Going into Starbucks to Order Butter Tea

A Changpa boy sips from a cup of steaming yak-butter tea.
A Changpa boy sips from a cup of steaming yak-butter tea. (Photo by David Bathgate/Corbis via Getty Images)

Short fiction? Yes! We’re trying an experiment.

Toronto in winter is the backdrop for Sharon Bala‘s riveting short story “Butter Tea at Starbucks,” published at The New Quarterly. This piece, layered with deep tensions between immediate family and between countries, is told by Pema, a young Tibetan woman caught in the middle. Pema’s sister Karma is struggling to meet a newborn’s demands while trying to assert her independence over their parents, traditional Tibetans who are in conflict with the father of their new granddaughter. In the epicenter of the domestic strife and conflict unfolding in Toronto — sharply juxtaposed with a horrific self-immolation in protest against China’s treatment of Tibet — is newborn Sophia.

The flames flap with a noise like laundry on a line. The fire is an orange column. A plastic bag pirouettes in mid-air. The camera, unsteady, lingers and lingers. And in the middle, the figure stands upright, stoic or suicidal. Pema thinks: she’s already dead.

It is Pema’s duty to marry a Tibetan, to have sweet- faced almond-skinned children. She wants to do her part. But when she plays scrabble with Jamal and Karma she wants what they have too.

Find a Tibetan? Karma raises one eyebrow high on her forehead; the eyebrow says I’m above all this nonsense. Here? That’s like going into Starbucks and ordering butter tea.

Pema’s parents and her sister are like warring nations, old foes skirmishing over a boundary line that shifts imperceptibly, never gaining any ground. What they need is a mediator, someone to broker a peace agreement.

Pema unscrews the nipple off the bottle and tries to think of a neutral topic. For a decade, it was just the three of them. By the time Pema arrived, the unexpected child, there was no place for a fourth party in the fray.

Amala asks about the baby. She calls her Tenzin Dolma.

Her name is Sophia, Karma says.

Pema is surprised. When had this been decided? Tenzin Dolma. Pala speaks with authority. This name will bring her good fortune.

Were you in labour for sixteen hours? Karma’s voice jumps up. Her name is Sophia Naomi Wilson.

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