Starbucks Hates Chinese Learners

I’d say that the Chinese name of Starbucks’ new flat white coffee is adequate proof that Starbucks hates Chinese learners. (The other piece of proof is that Starbucks employees in China probably play the fiercest language power struggle game of any other group I know.) Anyway, the Chinese name of the flat white is 馥芮白:


Yeah, don’t feel bad if you don’t know those first two characters. They’re not at all common. And that fist character… wow.

A little more info about the two hard one characters:

– 馥 (fù) fragrant. (The right half is the you might know from 复旦大学.)
– 芮 (ruì) small / surname. (I am familiar with this one mainly because of the “Réel” mall (芮欧百货) near my office.)


So in this case, even if you’re trying hard to use Chinese as much as possible, I’d say don’t feel bad if you took one look at this Chinese name and opted to use English.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I really don’t think hanging out at Starbucks is the best place for Chinese language learners. Ditto for Pizza Hut, or western bars or western coworking spaces, etc. Go local if that’s your primary goal.

    I learned that long ago in Taipei, where the expectation for westerners to speak English is much greater than Shanghai, even. After my Chinese was much better, then I returned to more western places.

  2. I get my coffee each morning at $tarbucks, but haven’t noticed the “Flat White” signage, maybe because at that time I haven’t had my coffee yet 😉 I’ll have to look and see if they use the same name/characters here in Taiwan.

    As for the ‘language power struggle’, how does it go there? Do the baristas use Chinese no matter what? or do they insist on English with foreigners even when the foreigners’ Chinese is more than adequate?

    Here in Taiwan, the baristas typically have good basic English but I’ve never seen the power struggle occur at a Starbucks. If anything, I have seen them bite off more than they can chew when the foreigner switches from Chinese to full on English resulting in everything coming to a screeching halt.

    • I’ve encountered Starbucks baristas who are DETERMINED to speak English, even if I’ve ordered in Chinese, and even if their English is a little confused. I thought it was a coffeeshop policy because they’re so determined to use English with me!

  3. Update.. No ‘Flat White’ here, at least not at this $tarbucks. Would not surprise me if we never have it here. For example, no Pumpkin Spice Latte here either 🙁

  4. 我也觉得“馥芮白”很难!I just failed to call the word yesterday.

  5. The workers at my local Starbucks normally speak English upon first seeing me, but switch to Chinese as soon as they realize I can speak well enough to handle ordering a coffee. I normally avoid Starbucks though since because their coffe is horribly overpriced. Why pay ¥22 for an Americano when the locally owned shop down the road has a better tasting one for ¥15?

  6. I disagree — when I ordered my first Starbucks flat white there was a thrill of accomplishment when I guessed at the pronunciation of 馥 (because of the 复字旁) so I think really, Starbucks is just in it to reward those of us hopeful enough to try to pronounce random characters with simple guesses 😉

  7. Hey John…I don’t mind so much that Starbucks folks uses rare characters in their drinks’ names and it is probably helpful to Chinese learners…but someone above hit the nail on the head when they mentioned it must be Starbuck’s policy to speak English [to anyone that appears “non-Chinese.”] I have been in Starbucks in China where the baristas appear to be absolutely hell bent, as if their life depended on it, on speaking English. Dear Starbuck’s people: it is ok to speak Chinese (in China). Trust me…you will have many non-Chinese customers appreciate this. Thank you!

  8. “不好意思,我的英文很差”: Every time someone speaks to me in English when I want to speak Chinese, this is the response I give. It never fails: I just can’t believe it took me 4 years to think of it!

  9. Any chance you could include the translation & definition for all the characters? As someone who is just beginning to learn Chinese but isn’t nearly at the level you are, this article would be far more helpful if it defined all 6 Chinese characters above the words “Flat White” in the Starbucks sign pictured, rather than just 馥 and 芮. Thanks!

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