The American dream, like most dreams, can be a hazy thing. But Alice Mei and Terry Li came to the United States with a precise vision for their future: They wanted to open a coffee shop.

They had done it before. In their native Guangdong, China, they ran a successful coffee shop with two floors, 60 seats and 4 employees. Together, the husband-and-wife duo made the perfect team.

Their plan was to continue their passion in America, where they could be near Alice’s family and where their children, 12 and 2, could get a world-class education. But opening a coffee shop in the United States would be exponentially more difficult, because they couldn’t speak the language. Even shopping was a challenge, said Terry, who constantly referred to a dictionary for the simplest transactions. “You don’t have any experience to speak the English,” he said.

So they sought out the experience they needed. Within months of their arrival, the couple enrolled in “English for Customer Service,” a 7-week job training program provided through Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center and the Chinese Progressive Association. In the program, which is available to residents like Alice and Terry thanks to Neighborhood Jobs Trust funding, they learned norms of American customer service – such as smiling, shaking hands, and establishing eye contact – while working on their English.

By program’s end, Alice had landed a job as a food service worker, and Terry as a barista. For Terry, his elation at brewing coffee again was matched only by the thrill of earning his first money in America. He couldn’t help snapping photos of his first tips. Alice, meanwhile, could only think of the coffee shop they planned to open. She would rather go back to China, she said, if they couldn’t open their business.

“Find what you want to do,” she said. “Never give up.”

With that bulldog mentality, she scouted locations for their store and in February 2018 – just four months after finishing the English program and less than a year since arriving in the country – Alice and Terry opened APM Coffee at 99 Kneeland St. on the border of Chinatown and the Leather District.

The name is Alice’s brainchild, a reference to when they serve coffee – both a.m. and p.m. Morning and afternoon, you can find the couple manning the register, wiping down tables, serving coffee, sandwiches, and salads. Behind the drink station, Terry fusses over curlicues of latte foam and fresh pour-overs of direct trade coffee. He uses a Japanese bowl-and-whisk set to prepare the matcha (a pulverized, electric-green tea) that makes its way into fizzes, espresso drinks, even pancakes. Alice is quick on the scene to capture photos for social media, then just as quickly back to making food or helping a customer.

Images from the APM Coffee Facebook page

The fledgling language skills they learned in “English for Customer Service” have proven essential and only strengthened over time. Alice likes to tell the story of one of her early days on the register, when a young man from the apartment complex above the shop came in to place an order. “I could not catch his meaning,” she said. Frustrated by the communication barrier, he gave up and left. “I was so sad,” she said.

But the next day, the man came back again to place an order. This time she understood loud and clear: Banana pancakes! Now he comes in every morning for her banana pancakes. “He tells us we’re the best coffee shop in Boston,” she said.

For Alice and Terry, this is the stuff of their American dream – which like most dreams, tends to lead one to the next. Terry is already imagining what the future holds next in store.

“I hope my business is successful and we can have another branch and serve a lot of people,” he said. “I like their smile. I feel happy.”

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