COFFEE BREAK By Phuong Nguyen ’21 from Hanoi, Vietnam t was late afternoon in Hanoi. Cool wind blew softly, carrying the soothing fragrance of fresh-ground coffee from the cafés along the roadside into the cold winter air, and heartwarming music from the restaurants blended into the fragrance and filled the gap in anyone’s cold winter hearts. Yet, I was sweating, struggling to pedal my broken e-bike home as quickly as I could. “Isn’t the sunset beautiful?” said Dung, my friend of many years, who eagerly accompanied me even though, unlike me, her battery hadn’t mysteriously run down. “Maybe we should do this once in a while.” I watched the sun sink lazily below the horizon, spreading its colors over Hoan Kiem Lake, but rather than the beauty Dung had seen, I saw it as a pernicious clock, mocking me as my precious study time leaked away. Tons of homework, then a math test, then a psychology club meeting. Although I loved discussing profound psychological problems, or solving those enigmas called equations, the thought was tiring. “Another cup of coffee,” I thought sadly to myself, “another sleepless night.” “Sure,” I told Dung, noncommittally, and tried to pedal faster while she made comments about every shop and restaurant that we passed. Nothing seemed to slip her eyes. Suddenly, she stopped her bike. “Have a break? This shop makes great coffee.” I smelled the Vietnamese coffee, a scent so tempting and intimate that it almost made me cry. I wanted nothing more than to have a cup of coffee with her — it had been so long since we’d really done anything together — but something stopped me. “Uh,” I found myself saying, mechanically. “I’ve got so much homework. I shouldn’t waste my time.” She shrugged, and we continued in silence. As the smell of coffee receded farther and farther into the distance, I started feeling guilty and gained a new respect for Dung. She had the same amount of work that I had — as anybody had — but she had still happily made time for me.
Back home, looking at the piles of homework on my desk, I sighed. Attending the most competitive “gifted” school in Vietnam — where parents dream of sending kids to and where kids feel forced to constantly justify their placement — we view high school as nothing more than preparation for college, and I suddenly became afraid that college would seem like nothing more than preparation for my career. “Perhaps Dung was the only one of us to get it right,” I told myself: There is beauty not to be missed, moments not to be ignored, and friends not to be abandoned. “Hey, Dung,” I asked the following morning. “Do you want to ride from school together again today?” “Your battery still not working?” “No. I fixed it. I just wanted to have a cup of coffee with you.” After school, two steaming cups of coffee in front of us, she told me how lonely she had been after her recent class transfer. I’d been lonely, too, I realized, too wrapped up in my studies and in my inner world. However, watching the sunset with my friend, I finally realized that taking an hour-long “vacation” from my schoolwork doesn’t mean I am escaping from it, and it doesn’t mean I’m lazy. All it means is that I want to live my life to the fullest and cherish what I now have while reaching for the future. Returning home that afternoon, for the first time in months I didn’t feel tired. I finished my homework more productively than ever, got six full hours of sleep, and woke up the next morning refreshed, ready to conquer any tricky math questions or mysteries of the human brain. I sensed an overwhelming energy running through my body as I thought about how future is shaped by present, looking forward to seeing Dung again and to another day of school.
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Published on Nov 1, 2017