The face is my goal—al-wijh—and though as a barista I once pulled hundreds of crema-crowned espresso shots daily, this, my friends, is different. On first attempt, my coffee stares up at me without a hint of creamy face. Flat, like a soda without carbonation.

When I ask our Jordanian neighbors about it with my newly acquired past-tense verbs—“I made coffee. It had no face”—the room bursts with suggestions: “The water was too cold.” “You didn’t give it enough time.” When I tell my Iraqi neighbor I used coffee from the supermarket, pre-ground and pre-packaged, she clicks her tongue at me. No.

Well. What’s a girl to do? I follow Amani into a roastery with displays of spices, nuts, and candy. She blesses the employee and orders two hundred grams of medium roast coffee with cardamom. He chooses beans from a row of bins and throws a few cardamom pods into the grinder after them. The next morning, Amani and I sit on her couch, sipping it sweet, looking at old sonogram photos of her daughter.

I change my method: At home, drink American coffee in big mugs with milk. Outside, drink Turkish-style coffee made by people who know what they’re doing. This strategy applies beyond coffee-making, too, to language and culture acquisition: Inside, speak English and act how I want. Outside, watch and listen and relearn what I’ve known for years.

I watch Medihah, a Syrian acquaintance, make coffee on the two-burner stove in her bathroom, a little vine crawling in at the tear in the window screen. (She doesn’t trim it because she believes God sent it to her, a friend in her Jordanian exile.) Listen to the boiling water pop above the blue gas flame, the spoon scrape round and round. See how she pours the coffee gently, though it sizzles and spits in protest on the hot sides of the long-handled metal pot. She murmurs a word that names this coffee tantrum—says it with a smile, like a mama watching her toddler throw a fit.

Shway, shway, the Arabs say, slowly, slowly. It’s a motto for life here, a way to live. Stop living by lists and scheduling; throw your goals out the window. Move slowly, slowly, or the coffee will sense your hurry and hide its face. Shway, shway, or the cardamom won’t have time to sink, and you’ll catch its piney grains in your teeth. Slowly, slowly, or you’ll wear yourself out with vocabulary before you’ve even begun, or you’ll skip clarifications when you don’t understand, or you’ll be running so fast you’ll miss life’s joy. Your neighbor will turn your empty cup onto its saucer and tap the sludge down to read your fortune, and it will not look good for you.

Watch your neighbor’s Bangladeshi housekeeper. Her back to you, she soaps up the coffee cups while chatting in Arabic, and you remember Naomi Shihab Nye’s lines: “Until you speak Arabic/you will not understand pain.” The problem is, you feel pain and still you do not speak. Jealousy cuts deep; the triple devils of comparison, competition, and condemnation rip you raw.

Shway, shway, they tell you, but you do not want to go slowly. You gulp your coffee, clawing for the lowered inhibition and speedy synapses caffeine promises, driving your desire for properly paired nouns and adjectives and un-botched verb conjugations. You want the voice of a bulbul. Like a nightingale, you want to open your mouth in full-throated song.

It will come, they say. And it will come, believe me, but only after you fall out of the nest—because someone knows you need humbling, a radical pruning back if you’re to have a chance at flourishing. You’ll fall far and hard and spend a time flapping your naked wings in the dust, blind. You’ll lie limp with your heart jumping out of your chest, watching your vision of your fluent, trilling self die.

And then, someone will pick you up, set you back in your place. You’ll wobble forward gratefully and figure out how to live. You’ll learn to sip your coffee, to say, “I don’t understand.” You’ll learn to catch your mistakes tenderly, in two hands, to release them without self-flagellation. You’ll allow words and expressions, dialects and idiolects to flow over you like water. You’ll walk along, slowly, slowly, until one day, in your neighbor’s kitchen, you’ll pour a cup of coffee with a golden face—proof that everything will be all right.

Heather M. Surls writing has appeared in places like River Teeth, Catamaran, Nowhere, Ruminate, and LETTERS. She is assistant editor of Anthrow Circusa mixed-media site exploring culture and society through the lens of place, and is working on her first book, an essay collection about Jordan and Israel/Palestine. She lives in Amman, Jordan, with her husband, a college professor, and her two sons.

Art by Sheila Squillante