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When Food Is More Than Food: 'Bubble Tea Addict' Writer Jiayang Fan


Now we want to talk about a delicious beverage that has become a global phenomenon. We are talking about bubble tea.

At this point, you can get versions that may or may not actually be tea and may or may not actually have tapioca bubbles. But if you are lucky enough to live in a place that sells it, you know it is a versatile treat. It can be a drink. It can be a snack or dessert. It can accompany an inexpensive date. And it is also, as New Yorker writer Jiayang Fan tells us in a recent piece, an ubiquitous mark of Asian identity. We wanted to know more about that, so we've called her.

Jiayang Fan, welcome back. Thank you so much for talking to us.

JIAYANG FAN: I'm really happy to be here.

MARTIN: So your piece is titled "Chronicles Of A Bubble Tea Addict." So that kind of explains how you love it.

FAN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: But how did you - but - so walk me through it. How did you first encounter bubble tea, and what do you love about it now?

FAN: So I first drank bubble tea when I was about 10 years old. This is the mid-'90s. And they were really only available at the Chinese bakery, and there was only one flavor. It was just black milk tea with bubbles. And to me, it felt like this bizarre but luxurious drink. And through the late '90s and the early aughts, it became increasingly popular in Chinatowns, I think, across America and in the West. And it became fancier. There are more flavors. And increasingly, it just became a drink that many Asian Americans sought out.

MARTIN: So you write about how - one of the reasons I just loved your piece is that you write about how food can be more than food. It's - you write, quote, "what I savored was the illusion, ever so rare for a bewildered young immigrant, that we too could afford a few pearls of leisure." Could you talk a little bit more about that?

FAN: Going into a Chinese bakery and spending a little bit more than my mom was comfortable with for milk tea with tapioca - it was a real treat. Again, as you know, with working-class immigrants, there weren't very many moments that we could purely enjoy for the sake of it. I mean, so much was just about making ends meet and about making sure that, you know, we could put food on the table and that we had a, you know, place to - a place to live.

MARTIN: Well, you know, it's obviously - you know, the bubbles themselves are known as boba. The drink itself is known as boba, right? But you said that it's become a stand-in for a kind of Asian identity, like the term boba liberal. Like, what is that? Like, what does that mean? Is that bad? Are you not supposed to be that?

FAN: A bubble tea liberal is someone who knows relatively little about their parents' birthplace but who want to, I guess, hang onto their Asian identity by performing it in a superficial way. And I think some Asian Americans take issue with that. Again, it is a disputed term because it originated on Twitter, and as with many things that originate online, people can mean different things when they refer to it.

MARTIN: Is bubble tea now, in your opinion, something so controversial that you have to, like, negotiate your relationship with it? And the reason I ask is, like, food, as we've said, can be such a powerful marker of something. Like, for example, you know, watermelon - I mean, I can just say that, you know, it was so used as kind of a stereotype of African Americans that I know, like, people of a certain age who would refuse to eat it in front of white people because they didn't want to be associated with the stereotype. But then, of course, a younger generation comes along, and they're, like, forget all that.

FAN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: You know, it's delicious. I don't care what you think. And so what I'm asking is, you know, bubble tea seems like it's kind of - just kind of burst onto the scene as this phenomenon. Is it something that, like, you have to reject and then - before you can reclaim it? Or is it still for most people just a delicious drink?

FAN: You know, it's a really interesting question. Being in a bubble tea shop nowadays makes me very aware of being in a state, one of the few places in America, where I'm usually with a majority of Asians. That's a special feeling. On the other hand, it's also about this newly created self-consciousness of your identity in relation to a food or a beverage that is associated with your ethnicity.

And I think we're reaching this moment where Asian Americans, especially second-generation Asian Americans, are aware of the power they're capable of asserting in America. But there's also this tenuousness - right? - of, you know, how much power they actually have. And I think that's why these symbols become all the more powerful - because they're a way of kind of negotiating both the sense of marginalization and, you know, this new sense of power of arrival associated with being Asian American. I think it's about both those things. And that becomes projected onto this drink - onto, you know, these tapioca pearls.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, you know, I have to ask - like, what's your favorite?


FAN: It's such a hard question. You know, it's very, very mood-dependent. I'm so sorry I can't give you one, but I'm going to give you my top three of...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

FAN: Black tea with milk is my all-purpose go-to. You know, I'm ready for that any time. Red beans with green milk tea is my first go-to when I'm feeling sad or really alone. And when I want to spice things up, I would like to go for (laughter) - I would like to go with sour plum, no milk with extra bubble. That's when I'm feeling edgy.

MARTIN: Wow. Sounds good.


MARTIN: OK. All right. Let me know today which one you pick for today.

FAN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Hit me up on Twitter. Jiayang Fan is a staff writer for The New Yorker. You can read her piece "Chronicles Of A Bubble Tea Addict," as well as her previous pieces, on The New Yorker website.

Jiayang Fan, thank you so much for joining us. And go enjoy some tea.

FAN: (Laughter) Thank you so much - really glad to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.