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In 2019, Domino’s rolled out a limited-edition pizza in Taiwan topped with sweet tapioca balls and honey, drawing mixed reactions. While some adventurous foodies vowed to try it, others expressed complete and utter disgust.
I fell more in the latter camp. How could Domino’s take a sweet and integral part of my childhood and sprinkle it on a cheese pizza? I rolled my eyes at what seemed to me a publicity stunt by an American corporation. But upon further investigation, I learned that boba pizza was a Taiwanese creation, first served in 2015 at a restaurant called Foodie Star.
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And it wasn’t half bad.
Modifications to food, like putting boba on pizza, can be extremely contentious. Food can symbolize cultural heritage, history, and so much more. But just like the people who enjoy them, there’s often more to these dishes than meets the eye. They are a product of everywhere they’ve been and a testament to the past, even the parts people have forgotten, as can be seen in the case of boba.
Boba, also known as bubble tea or milk tea, is a popular, customizable drink that gets its texture from the chewy tapioca balls floating around inside it. Since its invention in the 1980s, it has become a global symbol of Taiwan, spreading across East Asia and around the world (to the point that there are fears of a pandemic shortage). Some see it as a way to promote Taiwanese identity in the face of growing pressure from China, which claims the self-governing island democracy as its territory.
More recently, milk tea in general has become a symbol of solidarity among internet users and activists to support pro-democracy movements in Asia, with the hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance used by protesters in Hong Kong, Thailand, Myanmar and more. In April, Twitter even rolled out a Milk Tea Alliance emoji that appears automatically when the hashtag is used in any of several languages.
News about boba diplomacy and the Milk Tea Alliance has resonated with me, a child of parents from Taiwan and Malaysia who was one of the few Asian Americans in my class growing up in Arkansas. In high school, boba was one of the few things from my parents’ culture I could really latch onto. Even as a child, when I refused to study Chinese and dropped out of my weekend lessons, I learned the characters related to boba and reviewed them each time I’d visit Taiwan over the summer.
Much has been written about boba as a complicated yet integral part of Asian American identity. Boba shops in America are gathering places for Asian Americans, even if the boba itself isn’t very good. As Jenny Zhang writes for Eater, for Asian Americans, boba tea conjures home on two levels: “a yearning for the imagined home denied to us by the diasporic condition, as well as a sense of nostalgia for the closest approximation — the boba shop, functioning as a ‘third place’ in both the literal and figurative sense.”
It’s that search for home that leads me to make allowances for tapioca that has hardened because it’s been left out for too long. Boba shops are places made for people like me in a country where not very much is. They are among the first places I visit in any US city, because even though the details might be different, there’s a kind of transcendent familiarity there. It’s comforting to know that even in a place where everything feels new and different, some things remain the same, pockets of solace where despite everything, I can feel a little less foreign.
“Boba shops are places made for people like me in a country where not very much is.”
But in Taiwan, where I’ve spent a large part of the coronavirus pandemic, boba is not imbued with the same layers of meaning as it is in Asian American communities and Western news coverage. When I asked my friends there about boba’s political symbolism, they had no idea what I was talking about. To them, boba is just boba.
That is no surprise to John Chung-En Liu, a sociology professor at National Taiwan University who has done extensive research on boba as it relates to Asian American identity.
“Identity actually develops when you see people who are different from you,” he explained. You don’t need to emphasize the fact that you’re Taiwanese when you’re in Taiwan.
Still, to Liu, boba’s power comes from the fact that it’s a Taiwanese invention. “China always wants to make the case that everything in Taiwan is Chinese,” he said. “But for bubble tea, you can claim that it was invented in Taiwan without a doubt.”
This is true, but if you go back far enough the story of boba is a complicated blend of East and West. It began in the first millennium with the Tang Dynasty (circa 618-907) practice of taking milk in tea, which later fell out of favor in China but may have inspired the tea culture in Britain. The practice was reintroduced in the 19th century when British merchants returned to China in the years leading up to the Opium Wars. The tapioca balls that give boba its chewiness are made with materials derived from cassava, a South American plant. In the late 1980s, someone working in a tea shop in Taiwan added them to milk tea to create boba (though the specifics of which tea shop and where are disputed to this day).
Boba’s culinary cross-pollination has continued with desserts. Boba waffles, boba souffle, etc. are boba-fied versions of Western desserts that Japan adapted for local taste. Eventually they made their way back to Taiwan. Now the island has a number of cafes with French names like “Petit Doux” or “Belle Époque” that are known for their boba-fied desserts but feel like American brunch spots, with both Italian and Taiwanese influences sprinkled in.
When it comes to food, Americans often have a misguided obsession with authenticity, ignorant of the fact that our favorite dishes might not be the same as the ones enjoyed in their country of origin. Most of them were changed many years ago to become palatable to us. There’s a resistance, that I’m guilty of myself, to labeling restaurant chains like Panda Express as “real” Chinese food, even though they were devised mostly by Chinese people, for Chinese people. My main misgiving has been that it doesn’t look or taste like the food I know to be Chinese, and I blamed these restaurants for teaching Americans that Chinese food looked like neon orange chicken and cream cheese wontons.
But I’ve come to respect American-Chinese restaurants like Panda Express. They’re part of a tradition of immigrants adapting their food to a place that wasn’t made for it; people who survive by learning what it takes to blend in, doing the best with what they have, and standing in the middle of two cultures when they don’t quite fit into either. What right do I have to say that orange chicken isn’t every bit as legitimate as anything else?
I wrestled with these issues of identity and authenticity in Taiwan where I was also caught between two cultures but in a different way. Someone once told me that Han Chinese people are the ‘white people’ of Taiwan — the majority of the population in a land that was once dominated by Indigenous peoples. It’s more complicated than that, but there’s a kind of privilege that comes from living in a society that was designed with you in mind that often manifests itself in cluelessness. Because if your way of moving through the world is always presupposed, you don’t have to think about translating yourself in order to appear palatable to the social order. And you might not understand those who do.
In Taiwan, there seems to be a discomfort with Asian Americans that stems from something deeper than a lack of trying on our part. When white foreigners come to Taiwan, learning the language builds trust and shows respect for the culture. My Taiwanese friends are always so encouraging, even to beginners.
In contrast, I’m usually asked why I can’t speak Taiwanese. I’ve always spoken Mandarin at home, but that couldn’t compensate for the dearth of opportunities to speak it everywhere else in Arkansas. After six hard-fought college semesters of early-morning Chinese classes, one-on-one tutoring, and the painstaking copying of characters by hand, I can hold my own in conversation and read about 70 percent of the characters I come across. By the last time I came to Taiwan, I finally saw myself as fully Taiwanese and fully American. But people here see me as neither.
Instead of congratulating me for my strides in Chinese, all anyone seems to care about is the 30 percent I can’t read. Why did I take the “lazy way out” and learn simplified characters? Am I siding with China? It’s as if putting in the work to learn and to be “more Asian” has cast me into the uncanny valley — too close yet not quite.
Sometimes I wonder if it would be better to move to Australia or Europe, where people would still see me as “foreign” — and I would agree with them. At least then, occasional misunderstandings would be chalked up to the fact that I am not from there.
There’s no time for explanation when I order boba, though. The line is long, and the baristas are busy. No pleasantries are exchanged, it’s just me rattling off the name of the closest thing to what I want that I can also read the name of and them firing back a series of follow-up questions: “What size?” “How much sugar?” “How much ice?”
It’s one of the most stressful things I do with regularity, and each time I have to give myself a pep talk beforehand. I remind myself that even if the barista or I get confused or I don’t end up with exactly what I was trying to order, that’s not the end of the world. Once I’m back on my way, walking down the street with boba in hand is the closest I feel to home anywhere in Taiwan. Just like me, my boba is a product of everything that has preceded it, and that is Taiwanese ‘enough.’
Serena is a freelance journalist who writes about accessibility, culture, language, education, and the ways they intersect. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, NBC, Teen Vogue, and more. You can find her work and personal blog at dearyall.net.