In the 2013 music video “Bobalife” by the Fung Brothers, the rhythms and motifs of the eponymous “boba life” are familiar to anyone who spent a good part of their high school and college years drinking bubble tea with other young Asian Americans: strolling down sun-soaked streets sipping through oversized straws, abandoning a study session to satisfy a craving for chewy tapioca pearls, eschewing booze-fueled wild parties for nights of Jenga and milk tea with friends at a favorite local boba shop.
“We’re livin’ the boba life,” the chorus repeats. Another lyric, at the close of the song, proclaims: “The new drink of young Asians … Call us the boba generation.”
Bubble tea has been around in the U.S. since the ’90s, but it wasn’t until millions of people watched that YouTube video by Chinese-American brothers Andrew and David Fung that the phenomenon of “boba life” or “boba culture” was given a name, according to Clarissa Wei, a Hong Kong-based journalist (and Eater contributor) who grew up in California’s Asian-American enclave of the San Gabriel Valley. “It was as if, for the first time, people were able to define what the subculture was,” Wei tells me. “Because before … no one knew how to describe what was happening.”
What was happening, says Wei, was that there was a generation of young Asian Americans — originally primarily Taiwanese Americans, but inclusive of Chinese, East Asian, and other members of the Asian diaspora in the Valley near Los Angeles — who grew up hanging out every day in boba shops, where they studied, gossiped with friends, and went on first dates, all over the cold, milky, tapioca ball-filled drink that is bubble tea (or boba, or pearl milk tea, or zhenzhu naicha [珍珠奶茶], depending on where you’re from).
“As a Taiwanese-American kid growing up in the early 2000s in the San Gabriel Valley, the concoction was an integral part of my social life,” Wei writes in a 2017 LA Weekly article about how boba became synonymous with Asian-American youth culture in LA. Boba shops were, in her words, “our sacred gathering grounds.”
Unlike Wei, I didn’t grow up in a predominantly Asian community; from kindergarten through the end of high school, I was one of fewer than a dozen Asian Americans in my grade. It wasn’t until I got to college that I first laid eyes on bubble tea. The shop where I took my first sip, a place called Bubble Island just off of campus, soon became a centerpiece of my college life. Reflexively, as if to compensate for my 18 years surrounded by neighbors and classmates who didn’t share my background, I found nearly all my new friends in the university’s API (Asian Pacific Islander) student associations, which soon took up most of my extracurricular time. We would spend hours playing board games and chatting at Bubble Island. A couple years in, I could enter the store and, more often than not, spot someone I knew among the customers or working behind the counter. It felt like a kind of secret language for which only my Asian-American friends and I held the Rosetta Stone, a currency of exchange in a foreign landscape in which I otherwise felt lost and alone.
Boba culture isn’t limited to the San Gabriel Valley or the Midwestern campus where I surrounded myself with what I thought to be Asian Americana. It’s embedded in immigrant communities across California; in college towns dotting the country; in the steadily multiplying bubble tea shops that I walk past in New York. With the explosive growth of online communities like Subtle Asian Traits — the Asian diaspora-centric Facebook group that has accrued more than 1.5 million members little more than a year after it was created — the physical space is now supplemented by an intangible one. These online communities are border-transcending virtual bubble tea shops filled with an endless stream of memes, jokes, and confessions about boba, strict parents, and other markers of what is often imagined as the universal experience of children of Asian immigrants in the West.
Here, bubble tea, as in the material world of boba shops, is more than just a drink. Like other alimentary items that have become tokens of Asian-American popular culture — rice, dumplings, pho, soy sauce, Korean barbecue — it’s an identity. And that, of course, comes with its own complications.
The story of bubble tea is one of disparate parts coming together, a collision of cultural products and practices in one drink. Its origins date back much further than the last few decades, with historical roots in Middle-period China, according to Miranda Brown, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Michigan.
Although there’s a persistent belief that East Asian populations don’t consume dairy due to widespread lactose intolerance, by the time of the Tang Dynasty (618–907) in China, black tea (known as “red tea” in Chinese) was often drunk with butter, cream, milk, and other additives like salt and sesame, drawing from the practices of nomadic people in the north, Brown tells me.
“In fact, when Europeans first started showing up in China in the 17th century … they report drinking milk tea,” she says. Europeans took home the idea that tea had to be drunk with milk and salt or sugar, while the practice of adding dairy to tea eventually fell out of favor in China. When the colonial British returned to the country in the 19th century, they reintroduced milk tea back into the Chinese diet, as can be seen most clearly in former British colonies like Hong Kong, which has a tradition of milk tea made with condensed milk.
By the time tapioca starch, derived from the South American cassava plant, came to Taiwan via Southeast Asia during the colonial period, there was already a longstanding Chinese and Southeast Asian tradition of eating jelly-like starch desserts, such as sago pearls, in sweet soups. Tapioca balls, with their signature “Q” or “QQ” texture — the “untranslatable bouncy, rubbery, chewy consistency … treasured in Taiwan,” as Leslie Nguyen-Okwu wrote for Eater earlier this year — fit right into the larger historical southern Chinese culinary landscape, according to Brown.
The fusion of those two traditions — milk tea and chewy, gelatinous pearls — eventually gave rise to bubble tea. Milk tea, typically made with powdered creamer introduced in Taiwan by American foreign aid programs during the Cold War, was a “favorite local drink” prior to the 1980s, as Nguyen-Okwu reports. According to one of multiple competing origin stories, Liu Han-chieh, the owner of Taichung tea shop Chun Shui Tang, came up with the idea of milk tea chilled with ice in the early ’80s after seeing coffee served cold in Japan. The “bubble” in “bubble tea” refers to “the thick layer of foam that forms on top of the drink after it is shaken” in a cocktail shaker, per the South China Morning Post. The addition of large tapioca pearls, nicknamed “boba” in reference to the busty assets of Hong Kong actress and sex symbol Amy Yip, came in the late ’80s when a Chen Shui Tang staff member, Lin Hsiu Hui, poured fen yuan tapioca balls into her iced Assam tea, Lin tells CNN. And thus bubble tea, or “pearl milk tea” in Taiwan, was born.
From there, bubble tea made its way to the U.S. thanks to changing migration patterns, according to Yong Chen, a professor of history at UC Irvine and the author of Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America. After Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished the immigration policy that restricted the entry of Asians, Southern and Eastern Europeans, and members of other ethnic groups, waves of Taiwanese immigrants came to the U.S. from the ’60s through the ’90s.
Many of those immigrants settled in and had families in California — around LA, in particular — giving the state the largest number of Taiwanese immigrants in the U.S. in 2008. It was in those enclaves that boba culture took root in the early ’90s, introduced to young Taiwanese Americans by their families in Taiwan, and in turn introduced by those young Taiwanese Americans to other Asian Americans in their schools, neighborhoods, and social circles.
Those initial encounters with bubble tea in the LA area took place primarily in Taiwanese restaurants, served as an afterthought: “sweet tea in a thick Styrofoam cup, mixed with non-dairy creamer, ice and a spoonful of black tapioca pearls, which the staff kept in a bucket of syrup on the bottom shelf of a fridge,” Wei writes in her LA Weekly piece. In the late ’90s, the first dedicated local boba shop opened inside a food court in Arcadia; “by the early 2000s, a slew of shops dedicated to the beverage had opened. Ten Ren, Quickly, Tapioca Express, and Lollicup — all owned by immigrants of Taiwanese descent — were among the first businesses,” Wei wrote.
Those boba shops, as well as the drinks they served, were all about the same, Wei tells me: worn board games, Jay Chou’s Taiwanese pop playing in the background, teens spending hours drinking bubble tea on cheap Ikea furniture, the Asian-American equivalent of a coffee shop. It was about the physical space and what it facilitated — friendship, familiarity, the feeling of belonging — more than the drink itself, Wei says. (After all, the ingredients for the drinks in those early years all largely came from the same distributors, she notes in her LA Weekly story.)
For Phil Wang, co-founder of Wong Fu Productions — one of the original trailblazers of Asian-American YouTubers — and co-owner of the bubble tea-serving cafe Bopomofo Cafe in the San Gabriel Valley, having that space was important. In high school, he would drive 30 minutes from his home near Oakland to the closest boba shop at UC Berkeley. Throughout most of college, he worked at a boba shop, where he would wait for his friends to come hang out. After graduating, he moved to the San Gabriel Valley and often worked on early Wong Fu scripts in boba shops.
“As a teenager, I felt a lot of pride around this beverage,” he tells me. “In that era, I just wanted anything Asian” — that era being, specifically, the “AZN pride” period from the late ’90s to the early aughts, marked by an increased acceptance among Asian Americans of Asian pop-culture exports: anime, the first wave of K-pop idol groups, Filipino-American R&B groups like Kai. “Boba was part of that,” Wang says, explaining that boba was one of the first things that made him feel like Asian Americans had a cultural product of their own in the U.S. “I was like, wow, this is something uniquely Asian American … It’s something we can be unapologetically Asian about.”
It’s worth asking: Who gets to feel “unapologetically Asian”? When it comes to bubble tea’s outsized presence among the iconography of Asian-American pop culture and identity, the answer is, as is so often the case when talking about Asian-American issues, colored by an East Asian-American — and Chinese-American, in particular — hegemony that can erase or overshadow the experiences of other Asian Americans. Blockbuster rom-com Crazy Rich Asians, presidential candidate Andrew Yang, the groups and gaps glossed over by the model minority myth: There’s a tendency, when celebrating the accomplishments and milestones of Asian Americans, to be selectively forgetful of who counts as “Asian.”
“Please remember that [bubble tea]’s not as big of a thing across East Asia as a whole,” Tom Yoo, a 27-year-old Korean American in New York, tells me in the Facebook group Subtle Asian Eats, a Subtle Asian Traits offshoot focused on food. “I’m really happy that Asian culture in any form is getting so much recognition these days,” Yoo later says over the phone. “But at the same time, I’m Korean, and sometimes I feel like Chinese culture drowns out Korean culture.”
That lack of visibility is often compounded for Asian Americans of non-East Asian descent. For Alana Giarrano, a 23-year-old college student with an Italian dad and a mom who is Lao and Vietnamese, bubble tea is both a salve for and a reminder of how she frequently feels “invisible” in Asian-American spaces, including her school’s student organizations.
“Because I look a little more ambiguous, to prove my Asianness, I need to adopt the mainstream Asian culture that people know as Asian: drinking bubble tea, eating certain foods, using chopsticks,” Giarrano says. Those practices help her feel more Asian American, letting her take part in a larger experience and community through something like bubble tea. “I definitely do like these things, but I can’t divorce it from knowing that these things are seen as Asian, so that’s probably, subconsciously, why I love these things as much as I do.”
If the first cups of boba sold in California two to three decades ago were merely $1 afterthoughts to accompany meals in Chinese restaurants, now the drinks are undisputedly the stars — less styrofoam and powdered non-dairy creamers, more fresh milk and ethically sourced tea leaves.
“Back then, it was about having something cheap, affordable, kind of decent,” Oscar Ho, 25, tells me, reminiscing about how his family would make the trip from San Diego to LA to buy Asian groceries, eat Chinese food, and drink bubble tea when he was a kid. “But I feel like that generation has grown up and took it upon themselves to improve on that … More newer places, unique places, places more focused on quality and certain ingredients emerged.”
Ho is the manager of a San Gabriel Valley boba shop called Labobatory that boasts experimental “craft” drinks like Nutella milk tea with honey boba, made with locally sourced ingredients, with the goal of raising the standard of bubble tea in the U.S. “As you get older, you start thinking more about what you’re putting into your body — so just being transparent about what goes into our drinks is a way to win over new people,” Labobatory’s owner, Elton Keung, told Imbibe Magazine.
The new school of bubble tea shops, popularized by the success of chains like the San Francisco-born Boba Guys, which now has 15 locations, has ushered in a renewed consumer interest in bubble tea that started in the early to mid-2010s. Google Trends data shows a steady increase in interest over time for “bubble tea” and “boba tea” starting around 2012, with steeper inclines the past few years. The New York Times ran a trend story in 2017 about the swelling mainstream popularity of bubble tea (which the Times originally used the word “blob” to describe, to Asian-American readers’ discontent). The number of venues listed as “bubble tea shop” on location-discovery app and technology platform Foursquare has more than tripled in the last four years, growing from 884 in September 2015 to 2,980 in September 2019, according to data provided by Foursquare. The global bubble tea market, valued at $1.9 billion by Allied Market Research in 2016, is projected to reach sales of $3.2 billion by 2023.
This development has been compared to the emergence of third-wave coffee shops, but it’s become clear, talking to professionals within the industry, that there’s another parallel even closer to home: the evolution of Chinese-American restaurants, which are increasingly being opened by college-educated Chinese Americans who grew up in the U.S. or moved here for school, and whose stylish, regionally specific restaurants are the product of choice, rather than the necessity that drove their parents’ generation.
The first wave of boba shops in the San Gabriel Valley were also run by immigrant families, Wang points out, and so they had to cut costs and save money; it was more about survival than answering a calling. But now, in addition to the stores being brought to the U.S. by big brands in Asia — popular Taiwanese chain Tiger Sugar being one example — many of the new boba shops are opened by first- and second-generation Asian Americans. “They’re taking their Western influences and tastes, and they’re trying to adapt,” says Wang. “It’s going back to changing that narrative, where it’s not all the cheap stuff … It’s like, no, our communities are leveling up, too, and you should take us seriously.”
Both these trends are illustrative of ongoing shifts in globalization, migration, and economic and cultural power. Much like the surge of a new type of Chinese restaurant in tandem with the upward mobility of wealthier, better-educated immigrants and visitors from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, the current renaissance of bubble tea is symptomatic of the emergence of East Asia as a global power, says Krishnendu Ray, associate professor of food studies at New York University and the author of the book The Ethnic Restaurateur, in which he writes that Chinese cuisine, after a history of being devalued in American estimation, is likely to ascend in the “global hierarchy of taste” if China’s economic rise continues.
“To me, bubble tea is linked to the economic and cultural power of East Asia, and Taiwan is a perfect locus of that,” Ray tells me. Young professionals — and students in particular — with roots in the Sinosphere are flooding urban American centers, and bringing with them a thirst for bubble tea, a beverage familiar to Americans in its apparent similarities to iced coffee, yet vastly foreign in the QQ texture of the tapioca pearls, and custom-made for the aesthetic-driven era of Instagram. These drinks, historian Chen points out, have not been adapted to American tastes; indeed, bubble tea in the U.S. follows Asian trends closely, as can be seen with the recent stateside imports of newer variations like cheese foam tea and brown sugar boba.
“In some ways, it is a quintessential passing of the baton from American hegemony to East Asian hegemony,” Ray says. “It’s symptomatic of East Asia’s location — of East Asian urban culture — in the global circulation of taste.”
Yet despite the ways that bubble tea has been refashioned for a new age in global and American tastes, the young Asian Americans I spoke to all — deliberately or unconsciously — cited nostalgia as an inextricable force behind their affinity for boba.
“Bubble tea to me means home,” says Bhargava Chitti, 25, a medical student whose parents immigrated to New York from India in the ’80s. “It reminds me of home because I grew up drinking it in Flushing, and it’s emblematic of this abstract idea of home rooted in the Asian-American community and the global Asian diaspora at large. It’s given me home everywhere that I go.”
Home. It’s a fraught invocation when home is no longer the ancestral land from which we or our forebears departed. Nor is it the land where we have built our lives anew (made even more complicated when our adopted country is responsible for the conditions that led to an entire diaspora, as is often the case when dealing in colonialist legacies).
Bubble tea’s conjuring of home, then, works on two levels: a yearning for the imagined home denied to us by the diasporic condition, as well as a sense of nostalgia for the closest approximation — the boba shop, functioning as a “third place” in both the literal and figurative sense. Asian-American expressions of longing for the boba shops of one’s youth are not just about the physical space, or the drink, or the companionship; they’re as much about the time, however fleeting, spent within the bubble of comfort and belonging. It’s about missing the period of your life when you could afford to let bubble tea occupy such a large part of it.
Because eventually, for nearly everyone, there comes a time when life no longer revolves around the local boba shop. You grow up, you move out, you drift away from the things that you once thought made up the entire world. You stop worrying too much about how to belong, and start thinking about how to live.
“The truth is,” Wei writes for LA Weekly, “at a certain point, you graduate from boba life.”
While every culture has its own set of vital dishes and culinary traditions, it’s striking how much of the pantheon of symbols of Asian-American identity comprises food and drink. These icons, from bubble tea to Pocky to ramen, are not just objects to consume, but also to wear and display, to trade as inside jokes, to signify and perform a shared idea of identity.
This motif is, at its core, “food pornography,” writes Miami University associate professor Anita Mannur in a 2005 essay, in reference to Asian-American literary critic Sau-ling Cynthia Wong’s use of the term. “Defining it as an exploitative form of self-Orientalization in which Asian-American subjects actively promote the ‘exotic’ nature of their foodways, Wong argues that ‘in cultural terms [food pornography] translates to reifying perceived cultural differences and exaggerating one’s otherness in order to gain foothold in a white-dominated social system … superficially, food pornography appears to be a promotion, rather than a vitiation or devaluation, of one’s ethnic identity.”
Think of the stories, movies, and shows that we prize and canonize as landmark representations of our community: for example, the Netflix rom-com Always Be My Maybe, which promotes a tired myth of culinary authenticity in its plotline about a celebrity chef; and Crazy Rich Asians, which presents so many dazzling arrays of food that it’s torturous to sit through the film on an empty stomach. Lulu Wang’s The Farewell stands out among recent examples for its twisting of the oft-recited platitude that “food is love”; here, food is as much a burden as it is a source of joy, a rare departure from Asian-American narratives that typically fetishize the acts of cooking and eating.
I can’t necessarily fault Asian Americana for doing so; as Mannur writes: “[F]or Asian American cultural politics, the apparent conflation of food and ethnicity holds particular significance. For many consumers in mainstream America, food is often the only point of connection with racialized subjects, such as Asian Americans.”
Food is a tangible product, made for consumption; in more sentimental terms, it has been frequently described as a “universal language” that transcends borders or backgrounds. In the U.S., a land in which immigrant groups have lived in constant and varied states of assimilation, food is both a temporary portal to one’s point of origin and a potential path forward. “Food is the one thing right now, at least in Western culture, that if you’re really Asian or really authentic, it’s praised,” says Wang. “Food is something where we can truly be ourselves. And it’s like, you have to come into our world.”
For Asian Americans — whose history in this country is one of being treated as the perpetually foreign Other, meant to be both “integrated into the national political sphere” and “marginalized and returned to their alien origins,” as interdisciplinary scholar and Yale University professor Lisa Lowe writes in the book Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics — the promise of food as a universal language is impossibly tantalizing, and with each passing year seems more within reach than ever. Once-“exotic” dishes like xiao long bao, bún bò Huế, and sisig have become shorthand for the kind of worldliness and trendiness that non-Asian, urban-dwelling Americans aspire to. Bubble tea appears on major network television shows, not as a novelty, but as a normalized mainstay. There is, after so long, at least a growing visibility that gestures at some form of acceptance.
But mere representation and a shrinking distance between Asian Americans and mainstream white respectability isn’t a substitute for meaningful politics. Therein lies the danger of conflating food and identity in a mass culture of consumption and commodification. “Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture,” bell hooks writes in her essay “Eating the Other.” The commodification of difference, according to hooks, threatens to flatten and cannibalize the difference while stripping it of all historical context and political meaning. “As signs, their power to ignite critical consciousness is diffused when they are commodified. Communities of resistance are replaced by communities of consumption,” hooks writes.
While bubble tea itself is neither inherently political nor bad, per se, some Asian Americans are critical of the dominant strain of Asian-American politics, called “boba liberalism,” that the drink has come to represent in certain circles. Boba liberalism — as defined by Twitter user @diaspora_is_red, said to be among the first to coin the term — is the “substanceless trend-chasing spectacle” that is mainstream Asian-American liberalism, derided as shallow, consumerist-capitalist, and robbed of meaning.
“It’s a sweet, popular thing. It’s not very offensive,” @diaspora_is_red, identified using the name Redmond, says on the Asian-American publication Plan A Magazine’s podcast, referring to both the drink and the politics. “But it’s also not that good for you from a health point of view. It’s just empty calories.”
Boba liberalism, as Redmond (who declined to be interviewed for this piece) explains it, is “thinking the university key club and API student associations will lead the way in fighting for the dignity of the asian diaspora, in securing real material benefits to their communities, and rectifying the colonial crimes of the host country.”
It’s: “thinking t-shirts, products, and merchandise are the main way of affirming one’s racial identity. It’s capitalist consumption presented as ‘API-ness.’ Buy more crazy rich asians tickets, sell more boba, go to raves, wear this brand. It’s reliant on capitalism.”
And: “wanting to reconnect with your roots by [...] drinking bubble tea, getting added to subtle asian traits, and organizing fundraisers for your asian student association, but never studying your history and feeling solidarity with your homeland against imperialism.”
Andrew Yang and his embrace of contentious model-minority stereotypes (and alcoholic boba) are boba liberalism. So is rallying around representation in Hollywood only insofar as it affects what we see on our screens. Tolerating an abhorrent, morally bankrupt presidency as long as it guarantees lower tax rates, stable housing prices, likelier admission to Ivy Leagues, and the promise of the American dream our immigrant parents had aspired to so long ago: boba liberalism. In Redmond’s words: “All sugar, no substance.”
While the Fung Brothers’ “Bobalife” music video has racked up more than 2.3 million views in the six and a half years it’s been up, not nearly as many people know that there’s a follow-up: “Bobalife II: Pearls Gone Wild,” a tongue-in-cheek song that has been viewed only half a million times — the “indie” sequel, if you will. In the video, the Fungs satirize three genres of music, accompanied by the usual plethora of girls, bros, and Asian-American motifs. Among the lyrics, one set of lines stands out, unexpected in both its self-awareness and its pointedness: “Another boba song, don’t know how we did it. They say that these are gimmick songs, but tell me, how can this be wrong when this is just our lives?”
The original form of bubble tea brought together disparate elements — Chinese tea, tapioca from South American cassava, American powdered creamer — into a Taiwanese whole, one that gained global purchase and entered the shared vocabulary of an entire diaspora of Asian Americans. The label “Asian American,” too, is an assemblage of different parts into one historically fraught grouping. It’s “not a natural or static category; it is a socially constructed unity, a situationally specific position, assumed for political reasons,” Lowe writes in Immigrant Acts.
But as fabricated as the cobbling together of “Asian American” was half a century ago, and as many “internal contradictions and slippages” as there are within that pan-ethnic coalition, in our fractured history, it has come to mean something: a thread of a shared experience; some semblance of aligned values; a “hard-earned unity,” in Lowe’s words.
Bubble tea is a gimmick, a meme, a stereotype, but it’s also a reference point for identity that generations of Asian Americans have used to cleave out their own place in the world, in ways both small and big, from eschewing Starbucks in favor of Boba Guys to opening a boba shop that can serve as a community gathering place. This is our lives.
In his influential 1996 essay “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” cultural theorist Stuart Hall writes of identity:
Cultural identity [...] is a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being’. It belongs to the future as much as to the past. It is not something which already exists, transcending place, time, history and culture. Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture and power.
There is something irredeemably maddening about tying so much of one’s cultural identity to an object of commodified desires, as young Asian Americans have done with bubble tea over the decades. But the thing about identity, as Hall points out, is that it can be just as much about “becoming” as about “being”; identity is who we were, who we are, and who we will become. Now is as critical a time as ever — culturally, politically, morally — to consider the image of ourselves that we want to construct, using our shared language and iconography. It matters how we choose to identify ourselves. It matters, in other words, how much substance we take with our sugar.
Janet Sung is a Korean-American illustrator born and raised in New York.