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How Boba Brings People Together

Updated: Nov 12, 2020



4 cups of water

4 TB tea leaves or 4 tea packets

4 TB maple syrup 

2 cups of plant milk (I like coconut or soy)

1 C of tapioca pearls (cooked according to instructions of package)


1 | make tapioca pearls according to instructions. 

2 | when the water boils, turn off heat and soak the tea bags/ tea leaves for ten minutes. 

3 | stir in plant milk and maple syrup. Sit in the freezer or fridge until cool. I suggest not to add ice or it will be watered down.

I grew obsessed with boba after coming to Santa Barbara for university. When my friend Hak went back to Japan due to COVID, he gave me a deadline of the end of May to claim the rest of the boba I won from him through boba bets. From friendly competitions to little errands to motivational pushes, there were four. From him at least.

“But why can’t you get them with me when you come back?” I asked. “It’s more fun to get boba together.”

“I don’t know when I will be back or if I can even come back.” 

During finals season, he texted me, “Sorry I couldn’t get your boba in person this quarter.”

Hak understood how boba is better enjoyed when we drink it together, especially as an excuse to meet for busy students like us. 

Boba is a drink invented in Taiwan by tea house owners who scooped tapioca pearls in their tea. This sweet drink composed of a tea base, creamer, sweetener, and topping—typically tapioca pearls—grew widespread in Asia in the 1990’s and flared in Asian communities worldwide afterwards. Asian immigrants and new generation children gravitated towards boba shops like lost boats using lighthouses to find home. 

When I moved to Santa Barbara for university, I was thrown in a sea of strangers that lived in a place that did not have the same familiarity as my hometown of east Los Angeles. I felt homesick. 

I remembered my sore legs, going to Welcome Week events through the day and exploring with friends at night. Not only were there more people with pale skin and blonde hair than my hometown, it was strange that there were no chain boba cafes. The restaurants that served Asian cuisine here did not have positive reputations. Grocery stores sold overpriced Asian ingredients. A pack of Samyang spicy noodles was six dollars more!

Everyone said a solid community fills college experiences with wealth and creates networking opportunities. I struggled to find my people in the beginning. Most interactions with my peers did not pass the surface level introductions. 

Therefore, I joined random Facebook group chats with silly names like “Gaucho Union,” “australopithecus afarensis,” and “STEP Friends.” We met up at dining commons and went together to school events, where I sweet-talked volunteers for free stress balls, highlighters, stickers. 

However, Friday nights, I was still grinding by my oceanview dorm window.

One day, I decided to invite my STEP friends over to destress from a long week in a dorm study lounge.

“How about we spice things up?” Nikky said. She was setting up Connect Four. She was taller than me even though I was sitting on the couch and she was kneeling. Mickey was on the floor, exhausted from sit ups she had to do for losing to Joz in Jenga.  

Joz was helping me put the Jenga away. “Like another bet?”

“Oh what about push ups?” I said, “Loser does twenty?” 

Nikky shook her head. “I have jelly arms.”

“French fries? That is what we did in high school.” I said.

Mickey placed her phone down. Job hunting. “Where do we even get good fries around?”

“I can’t cook.” Joz said and we laughed. Later I found out her favorite food is spaghetti for that reason. 

I perked up, “What about boba? Loser buys winner a boba?” 

Nikky smirked, “Boba bet.”

I stood up, my heart excited. Another kindred spirit.

This started off a wave of boba bets that required us to start making a Google document to keep track of our boba bets. ‘Who’ owes ‘who’ trailed by the silly ‘why.’ We highlighted the bought boba bets with light purple.  

This inside joke—our boba bets—is peculiar because the boba in Isla Vista is not worth a single Michelin star. The iconic tapioca pearls often come stale: hard and rubbery to the point of feeling like we are exercising our jaws for increasing definition. Most boba shops also add so much sugar that the third sip tastes like overripe honey, if such a thing exists. 

Yet if I am stranded on an island with only one drink, I will still choose boba.

I do not remember when I first tried boba but boba has always been there for me: finishing exams, birthdays, or other good news. Additionally, boba is a drink my friends and I get during feelings corners when we are living emotional roller coasters. A break up for example. Even my high school held boba fundraisers and I will boba bet they were more popular than fundraisers with nachos, cup noodles, or churros. 

Boba is a meal, drink, or dessert. After eating a hearty meal out like pho or KBBQ, there is always that friend who suggests, “let’s go get boba!”

I am that friend. But to be fair, it’s okay to be a little selfish for a little bit more of my friends and family’s time. 

It’s also a communal activity. Growing up in east Los Angeles, besides playing badminton in cul de sacs or asking older siblings to drive us to shopping centers, we would get boba. 

We frequent chain shops like the Quickly’s in Chinatown—several bus stops away from our schools. I remember sipping on a wintermelon milk tea or passion fruit slush with honey boba, listening to Asian pop music in the background. We always would have one or two servings of French fries or popcorn chicken on our table, wood picks jutting out like incense. We would help each other on homework there too. Sometimes, when we truly have nothing to do, we would play cards.

“I don’t want to play Speed anymore. You always win.” Sua whined, throwing her hands up in frustration. “Let’s play Palace.”

“That is so boring and it’s practically based on luck. Y’all play yourselves.” I was such a sore loser back then, never engaging in competition unless my chances of victory are high. I grabbed a fry with my fingers and wiggled it around to suck up the last bit of sauce from my disposable sauce cup.

Katie smiled. “How about whoever loses has to ask for more sauce?” She was always so lazy, but maybe that is why she comes up with these great ideas.

“Fine,” I said, as I was just as lazy, and sat up to shuffle the cards.

This deck of cards followed me every time I entered a boba shop. The perfect activity to pass time when waiting for boba or food. 

I remember late nights out with my family: mostly our mom inviting my sisters and me out to hang out with her and different Uncles—the honorific used for older male figures in Chinese culture—who we suspect are more than friends. My sisters and I disliked talking to them, so we would bury ourselves in conversations and card games. 

“Bié wánle,” Our mom would complain, gesturing for us to put the cards away.

We would deal the cards, “No, we have nothing else to do.”

Whether it was Au79’s marinated pork soup with egg noodles, Pho Filet 2’s bánh xèo chay, or Kami Buffet all-you-can-eat, I always insisted we got boba afterwards, because boba shops tend to stay open rather late at night. My friends said that was because boba shops have good post-partying food like kimchi fries and fried squid. 

Besides, that Uncle of the month always paid. 

Our dad paid too sometimes, but on his Wednesdays off. Boba, banh mis, char siu baos. We would look up various menus online and write our orders on a Post it. I always read to him my order in detail, but every time he came home something about the order was off. My boba was always missing something. 

Enjoying boba is more fun when someone else pays for it. Perhaps that is how our boba bets evolved into a currency system. Gifts for more time. Therefore, at every opportunity, I’ll bet a boba. 

One of the stranger opportunities arose during a camping trip at Kern River. I went inside our eight-person tent to grab a sweater as the night air tingled. The ground was cool. I was also dizzy from the acid we took earlier in the day, so I melted on top of the sleeping bags, my arms halted halfway in a sweater. 

After a little while, I heard the zipper jingle but stared at the opened tent, where the rain cover had blown off so the stars were whispering not very discreetly. 

“Dinner’s ready,” It was Rei, my beau.

“Five more minutes. It feels so good down here.”

“Yes ma’am. Scoot over.” He wiggled next to me and we chattered about the different experiences that had rippled through our bodies during our trips. 

A few moments later, a few of our other friends crawled into the tent with us. We tried to watch for shooting stars, but our minds dipped into conversations of how the universe was an experiment for utopia, fish fractaling to different songs, and a river concert where desperate musicians sacrifice themselves to play music stolen from heaven. 

All of a sudden, Brandon, a friend who is infamous for lightening up the mood with odd shows, pointed a finger into the night sky, “A shooting star! Wake a mish!”

We cracked up, heaving for air, thinking of what wish we should make.

“Whoever remembers ‘wake a mish’ first tomorrow, I will buy them a boba!” Rei shouted. 

“Yay,” I clapped my hands, “bet!”

Allister, a hometown friend who is completely sunburnt, turns around. “Why are you asking for boba instead of money? Are you going to pay rent and buy a car with boba? Is that all the marketable skills you got, asking for boba?”

Shock dripped from our faces. We never questioned our boba bets. We turned boba into harmless memes, motivational incentives, or rewards to spice up friendly competitions. Even throughout the years, the definition of boba has grown colorful. From the international Facebook page, Subtle Asian Traits, I have seen boba ice cream, boba pizza, and boba tarts. Just douse anything in tapioca pearls and milk tea and it is boba. Why should we expect more from boba than laughter and community?

 It would be cool to pay bills with boba though. 

On the way home from the camping trip, we stopped by The Modern Tea Room in Lancaster for boba. Rei’s treat of course.

The TV was playing an odd comical duo doing bad magic tricks. The blue walls were buried in art that looks quirky and what we would find at the sales section at Goodwill.

 “What boba would you recommend?” I asked the cashier/barista.

He handed me a paper menu with fun drink names like ‘Peachy Cream’ and ‘King of Roses.’ “My personal favorite is Vanilla Moon or Organic Banana Black Tea, but honestly, any of these I love drinking.”

“Do you have any plant milk?” I repeated twice because of the plastic wall and our masks.

“Oat milk tastes the best in milk tea.”

“Yes, oat milk— we have that. And soy and almond. We also have a vegan food menu too.” 

“Ah no thank you we already ordered food at the next door restaurant. May I have a Vanilla Moon with oat milk and tapioca pearls and 50% sugar?” 

I always choose to add tapioca pearls when we go to a new boba shop, because this topping can be moody. Cooked with too much time, the pearls can stick together and lack the QQ texture—bouncy and springy. Tapioca pearls also lack flavor, so sugar like brown sugar or maple syrup is necessary. 

My friends also order boba with less than 50% sugar because too much sugar drowns the boba.

When Rei’s friends visited us in Santa Barbara from Los Angeles, I told them how disappointing the boba tended to be in Isla Vista. 

“Not one you would recommend?” Joy slumped on the couch. “I just want to go get some boba.”

Yea, it’s probably an LA thing. 

I wanted them to leave with a good impression of boba in Isla Vista. Isla Vista boba is too risky of quality, so the second morning of their visit, Rei and I woke up an hour earlier than usual to boil some water for the packaged tapioca pearls my mom brought when she visited. My housemate had lychee black tea, so I boiled the leaves in coconut milk and maple syrup. Then, chilled the milk tea in the freezer. 

Rei brought the tapioca pearls in a canteen and the milk tea in a pot to them when they went to race RC cars while I worked at home. 

When they came back, I wondered, “How did the boba taste?”

“Good. Milk tea was good.” Joy said. “The pearls got stuck together though.”

“Sorry I may have cooked too long.” I apologized. 

“Thank you,” Atul said. “It’s so nice of you to make boba for us.”

These STEM major friends were not the best with words, but Rei said they went for seconds. I will take that as a sign of success. 

I wanted to play Atul a game of chess with a boba bet the night before, but I did not know him that well and was uncertain how he would react to this boba bet. 

Next time, I will challenge him. 

Boba has always been a joyful and adventurous drink in my life. Not only are the flavors and topping combinations quirky, the moments and people boba brings together also brings a little spice into my life and I am thankful. 

Shin, my friend from Japan finally came back, but he is kind of over boba now. Now, we go out for smoothies instead. Loser pays, of course. 

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