Guest Column: Boba as Asian-American identity

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Photo by Serena Maria Daniels

Whether you call it “boba,” “bubble tea,” “pearl milk tea,” or 珍珠奶茶 (zhen zhu nai cha), the milk tea-based tapioca drink has been undeniably taking over Michigan. Most recently, popular boba chain CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice opened its doors in April in Ann Arbor, with soft opening lines reaching up to two hours. Whether it be well-known brands entering the Michigan market, such as the new Kung Fu Tea Sterling Heights location, or homegrown brands like Detroit’s very own Tou & Mai, Michigan is taking on the boba craze with enthusiasm.

For people like myself, boba is not a recent trend or temporary fashion. It was integrated into the life I know. Living in Shanghai during my middle school years, I used to beg my parents for pocket money so I could go to the neighborhood boba stand. I always cycled through phases of what my favorite concoction was: chocolate milk tea with pudding, mango milk tea with boba, lavender milk tea with rose jellies. When I moved back to America, it became a way of connecting to other Asian-American kids around me. Drinking boba with my friends was an avenue for us to reconcile two cultures we could never wholly belong to.

In our eyes, boba was something not traditional to our motherlands, but very much not what we were taught to perceive as “American.” It was something in the middle, like us.

This is because a key footnote in being Asian-American is that the identity is fragmented. Not just the wide range of ethnicities under this umbrella, but the distinctions we hold as being monoracial or multiracial, adopted, first or fourth-generation, splinter this monolithic experience even beyond the simple truth of our individualities.

What I’ve found is that boba was a commonality in our experiences that allowed us to form a culture of our own – the Asian-American identity. Anyone can try boba. Even if you grew up in a predominantly white town, or never visited the motherland in your life, boba is a platform that so many Asian-Americans can use to not feel excluded from their Asianness, and relate to people who look like them, even if they are completely different as individuals.

This boba identity theory of mine is most validated in digital spaces centered around  Asian-Americans. Whether it be the countless memes on Instagram, thousands of comments on the Facebook group “subtle asian traits,” or cringey YouTube videos with millions of views, boba-centric content resurfaces again and again to great popularity. Everyone is on a journey to figure out their own identities, and what these identities mean to them individually, but I believe boba could be a cornerstone of the modern Asian-American identity. And in Michigan, where the Asian-American population has seen dramatic growth, boba shops are popping up all over the state, creating even more ways to explore our identities. So bring on the boba – make it a large with extra pearls.

We’ve mentioned a few of the boba shops that have sprung up as of late. But maybe you’ve got a favorite go-to. Comment and let us know the spots we should be checking out!

This article was made possible by the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, that’s working to increase quality journalism and help better inform communities.

Steffi Cao

Author: Steffi Cao

Steffi Cao is a student at the University of Michigan studying communications, with a focus on media diversity and representations of Women of Color. Besides writing (a lot) about issues pertaining to Asian-Americans, she is passionate about politics, performing arts and education. She hopes to work in the media industry or teach at the university level.

Find her on Twitter and Instagram @steffay_ !

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