Bubble Tea, Boba Liberalism, and Capitalism’s Effects on East Asian Diasporic Identity

Graphic by Furqan Jawed

There were few moments my young self loved more than when my family would take an afternoon-long grocery shopping trip. Every weekend, my brother and I would race each other to my dad’s gray Honda Civic (I beat him most of the time), situate ourselves on opposite sides of the back seat, and throw a random Harry Potter movie (usually the fourth) into the barely functioning DVD player to pass the fifty minute drive. 

We would stop at Costco first to buy a random assortment of important items: paper towels, onions, two percent milk, brand knockoff cereal, Kirkland signature bagels, a rotisserie chicken, the latest Dork Diaries book (for me), and raspberries. Then we would head to a large Chinese supermarket to buy what could only be found there: half-off china dining sets, lao gan ma, sesame rice balls, shrimp chips, and a fresh fish from the slightly sketchy seafood market. 

Our last stop would always be a Chinese deli across from the supermarket. They sold a variety of food: steaming pork buns, pig’s blood mixed with chives, scallion pancakes. But there was something I was more interested in.

“Baba, can I have a zhen zhu nai cha?”

A pearl milk tea (or at least that’s its rough English translation). Nowadays, in the US, it’s most commonly referred to as bubble tea or boba. The bubble tea that I drank from the Chinese deli wasn’t anything special. In fact, if I were to rank it amongst the numerous bubble teas I’ve had over the years, it would likely land near the bottom. The milk tea was sugary and artificial, the bubbles had an inconsistent texture, and overall, it looked mediocre. 

And yet, why is it that I look back on this pearl tea so fondly? Is it childhood nostalgia? 

It’s because I don’t have bubble tea anymore. I have boba. 

I know that to some people they mean the same thing. The terms can be used interchangeably. But for me and the community I grew up in, there was a noticeable shift from bubble tea to boba. Bubble tea was just bubble tea: a drink beloved by little kids and sold at small Chinese delis, bakeries, and restaurants. Bubble tea was fond memories of poking a colorful straw through a taut plastic covering, laughing in the backseat of the car with my little brother, and making (bad) inside jokes with my best friends. But as I learned in high school, boba isn’t just boba. It’s a commodity. 

After the Chinese supermarket my family used to frequent shut down due to renovations (read: health violations), we went elsewhere for our Chinese grocery shopping needs. We would go to the Chinese deli occasionally, but after another Costco and Chinese supermarket opened up, both of which were only twenty minutes away, our trips to the deli ceased. My only other options were to make bubble tea myself or go to a frozen yogurt place in downtown Princeton that sold it, neither of which sounded appealing. And so, that was the beginning of the end of bubble tea.

It wasn’t until my freshman year of high school that I got around to drinking bubble tea regularly again. A Kung Fu Tea store had opened across the street from the main gates of Princeton University, a prime location for college students and only a ten minute walk for local middle and high school students. Kung Fu Tea was the most savvy bubble tea shop in the area. With a decked out menu boasting a variety of flavors and toppings and the ability to adjust the level of ice and sugar, its popularity grew steadily. Still, it was reaching only a certain demographic: the young Asian American community. 

On certain days, instead of going to Starbucks or Dunkin’ my friends and I would walk to Kung Fu Tea, take an obnoxiously long time to scrutinize the menu and order an afternoon study drink before working at the public library for the rest of the day. 

At the time, bubble tea was still something I considered an ingroup thing—something only my friends in the East Asian diaspora community could relate to. In middle school, I often felt ostracized by my seemingly overwhelming “Asian-ness.” I didn’t have an American name, and I didn’t have the same experiences as my mostly white peers. But in high school, bubble tea was a connecting point. There were other people who had the same memories as me: a small shop far away that was their first taste of sweet milk tea and chewy tapioca pearls. It was comforting and reassuring. It was a sense of belonging to a broader, Asian diasporic community.

But somewhere in the middle of my sophomore year of high school, I felt it. That shift from bubble tea to boba. 

In September of 2018, a group of Asian Australian students founded the Facebook group “Subtle Asian Traits” to share memes and jokes about the Asian Australian experience. By the time my friend added me to the group on October 30, the group already had around 100,000 members. Today, the group boasts a whopping 1.9 million members and has produced multiple spinoff groups, such as “Subtle Asian Dating,” “Subtle Curry Traits,” “Subtle Anime Memes,” “Subtle Asian Gamers,” and more. 

What I found in “Subtle Asian Traits” was an enlarged version of the community I found in high school. We were a group connected by our hopes, our worries, our fears, and our culture. Posts in the group could garner thousands of reactions in less than an hour. All you needed was the right timing and a buzzword: boba.

On December 22, 2018, I posted a photoset of Pichu angrily clenching its fist, calming down, and smiling cutely. After consulting my friends, I decided on this caption: “when your girl is angry but you promise to buy her boba.” I shut off my phone and was later welcomed by over a thousand reactions and comments on my post. By the end of its successful run, my post achieved 3,700 reactions and 2,800 comments, all because I mentioned boba.

Nowadays, almost all content in “Subtle Asian Traits” is somehow related to boba. People post recipe instructions for green frog-shaped boba. People scream about boba AirPod cases. People dress up as boba. People dress up their babies as boba. People coo over their new boba nightlight. (I shamefully admit to purchasing one as well. It’s too cute to resist!) Somehow, boba has become a symbol of Asian American identity, and while I don’t think “Subtle Asian Traits” is single handedly responsible, it definitely made this idea more widespread. 

Unlike bubble tea, boba is commodified and commercialized. To me, bubble tea is my small friend group chilling in the middle of a hallway, slightly winded after a walk to town. While it’s marketed as a drink that captures the Asian American experience, boba is inauthentic and manufactured. Where else do you get phrases like “boba is life”? Whether or not it’s intentional, I see my fellow Asian American peers use boba to overcompensate for what they perceive in themselves as a lack of “Asian-ness.” They get boba everyday, they post boba pics on their social media, they judge other people on their boba tastes like it’s a matter of life and death. 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with boba entering the mainstream. And in the end, making boba a personality trait isn’t that harmful. But Asian Americans who only concern themselves with “boba” reflect a deeper, cultural disconnect within parts of the diaspora. Originally coined by Twitter user @diaspora_is_red (whose account is now suspended), “boba liberalism” is a term that refers to shallow, mainstream Asian American activism. It is used to describe the ethnocentric politics of Asian Americans, usually of East Asian descent, who exclusively advocate for issues that benefit themselves, without acknowledging problematic dimensions of their own history and working to support other people of color. Boba liberalists think that they are the solution to the systemic problems of racism and discrimination that we face today, when in fact, boba liberalism is an offshoot of these issues. However sweet and well-presented, there is no real intention behind boba liberals to educate themselves, grow, and fight. 

In a rapidly globalizing world, boba has dominated the conversation about what it means to identify as an Asian American. While my friends and I constructed a cultural community with bubble tea as one of many shared memories, boba has evolved to be an artificially sugary defining characteristic of the Asian American community. Conflating the consumption of boba and “Asian-ness” perpetuates the homogenization of Asian American identities, and it forces people to define who they are based on what they purchase. Even within my own group of friends, we poke fun and ask each other, “Are you even Asian if you don’t like boba?” 

But the truth is, you don’t have to like boba to be Asian. Consumption doesn’t define your identity. Boba only serves to make the largely diverse Asian diaspora more palatable to a “Western” audience, and corporations capitalize on the internal perpetuation of a vapid boba culture. It’s time for us to realize, recognize, and reexamine boba’s rise as an icon of the Asian American community.

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