Boba is customarily composed of four main ingredients: tea, milk, sugar, and the traditional tapioca balls for which boba is best known for. Yet, each ingredient is, on its own, an intrinsic part of a whole.
But for the American youth, boba transcended beyond just a ‘dessert’ a long time ago. Growing up, particularly in the Bay Area, this sweet drink was a childhood constant alongside Mac Dre, the thizzle dance, and other cultural phenomenons distinctly ‘Bay’. Boba was there for hopeful first dates, chaotic times spent with friends in raucous laughter, and even in times spent stifling tears and mending heartbreak. Boba became more than just a perhaps diabetes-inducing dessert but a social glue that connected wayward children to each other in any way possible. Boba shops became more than just a temporary resting place but stomping grounds for teenage souls to gather, more than a study spot but a place that witnessed both the ups and downs of the sometimes brutal process of growing up.
And particularly for Asian-Americans, boba became a testament to Asian perseverance in a country very far and very different from home. Brought to the United States in the 90s, boba didn’t become the new ‘coffee’ or ‘ice cream’ overnight. Boba, in its most simplistic form, was symbolic for the Asian passage to the United States, a journey that was surely fraught with fears of being unsuccessful or not accepted. It was new, different, difficult to ingratiate into American society, but, somehow, in its own way was able to find its own niche in America. Now, you see mom-and-pop boba shops on many a corner and boba becoming an almost $4.3 billion industry in the U.S. by 2027. But most importantly, you see boba slowly finding its own place in the melting pot that is American society.
Tea, milk, sugar, and tapioca balls, on their own, have very different identities in the eyes of the world. But together, they form something truly incredible. This unique combination of ingredients that could easily stand alone is something beyond just a nice treat at the end of a long day but a tangible symbol of something more: the changes of childhood to adulthood, the many difficulties embedded in immigrant stories, the seemingly conflicting identities that somehow work together beautifully in the end. And as boba is only projected to gain in popularity, this symbolic nature is something that should not be forgotten. So the next time you say “Let’s grab boba” instead of “Let’s grab a coffee”, I want you to smile and remember why and how exactly this came to be.