How Boba Became Life
Clarissa Wei looks at bubble tea’s invasion, domination, and impact
Some call it bubble tea, most know it as boba, and it is everything. The Taiwanese drink identifiable by its trademark black pearls is a staple of Asian American culture, and thanks to Clarissa Wei its history is now in the books.
In the early 1990s, before the advent of specialty boba shops, boba milk tea in Los Angeles was just sweet tea in a…www.laweekly.com
Wei is a freelance journalist from Southern California, with the kind of career that makes me drool. A food writer and adventurer, her website lists all her bylines (which are many) and her Instagram documents her amazing travels. I met her twice in LA, once at a cooking class she taught with comedian Jenny Yang and again when she spoke about Asian Americans in journalism at the Kollaboration leadrship conference Empower. Knowledgable about food, culture, and the media, Wei goes beyond basic food writing as a review or recommendation and looks at how it gets to the table, who’s involved in the process, and what impact it has on who eats it.
I loved her article “How Boba Became an Integral Part of Asian-American Culture in Los Angeles” in LA Weekly because it was part history lesson on my favorite Asian snack, and a bit of a personal reflection on what the drink meant to her. She spoke to current college students living the boba life now, bubble tea shop owners, and her mother. Wei traced back boba’s invasion in southern California, its roots in Taiwan, and talked about her own experiences. Informative and a touching look at the impact of food — especially as a child of Taiwanese immigrants — Wei really nails how boba means more than a simple food craze:
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. We, after all, were the first boba generation.
As food-obsessed as our subculture is, it wasn’t so much the drink or the tapioca balls that defined our preference for a particular boba store. After all, most of the boba shops have the same distributors… What mattered was the space and the permanence of the shops.
It was a place where we could grab parental-approved beverages and hang out with our friends during the weekends. It was a place to cram for our important tests, and a spot for dates and for heartbreaks.
Quality didn’t vary as much (it still doesn’t) and we didn’t have as many options, either. In Arcadia, it was Tapioca Express with its grab-and-go counter; Quickly, with its cheap Taiwanese lunch specials; and AU79, which was pricier but had, in my opinion, better drinks.
AU79, for the record, remains my favorite shop of all time. Boba loyalty runs deep.
The truth is, at a certain point, you graduate from boba life.
But while boba may no longer be a daily part of your life, it’s still a part of you because it is where you meet up with your childhood friends. In your teens, it was daily. Then in college, monthly. Now it’s annually, if you’re lucky. No matter where you are in the world, eventually you will come back home to visit.
The best thing about Wei’s article is how it brings up my own memories of boba. Her writing makes you nostalgic for your favorite boba shop, the flavors, the friends, the conversations. The first time I read her piece I started thinking about the when I had boba for the first time, and how it eventually became a staple snack in my life.
It was at a family favorite restaurant in St. Louis’s tiny Chinatown, and in a strawberry smoothie. At first I didn’t like the pearls in the drink, I thought the chewy texture was weird. Then eventually, somehow, I loved what I grew up calling bubble tea and living in a small town outside the city meant bubble tea was a treat. When I found a specific bubble tea cafe with a whole menu of flavors it blew my mind. Here in Boston my friends and I go out for “boba” on the regular and we have our favorite places and drinks down to a science.
I was one of the first bubble tea lovers in my high school friend group, and remember trying to describe it to others only to get the standard grossed out reactions. A few years later, I go home to Missouri and see people walking around the Loop or Chinatown with their camo baseball caps, Cardinals jersey, and boba tea. I see friends who turned their noses up at the “fish eyes” posting on their Insta this great new boba place they just found. I see the New York Times write headlines like this:
Some food-trend predictions flourish and some fizzle, but they offer a glimpse of how our cravings have (or haven't…www.nytimes.com
I’m glad bubble tea crossed cultural barriers, that’s what food is meant to do. I also can’t help but feel a little bitter that so much of the mainstream has suddenly deemed boba worthy enough to grace with its attention. But it was never really about a drink or its acceptance, more importantly, it’s the binding power of food that’s become a part of our culture and always will be.
Wei’s article taught me a lot about the history of bubble tea, but more importantly it reminded me the ways a specific food impacts your life. As a cultural staple, food craze, and touch stone for a time in your life. Boba’s not going anywhere. From hidden menu item in Taiwanese restaurants to national phenomenon, boba is life for anyone who loves it.