I don´t have to show off.´ Such notions about café culture have contributed to the fact that the most frequent café customers are either teachers or overseas students.

Where is the coffee culture in XMU going?
The coffee culture advocated by XMU however, should not be equated with extravagance, but rather freedom, imagination and an atmosphere for encouraging communication and inspiration.
Campus cafés provide a locale for free thought and communication. Although universities are characterized as promoting free thinking and imagination, it indeed takes a long time for Chinese students to accept the representation of these qualities.
To address the problems discussed above, authorities in charge of the Lakeside Café and the Flaming Flower Café have put forth a lot of effort in promoting coffee culture among XMU students. In taking the consumption capabilities of students into consideration, they suggested that cafés reasonably adjust their prices. In order to attract students from different backgrounds, they have also listed instant coffee and plain water on menu. The various cafés at XMU offer a comfortable, relaxing atmosphere where students and teachers can gather to have open discussions, where clubs can hold meetings, and where friends can gather simply to unwind and chat. Eventually, as more students learn about these cafés, more will begin take advantage of this valuable resource, and the coffee culture at XMU will invariably continue to mature.

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