When I was growing up in North Carolina in the ’90s, I had a lot of ideas about the kind of person I wanted to be, and all of them involved coffee. I dreamed of myself as a go-getter university student with a bright future sipping on a steaming mug in the library, a journalist working in an open-plan newsroom and reading things that came in over the Wires, swilling the burned-to-the-urn fare in the kitchen, a serious artiste living in a garret in Paris while perfecting my craft, subsisting on coffee and cigarettes while hand-writing my masterpiece. There was just one problem: I don’t actually like coffee.
In my campus coffee shop, trying on my “brilliant student” costume, I ordered every kind of coffee on the menu, one by one, waiting for the one that would click. I didn’t like it with milk, or with foam, or with sugar, or black. I ordered Frappuccinos at Starbucks and cafés au lait at upscale restaurants. Still nothing. At some point during the last semester of my senior year, trying to stay up all night cramming for exams and swallowing lukewarm coffee, it hit me: Fuck, I don’t actually like this. It wasn’t the coffee. It was me.
I bought a bright-red box of Twinings and decided it was tea or bust. At first, I made cuppas that any British person would have recoiled at: heat the water first, add the bag second, let it sit all morning and get bitter. But over time, I figured out the proportions, and realized that I liked a splash of milk but no sugar. It was a revelation: Tea wasn’t just a coffee substitute, it was a warm, earthy, loving beverage that I was genuinely happy to drink. Unlike my years of coffee shop experiments, tea didn’t feel like a chore to drink. I bought a proper kettle, learned how to brew loose-leaf, and toted my tin canisters of darjeeling and assam to that New York City newsroom I eventually went to work in.
On my at-long-last trip to Paris, I still wore the black dress but found elegant tisanes prepared as carefully as any cold brew, packed with lavender straight from the fields of Provence. In Singapore, I went to a shop that specialized in “selfie coffees” and wound up with a greenish-tinted picture of myself atop of a foamy matcha. (I took a selfie with it, of course.) In Israel, I fell in love with both the walk along the sea from Jaffa to Tel Aviv and the tea poured over the spearmint leaves known as nana. In Chile’s Atacama desert, the driest place in the world, I sipped coca tea alongside locals who insisted it would help me deal with the altitude. Whether it’s pink Kashmiri chai or red South African rooibos, seeing what people drink has helped me to understand how they lived—and how I wanted my own life to be.
Most women have a story about learning how to love themselves, or trying to. Mine began when I realized I didn’t like the taste of coffee. For the first time in my life, I accepted that I didn’t have to like something just because it was popular. And it wasn’t worth forcing myself to like something out of a misguided idea about who I was, who I wanted to be, or who other people thought I was.
Eventually, I also stopped caring about trying to walk in shoes that hurt my feet or about whether men would still like me if I didn’t sleep with them. Accepting that coffee wasn’t the beverage for me was a small but critical first step in allowing myself to be who I was, instead of who I thought I was supposed to be. My life didn’t quite turn out the way that I thought it would when I worshiped magazine photo shoots, but it’s real—and the drink in my cup is one I find infinitely more delicious. The truth is that, from a distance, no one can tell what’s in your mug.