On a casual midnight in San Luis Obispo, sophomore Andy Do and his friends spontaneously decide to make the trek to Boba Stop for a night of laughs, boba and popcorn chicken.
A sweet honey smell, creamy milk tea and fond memories are just a peek into boba culture.
“Boba” refers to the tapioca spheres at the bottom of a tea-based drink, but is usually synonymous with the drink as a whole.
Boba traces back to Taiwan in the late 1980s. The most common story is that one summer day, a food stall owner decided to combine milk tea and boba pearls — two popular items at the time — with boba pearls at the bottom, a layer of shaved ice and the rest filled with milk tea.
In recent years, boba has gained an immense following in the United States, eventually making its way to San Luis Obispo, at shops such as The Boba Stop, Sweetie Cup Tea House and Milk in It. Boba shops now offer a variety in menu items, such as different toppings, slushies, milk and fruit teas and food options.
Architecture sophomore Erin Wong confesses she has boba upwards of three times a week, if not more. For her, boba is tied to a feeling of nostalgia.
“Every Friday in middle school, my mom, my brother and I would get boba,” she said. “When I came home [back to the bay area] I had it basically every single day.”
The appeal of boba for psychology sophomore Kunhua Cheng is its social environment.
She remembers entire days spent at boba shops studying with friends and how its “laid-back” atmosphere makes it a good avenue to meet up.
“Cafe’s are more for middle-aged people and a quieter atmosphere, as with boba shops, I feel like their target audience is more college or high school kids,” she said. “It’s more energetic and lively.”
Milk in It employee and Cuesta College English sophomore Sasha Cederberg said that although she tried boba for her first time on the job, boba brought her a sense of community when she met her coworkers.
Stemming from a more bay area-focused phenomenon, boba has now spread across the country, and locally in San Luis Obispo, according to English sophomore Ashley Lang. Besides the physical increase in availability, she has seen the stores themselves evolve.
“I’ve seen a lot of byproducts in boba merging with other products and expansion on personalization of drinks, like adding more toppings and flavors,” she said.
She also thinks boba can provide individuals with a topic of commonality and facilitate relationships.
“People bond over how much they love boba,” Lang said. “Asking people what their favorite drink is and for recommendations is a way to try new things and get to know people in a casual way.”
As boba becomes more mainstream, it can affect outsiders’ perceptions of Asian culture, according to Erin Wong, who sees it positively as a gateway to other experiences.
“[People are] becoming more open because they find one thing that they like, like boba, then they’ll be more open to trying other things and learn more about the culture,” Wong said.
According to computer science sophomore Andy Do, boba may actually hurt the image of Asian culture in what he refers to as, “boba liberalism.”
Do defines this as focusing on mainstream depictions of Asian culture and ignoring underlying, prominent issues amongst the Asian population.
He said things such as boba, 88Rising, an Asian-focused mass media company, or admission into Ivy League schools can overshadow deep-rooted issues like racism towards Asians due to COVID-19 or anti-Black sentiment in Asian communities.
“It’s just important for Asians to look deeper into their culture and background and try to focus on bigger issues besides the mainstream ones,” Do said.
As boba continues to expand its presence, Lang thinks of boba as much more than just a drink, but as a vessel to make priceless memories.