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Coffee and Commentary: The Bigger Picture

May Zheng (United States)

September 2021

table in coffee shop with papers and coffee

The initial flurry of pleasantry-peppered conversation lulls as Lisa takes a few seconds to sip her tea. I follow suit. Lisa hasn’t changed at all from the way I remembered her from Monday afternoons at the local library, except that this time we’re at a café surrounded by casual visitors instead of other students and tutors.

From across the table, silver cateye glasses frame blue eyes that still give me the impression of seeing and understanding everything in absolute clarity. Lisa's dressed in a medley of faded Brazilian cherry reds and blue-tinged grays; she's still wearing the same simple but elegant fingerless gloves. I had missed being her writing student since the end of middle school, but we kept sporadic-yet-genuine contact over email since then, until recently, when I sent her a paper I’d written taking a hefty stance on political correctness alongside a debriefing of the new things I’d learned since the last email.

“Based on your writing,” Lisa says, “it seems you’ve entered into a bit of an angsty phase.” I nod, a bit hesitantly, and when she doesn’t continue, I realize with a start that she’s giving me a chance to explain myself.

“Yeah, I think I started reading the news on my own and noticing things instead of being self-absorbed. At least relatively,” I say. I feel as though I’m learning a new language, one of conversations like this where a legitimate, relevant topic is being discussed, ideas exchanged, instead of conversations with peers or parents in which we demonstrate to one another that we are “informed citizens.”

“What do you think should change?” Lisa asks.

I blink. “Like, in general? In the world?”

She nods, folding her gloved hands.

“Off the top of my head, I’d say the environment and overemphasis on academics.” I try to measure my words and sound decently confident.

Between sips of coffee, I articulate my concerns about the Amazon, extinctions, and farming-related pollution.

“Actually, I was speaking with a friend from college a few days ago,” Lisa says. “She has a degree in marine biology. She told me environmental patterns aren’t changing as drastically as the media's painting it as. I’ve been following the science, and as far as I can tell, she’s right. People don’t like looking at the bigger picture because it’s less dramatic.”

“I haven’t looked into it because I’m scared of getting into such a politically saturated topic,” I admit.

“That’s more reason to go digging,” Lisa replies, and I nod. “Do continue,” she says after a moment.

I describe the academic hysteria that surrounds me at school and that I’ve read about, detailing the excruciating competition of college admissions globally; my frustration about the topic makes words stick in my throat.

“I went through the gist of what you’re dealing with in high school. As for college, I had an offer for a prestigious program,” Lisa says. “But I decided to take the road less taken and attend a college in the Midwest. I got my degree while bungee jumping, mountain climbing and white-water rafting. And now, look at me,” she says with a laugh. “I have a vocation in education and literature in an affluent area.”

She sees the wide-eyed look on my face and grins. “In this coffee shop, I bet it’s hard for you to imagine me doing any of those things.”

“I would’ve never guessed it,” I say. “It’s one thing to be opposed to the trope of numerical academic success correlating with my future, but another thing to hear it from you directly. These days I oscillate between feeling like I know too much when I’m being critical of things around me, and knowing nothing when it comes to issues beyond my own microcosm."

“Solving a problem requires being aware of one to begin with, and you've taken the initiative on that fairly early on in life, which is more than most people can say.” Lisa tugs on the string of her teabag thoughtfully, her gaze on me steadfast even as the fresh jangle of the bell next to the door hearkens a new customer.

“I’m looking forward to hearing about all the great things you’ll do.”

May Zheng is 18 years old and from New Jersey. The concept and power of perspective have always been interesting to her, as she observed them play out in her family, friendships, and the political arena, which is what she explored in this piece. Outside of writing and politics, she is an avid artist and fitness fanatic.
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