Boba shops: Bursting the bubble


Haley Puri

Vivi Bubble Tea features fun decor

Haley Puri, Reporter

The sweet smell of taro tea, the bitterness of the matcha, bright lights, and almond-eyed people all around—this is the epitome of the ultimate Asian American experience: a bubble tea shop. The place where fellow Asian American children, teens, and adults came to study for finals, gossip with friends, or to simply sit over a cold milky tapioca-filled drink that has revolutionized Immigrant Culture.

The tea could be seen as a symbol for Asian history—”trendy, sweet, and not very offensive” says twitter user @diaspora_is_red.

Although the rise of boba shops not only in our community, but nationwide, have become more apparent, it leaves us to question what exactly this means for the Asian Communities.

For those who don’t know, boba, according to Lollicup—by far the biggest boba distributor—is defined as “made from tapioca flour/starch which is derived from the cassava root. The flour is rolled into balls and boiled until it has a chewy consistency”

From here, it is added into any type of tea one would like, whether it be a bitter oolong, or a tart mango tea, and to any sweetness desired. It is usually made with non-dairy milk too, as most Asians are notoriously lactose intolerant, and may even include a choice of more toppings like pudding or jelly.

The drink originated in Taiwan during mid 80s and made its immigration to the U.S. along with its makers in the early 2000s. It was here that the nonstop growth of these shops started. Social media and word of mouth have been the main vehicle spreading these shops all over the country.

Rena Henderson, UAIS sophomore and boba fanatic, says that they go to a variety of bubble tea places including, “Kung Fu Tea, QQ Bakery, Quickly, and Bambu” just to name a few.

Henderson points out the distinction between normal cafes and ones that specialize in boba: “I see my own people but feel watched in regular cafes.”

Henderson also said they “enjoy the faces of friends when they light up from the tasty drink” and the distinct music selection of all these places.

Vy Hoang, a junior who works near a local boba shop called Kung Fu tea, says that “there are a lot of people my age who work at boba shops. It seemed like such a fun and easy job.”

Her job is what you would expect: making teas, taking orders, and wiping counters.

Hoang also said, “I love that it [boba] somehow became a cultural identity for Asian Americans.”

So, what is all the hype around these drinks? Quite simply, it’s the perfect place for people of all ages to hang out over a cheap cup of tea. It’s a place with crusty gameboards in the back, k-pop blasting in the background, dramas being displayed, and stained furniture from Ikea. Places may vary in aesthetics; some cater towards more modern, scientific themes like Bubbleology, located in the Mall at Partridge Creek, whereas some display more cartoony and cute themes like ViVi Boba. Then there is QQ bakery, a smaller, sort of rundown, traditional establishment that was the first of its kind near Sterling Heights.

These shops, like most things in Asian Culture, became super trendy and surface level very quickly. When the culture is quite literally boiled down to a drink, it becomes almost problematic to use it to falsely validate the Asian American identity. There is still a long way to go in promoting Asian heritage so it’s not just being made suitable for Western palettes with Oreo-flavored drinks and minimalistic ads on Instagram. It’s important to remember that watching Crazy Rich Asians with milk tea in hand doesn’t really embody East Asian culture, but instead glosses over all the hardships immigrants have gone through.

Nevertheless, the new wave of boba shops in our area has been a win in many people’s eyes. Try giving the drink a chance! Pay attention to the employee grabbing that bottle of syrup, the different languages, and the sounds of blenders blasting. Call it boba, bubble, or tapioca – it’s all the same, so raise a toast—to bursting the boba bubble.