Feature photo courtesy of @bobaguys
From an app that tracks boba (and only boba) consumption to fanatical pledges of franchise allegiance, may I submit to the court compelling evidence that boba culture might actually be a cult.
Just hear me out. After in-depth research (involving lots of red yarn, thumbtacks, and dramatic background music), I’ve come to the conclusion that boba culture has all the makings of a well-developed cult. The characteristics of a cult are as follows:
1. An origin story of mythical proportions
Boba enthusiasts, especially those of proud Taiwanese descent, refer to boba's lore in nearly reverent tones. In the beginning of time, God created the universe. And in the mid-80s, Liu Han-Chieh created bubble milk tea.
2. Hierarchical systems of authority with little to no tolerance for critique
Have you ever tried arguing that Quickly's makes the best boba? Though there is, of course, not yet a universal standard for boba perfection - as determined by a complex algorithm computing value, tea quality, boba freshness, and presentation - there seems to be a universal consensus that Quickly's is, frankly, trash. Earlier this year, The Sacramento Bee published what they declared the "official Sacramento boba tea power rankings" (in which Quickly's, to nobody's surprise, ranked in the bottom quartile. #evidence). A quick scan of the now-legendary "subtle asian traits" Facebook group reveals other means of enforcing a system of winners and losers: survey-based tier systems; research poster-style analysis of their methodology and collected data; illustrated bullet journal trackers.
3. Devoted membership... like, really devoted
In the summer of 2019, SoCal-based college students Alexander Chen, Callista Wu, and Ryan Wang created Boba Watch, an app that tracks and analyzes the user's boba consumption. Originally developed for a Hackathon inspired by Wu and Wang's boba Instagram (@bingeboba), the app confirms, objectively, the user's obsession. On Wu's dashboard: "since you've started recording your drinks, you have had 64 drinks. You have consumed 8,000 gallons of milk tea, 2.304 kilograms of sugar, and 19,200 calories."
4. A charismatic leader
The litmus test of a charismatic leader is their ability to bring people together. Boba has absolutely done that, congregating people in not just local boba shops but widely-scaled outdoor festivals. In Manhattan, Taiwan extended its most reliable form of soft diplomacy through New York's Taiwanese Bubble Tea Festival, a three-day pop-up in Soho serving boba, as well as Instagrammable installations (think massive boba pearls, a tea balloon, and a bubble tea ball pool), tasting rooms, and DIY labs. West Coasters flocked to San Francisco's sold-out Boba Fest this summer, a ticketed event with "vendors selling infinite combinations of boba-topped everything."
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5. Widespread indoctrination
Speaking of boba-topped everything, the pearls have established a fanbase of their own. This seems fairly innocuous at first: Alimama's Milk Tea with Mini Boba cream puffs were a welcome adaptation, as are Xiao Mei's creamy brown sugar milk tea ice cream bars, dotted with boba. But when Teabo Cafe shared a photo of boba-topped french fries (presumably as an April 1 joke), we had to ask ourselves: in boba's manifest destiny, perhaps we were so preoccupied with whether or not we could, we never stopped to ask ourselves whether we should.
And don't even get us started on boba pizza - which, unlike the french fries, are no joke at all.
6. Evolutionary intelligence
The survival of a culture relies on its ability to adapt. The boba community is perhaps one of the most proactive, countering environmental waste with innovations like edible rice drinking straws and cloth boba holders to reduce plastic use.
7. The critique and condemnation of outsiders
That boba culture has established an "insider" vs. "outsider" dichotomy is, I know, absurd. Consider further that the "outsider" refers to not the preciously oblivious (cue Hillary Clinton enthusing about "chewy tea"), but those within the cult's borders unyielding to complete indoctrination. "I'm not saying it's not good," such an outsider might say, "but liking boba is not a substitute for having an actual personality." Harsh judgment for a drink that has literally gathered and sustained a global ecosystem of diasporic Asians.
Then again, they've probably only ever had Quickly's. 😛
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