“Ew, what are those black things at the bottom? That looks so gross.”
I remember elementary school me brimming with embarrassment and bewilderment when the other kids — none of whom were Asian — began to make faces at my beloved bubble tea. They rudely guessed what the slimy black balls might taste like, none daring to take a sip when I offered.
I had gone to lunch with my parents and got a bubble tea “for the road” as I went over to a white classmate’s house to work on a school project. Walking in with my favorite drink, I felt really special, like a kid walking into a playdate with her favorite toy. I was not prepared for my friends to stare at my plastic cup with disgust.
“Well, I like it!” I exclaimed, cheeks flushed.
I grew up in an America where Asian food was not considered “cool.” You know that scene in Fresh off the Boat where young Eddie Huang’s classmates teased him for his “smelly” lunch and he begs his mom for Lunchables — that was me.
It may seem odd to hear such a negative reaction when bubble tea is currently pervasive in most major cities around the world. According to my Googling, bubble tea is a multi-billion dollar market growing at 8% a year. I now see people of all ethnicities enjoying bubble tea. So I’ll bet those kids who made fun of my bubble tea have probably tried it at some point. Maybe they even like it.
Imported from Taiwan
This drink originated in Taiwan, the homeland of both my parents. It’s usually a combination of some sort of milky tea with chewy tapioca balls as toppings (the “boba” or “pearls”). It’s is known by many names in the US — boba milk tea (波霸奶茶), pearl milk tea or its cool-kid-friendly acronym “PMT” (珍珠奶茶), or bubble tea (presumably an actual English word that borrows the “b” sound from “boba”).
I grew up in North Texas where most people called it “bubble tea” in English. I have always called it “波霸” or “boba” when speaking in Taiwanese or Mandarin, as it has been the slang name among Taiwanese speakers for decades.
I realize that few know that “boba” translates to “big breasts.” (Similar to other creative names like “Grand Teton”…) Originally, the tapioca balls in the drink were smaller (aka “pearls”). As the topping grew in circumference, the name evolved to convey its larger size. (Note, this etymology lesson is 50% informed by Taiwanese Wikipedia and 50% confirmed by my Taiwanese mother.)
Taiwan holds a special place in my heart, even if I have never considered it home. After my sporadic childhood visits, I have learned to love the bustling sights and aromas of the night markets, the vibrant colors and packed halls of the temples, the quiet serenity of the tea farms in the countryside, the efficiency and cleanliness of the zipping Taipei metro. Taiwan was also a place where the shopkeepers would know immediately that I was foreign-born from the way I walked into their store. I remember returning to my grandparents’ home and searching in the mirror for signs of “American-ness” on my yellow face.
As part of the Taiwanese diaspora, I cannot help but feel indignant on behalf of a country that has never been mine. I understand that even the use of the word “country” in the prior sentence is bound to draw ire. But I do not know how else to describe a place with its own democratically elected national government, military, currency, and unique history.
When I look at shrunken down world maps that have omitted the tiny island off the coast of China, I feel a deep sense of erasure.
I watched with bitterness as the Taiwanese government welcomed US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar only to have him butcher the name of the Taiwanese president. He allegedly called her “Xi,” the name of the current Chinese leader and Taiwan’s geopolitical nemesis, instead of “Tsai”. Erased.
A pang of resentment washed over me when I saw the Taiwanese government’s full page ad in the New York Times asking to be let back into the WHO. The ad promised that Taiwan could help improve the global response to COVID-19. #TaiwanCanHelp #Erased
When the Taiwanese government announced a passport redesign “contest” earlier this year, several of the submitted cover designs featured images of bubble tea. Imagine that: a passport featuring a beverage that has captured the global imagination. The final design ultimately is similar to the original, just with “Taiwan” instead of “Republic of China” in bold English letters. Nevertheless, it goes to show how bubble tea has become a beacon of national pride.
You might wonder, why does any of this context matter?
Every time I see a CoCo Fresh or a Gong Cha or a ShareTea in the US, I feel less erased. Every time I see Ten Ren teabags or Chi Mei buns in the Asian supermarket amid rows of “Made in China” brands I don’t recognize, I feel a little more seen. I cannot begin to express the rush I felt when I first saw Taiwanese pineapple cakes at Costco in Texas.
It is natural to feel a bit unwelcomed as an immigrant in this country. It feels even more alienating when the place your family is from isn’t even recognized by the American government.
Drinking to Hyphen Americans
I rarely get bubble tea when I’m in Taiwan. Candidly, there is so much good food to be had, I can’t spare the calories. So when I think of bubble tea, I don’t think about family vacations on the island. I think about Saturday lunches in Chinatown as a child, or mid-afternoon hangouts with my Asian-American posse in high school, or study breaks with the Taiwanese Cultural Society in college.
When I was a kid, a large bubble tea was $2.50, cash only, from a Chinatown cafe in Richardson, Texas. I would count out the quarters exactly on the counter, waiting excitedly for a chewy sugar rush.
As I grew older, I remember my parents commenting on how the machinery changed. The drinks used to be stirred and mixed by hand in a martini shaker. Some years later, the cafe got a snazzy machine that automatically shook the drink. My parents joked that the elderly couple who ran the cafe were getting too tired to shake the drinks by hand and imported some help.
My parents would often tell me not to add ice, or even force me to get the drink hot in the winter. I still don’t quite understand how ice disrupts my “chi,” but as a filial daughter, I’ve tried to listen to my parents. I remember the look of confusion from my non-Asian friend when I got hot bubble tea in the dead of winter. (So the adjustable levels of ice are not just to make sure you get more milk tea; it’s also because many Asians don’t like ice…)
In the mid-2000s, news broke that Taiwanese investigators discovered traces of plastic in the tapioca powder. My parents swore off bubble tea. I went from having the drink once a month to maybe once a year at best.
Almost twenty years later, bubble tea has returned as one of my pick-me-up staples when I have a rough day. I feel a wave of comfort with each sip. I now pay more than double my childhood price for an “artisanal” bubble tea in San Francisco. I watch a white hipster in a beanie vigorously shake my drink by hand. I don’t tell my mother because she is still concerned that there is plastic in the tapioca.
In truth, bubble tea was always more than just a drink to me. Bubble tea shops served as an oasis for many of us first-generation Asian-Americans. Here, we would gather, sometimes playing hooky from our test prep classes, with our Asian-American friends. Like the American-based bubble tea shops we sat in, we were rooted in one heritage while operating in another.
Bubble tea shops felt like the one public place I could unabashedly relish in the entirety of my Asian-American-ness. I could talk in Chinglish without fear of judgment. I could obsess about the latest episode of whatever Taiwanese idol drama my friends and I were watching, or the newest Jay Chou single. We could joke about the latest KevJumba video or wax poetic about whatever sappy Wong Fu short just dropped. Though some of this content doesn’t quite stand the test of time, these YouTube stars were the only glimpse I had growing up that my experience was real. I came of age before Linsanity or Crazy Rich Asians or global chart topping K-pop bands. These local bubble tea shops were a rare watering hole where I could fully experience my identity as a Taiwanese-American.
For the majority of my childhood, bubble tea shops in my Texas suburb largely remained a well-kept secret among Asian-Americans, especially ABCs (American-born Chinese) and ABTs (American-born Taiwanese). Non-Asians rarely ventured inside, and if they did, they were usually chagrined to discover there wasn’t any “normal” green tea.
Recently, my university newsletter published some recommendations on treats to get around campus. The writers praised the campus cafe (a non-Asian local chain) for its bubble tea, while throwing some shade at the Boba Guys a few blocks away. I couldn’t help but feel a bit of that familiar erasure.
It’s true, Boba Guys certainly isn’t the bubble tea of Taiwan or my childhood, nor is it infallible. Yet, to me, Boba Guys represented something more: the idea that we as “hyphen Americans” could own our identity. We can take the insular bubble tea shop experience of our adolescence, mix it with the nostalgia of visiting our parents’ homeland in Asia, and sprinkle in some Instagram-friendly vibes and oat milk to make an experience all our own.
I felt proud when I saw Andrew Chau, co-founder of Boba Guys, testify in front of Congress in March as an Asian-American small business owner. It made me think of all the immigrants who came before us to this country, started restaurants and cafes, but were left out of the conversation when it came to policies to support their development.
“Growing up as perennial outsiders, we sought refuge and built businesses across Chinatowns, Japantowns, and other ethnic enclaves scattered throughout the country. And even if you didn’t grow up in these enclaves, I’m sure many people — including those in this room — have stumbled into a Chinatown noodle shop or Korean BBQ joint at 1 am. You can always count on these establishments to be open late and bustling, often run by first and second generation immigrants, hustling to make ends meet, chasing what was once the goal of every immigrant in this country: the American Dream…”
It breaks my heart to see Chinatowns across the US facing economic hardship. From New York City to San Francisco to my hometown suburbs in Texas, the Asian-American experience is drastically changing. Nonetheless, these enclaves, like the bubble tea shops of my youth, occupy a precious place. These spaces are the cornerstone of my immigrant family’s existence. They provide a haven where we don’t need to justify our presence or speak an unfamiliar language. Here, we don’t have to worry about people turning their nose up at our favorite dishes or drinks.
Bubble tea’s recent rise in the West has been a fascinating case study in globalization and localization. To me, bubble tea is and always will be more than just a trendy alternative to a Frappuccino. Bubble tea is a connection to the place my immigrant parents came from and a way I connect with other Taiwanese-Americans.
What happens when something rooted in a specific cultural heritage gets reimagined in an American context? How can we appreciate these things, from bubble tea to yoga to tacos, in an Americanized way without erasing the heritage and story they bring? How can we as “hyphen Americans” honor the traditions of our respective motherlands and keep these spaces alive for future immigrants? How can we do all of that while making space for others not of our culture to partake in this experience and join the conversation?
I don’t know exactly how to answer these questions, to be honest. But all I do know is I hope the voices of the Taiwanese diaspora are not erased from this conversation.