The Boba Generation


Laghima Pandey

The famous and trendy drink goes by many different names, Boba, Pearl Milk Tea, Bubble Tea. But no matter what you call it, this sweet, delicious drink has, since its creation, captured the hearts and stomachs of people all across the world.

(Photo: Jakob N. Layman

The word “boba” refers to the thick, black chewy bits nestled at the bottom of a cold, usually milky drink. They are made with sugar and tapioca flour. Tapioca, which is derived from cassava root, is native to South America, but was brought to Taiwan by the Portuguese. It was traditionally served as a sweet, gelatinous dessert.

Bubble tea originated in Taiwan in the 1980s in the Chun Shui Tang teahouse. As its origin story goes, the owner, Liu Han-Chieh, was inspired to serve cold tea after seeing iced coffee in Japan. One day, his product development manager, Lin Hsiu Hui, decided to pour a dessert called fen yuan that she had with her into the drink – and thus, bubble tea as we know it was born.

Since then, bubble tea has become a major hit. In America, the drink has been around for longer than we probably think: it first migrated to the west coast of America in the 1990s. After Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished the immigration policy that restricted the entry of Asians, Southern and Eastern Europeans, and members of other ethnic groups, waves of Taiwanese immigrants came to the United States. Many of those immigrants settled in and around Los Angeles, giving California the largest number of Taiwanese immigrants in the United States. It was here that boba culture took root in the early ’90s – introduced to young Taiwanese Americans by their families in Taiwan, and in turn, introduced to other Asian Americans in their schools, neighborhoods, and social circles.

“As a Taiwanese-American kid growing up in the early 2000s in the San Gabriel Valley, the concoction was an integral part of my social life,” says journalist Clarissa Wei in a 2017 LA Weekly article about how boba became synonymous with Asian-American youth culture in Los Angeles. Boba shops were, in her words, “our sacred gathering grounds.” Boba culture isn’t limited to the San Gabriel Valley, it’s embedded in immigrant communities across California, college towns dotting the country, and steadily multiplying bubble tea shops in New York. 

“Bubble tea to me means home,” says Bhargava Chitti, a medical student whose parents immigrated to New York from India in the ’80s. “It reminds me of home because I grew up drinking it in Flushing, and it’s emblematic of this abstract idea of home rooted in the Asian-American community and the global Asian diaspora at large. It’s given me home everywhere that I go.” 

Instead of fading out or just staying within the Asian-American communities, the boba trend has continued to spread across America. It’s now more popular than ever; indeed, the compound annual growth rate of the bubble tea market from 2017-2023 is estimated to be 7.3 percent. As boba has became more popular, new flavors have been introduced, along with new toppings like grass jelly, almond jelly, egg pudding, and red beans. Bubble tea has also started taking new shapes; for example, you can now buy it in ice cream form.

Bubble tea is taken as a meme, a stereotype, but it’s also a reference point for identity that generations of Asian-Americans have used to create their own place in the world, in ways both big and small. This is more than just a drink, it’s a part of their lives.