I was recently doing work in an upstairs café in the middle of Ho Chi Minh City, like any good digital nomad. I arrived in between the breakfast and the lunch rush, grabbed a seat near the electric plug and set my laptop up after ordering one of Vietnam’s famous coffees. I had already sampled cà phê sūa da, the classic iced milk coffee. I loved the cà phê dùa, the coconut coffee, and cà phê trung, an egg coffee, was a real treat. So, my eyes lit up as the waiter smiled at me as he brought over a hot coffee topped with a phin, which is a little metal filter that allows the brew to drip down into the cup.
We were both smiling, in fact, until the last moment, when he proceeded to spill the entire cup all over me and my makeshift desk. His eyes widened as his saw the grinds and coffee all over my shirt, my bag and the floor. He immediately started apologizing and scrambling. Seeing that my computer was fine, I continued to smile.
See, I had it coming.
Rewind 23 years ago, and I did almost the exact same thing to someone else. I was sitting in a college lecture in New York City with what I can only remember as the biggest coffee ever. My beverage of the Gods (just some black mud purchased from a vendor on the street outside, certainly) was perched precariously on the narrow desk. It was the kind of writing space that attaches to a seat, which in turn is attached to a row of the same seats and desks in an effort to churn out as many debt-inducing graduates as possible. There was no place for a jumbo-sized reusable mug of joe. And I proved that point by knocking the entire thing over on to the girl in front of me.
Then, the most fascinating thing happened: She smiled. She shrugged. She actually acted like it was an improvement to her outfit to have an entire coffee spilled all over her. She gave me absolutely no ill will at all, and I totally deserved it because I was definitely negligent. I apologized, and she even waved that off. She was so cool about it.
And there in Saigon, upstairs at the M2C Café, I finally had the opportunity to return the favor. This is called karma, and I had waited all these years to be as cool as that girl was. So, I was. The waiter was sweating and shaking about the spill, and I put my hand on his shoulder and shook my head. It was really no problem, I told him. I rinsed my shirt in the bathroom and moved my stuff to another table. I smiled when he brought me a new coffee. I even paid for it. And I tipped him.
The best part? Somehow my shirt was completely fine. All the coffee came out in the laundry.
Karma, of course, is not always so direct. This law of cause and effect can also take lifetimes, if you believe it that. It’s an awfully good reason for why “bad things happen to good people,” though. See, that woman who was my coffee victim could have been a royal bitch, but that would have been on her. The fact that she reacted the way she did so many years ago simply served to remind me not to make that guy feel any worse than he already did.
In fact, I was thankful to that clumsy waiter. I was able to turn something that could have easily ruined my day into a gift. He gave me an opportunity to get rid of whatever I had coming to me, whatever I had done to make a little pot of coffee spill all over me.
You may be thinking that I didn’t really have anything to do with that spill. But, of course I did. It’s not as if the waiter tripped. No one pushed him. The only reason was that I had it coming. It was a little test to see how I was going to act. Was I going to keep negativity in my life and get pissed off? Was I going to play the victim? Or was I going to use it as an opportunity to make someone smile? It was really nice, when I left, to see that waiter smile at me.
Then, driving home on my scooter, I had to fight through crazy traffic. Saigon wins for the craziest traffic, with hundreds of scooters and cars coming at you from all sides, all the time. Everyone is constantly cutting in front of you and driving the wrong way. I bumped into a woman on an electric bike at a stop light. I turned and saw she was rubbing her hand. I asked her if she was OK. She nodded, and we exchanged understanding smiles. As I drove off, I was grateful that I had the wherewithal amidst all the chaos to care. It’s so easy to just push your way through life and forget that all the people around you are your neighbors.
I remember about six years ago I was in Costa Rica, traveling from San Jose to the coast when my bus stopped at a little bodega for refreshments. As I was picking out a snack, I heard a crash outside. I looked up and saw a car had rear-ended another. The driver from the second car, the one at fault, got out first. He was a teenage boy, and he put both hands on his head in horror at the damage he caused. The second driver, an older man, got out and approached the kid. And I witnessed something else amazing: Instead of yelling at the kid, the older man gave him a hug. Shit happens. That doesn’t mean we have to be mean to each other.
See, the random people around us are actually more than our neighbors. They’re also our teachers. That’s really the lesson of karma. We can all go up into the mountains, get away from everyone and meditate all day. But then we’d miss out on all the spiritual lessons from all cause and effect resulting in actions by the people around us all the time. Only when confronted with challenging situations can we decide how to live your life. Living in a city with more than 8.6 million people, I have a lot of opportunity to figure that out. Luckily, there’s lots of coffee to keep me going.