Welcome to Day 7 (and post #6) of Taiwanese American Heritage Week! As promised, I am posting the first of my two reviews of books by Taiwanese authors.
If you know me, you know I love bubble tea like no other. When I found out there was a book about bubble tea from a mainstream publisher, I was pretty excited because it’s about time this icon of Taiwanese culture got the spotlight.
However, my excitement was immediately tempered by the fact that the book is by The Boba Guys. If you live in San Francisco, LA, or New York, where they have locations, you may have had bubble tea from The Boba Guys before. Personally, I’ve only heard of them through the Internet, and my impression of them was not the greatest, considering that the founders expressed support for former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. If you are fortunate enough to not know who Andrew Yang is, let’s just say he’s a clown, the type of assimilationist Asian who makes cheap, tired, awful Asian jokes to curry favor with white people and Asian people who have internalized racism to unpack. Not the kind of “””#representation””” I want or need, to say the least (Yang is, unfortunately, Taiwanese American like me).
Knowing this, I went into the book (which I managed to get for free by redeeming a coupon) with reservations, and after reading it, I have a lot of thoughts. Even though this is a cookbook, I’m not going to be reviewing the recipes themselves. (I don’t know if I have the patience to make my own tea, lol.) Instead, I’ll be offering some critical commentary and personal reflection on the way race and culture are presented in the book with the hope of contributing to the dialogue on the politics of food.
As a disclaimer: I’m not a culinary expert or a tea connoisseur; I’m approaching this review from the perspective of a layperson who loves bubble tea, a Taiwanese American diaspora kid, and someone with a degree in Asian American studies.
A beautifully photographed and designed cookbook and guide to the cultural phenomenon that is boba, or bubble tea–featuring recipes and reflections from The Boba Guys tea shops.
Andrew Chau and Bin Chen realized in 2011 that boba–the milk teas and fruit juices laced with chewy tapioca balls from Taiwan that were exploding in popularity in the States–was still made from powders and mixes. No one in the U.S. was making boba with the careful attention it deserved, or using responsible, high-quality ingredients and global, artisanal inspiration. So they founded The Boba Guys: a chic, modern boba tea shop that has now grown to include fourteen locations across the country, bringing bubble tea to the forefront of modern drinks and bridging cultures along the way.
Now, with The Boba Book, the Boba Guys will show fans and novices alike how they can make their (new) favorite drink at home through clear step-by-step guides. Here are the recipes that people line up for–from the classics like Hong Kong Milk Tea, to signatures like the Strawberry Matcha Latte and the coffee-laced Dirty Horchata. For the Boba Guys, boba is Taiwanese, it’s Japanese, it’s Mexican, it’s all that and more–which means it’s all-American.
(Warning: This is long and vaguely rant-y at turns.)
Before I get into
dragging the authors the more critical part, I’m going to be gracious and talk about the parts that I enjoyed and found relatable or informative.
First of all, I’ll concede that true to its description, the book is very beautifully designed and aesthetically pleasing to look at. The photos, illustrations, and diagrams were a feast for the eyes. Perhaps driven by pandemic-induced restlessness, I’ve frequently found myself picking the book up to thumb through the pages just for the visual (and tactile, if you’re considering the texture of the cover/pages) stimulation. The cover is embossed and laminated with transparent circles the size of tapioca pearls, which I found charming.
Additionally, I think the book lays out the basic facts of tea, its history, and taxonomy in an accessible manner. I definitely learned a few things from reading the book. For example, although I can name different categories of tea (black, oolong, green, etc.), I did not know that the classifications are based on how oxidized the tea leaves are. (The more you know~)
I also appreciate that the authors did their research and traveled to Taiwan to dig into the origins of bubble tea and interview one of the shops that claim to have invented it, the famous Chun Shui Tang in Taichung (I’ve been there myself…their tea was okay, but to my layperson’s tongue it didn’t seem all that special, to be honest). They also made an effort to use and explain various relevant terms and concepts from Chinese and Taiwanese language/culture, such as QQ (arguably the king of food textures in Taiwan), guanxi (關系), and chiku (吃苦).
The book also offers a number of personal anecdotes and cultural details that resonated with my experiences. On the inside cover, there is a nostalgic depiction of bubble tea shops from Bin Chen’s perspective that reads: “It’s tucked away in a strip mall on Bellaire, in Houston, where we take Sunday afternoon Mandarin classes, next to that arcade where kids smoke cigarettes and make out.” Bin is older than me by maybe 10 years, so the description is a bit dated compared to my own memories, but I’ve lived in the Houston area since I was 10 and frequented the Bellaire area on the weekends for the same reasons. That imagery tapped into a very specific wellspring of emotions for me.
Similarly, there’s a comment illustrating a cultural tendency toward delayed gratification that notes how Taiwanese people often back into parking spaces so they can drive out facing forward. Having just come back from living in Taiwan for the last year, I thought, “ha, too real.”
That’s pretty much where the good stuff ends. Now, on to the critique.
My first critique of the book is the way it overwhelmingly caters to the white gaze. This is quite apparent based on the person The Boba Guys chose to collaborate with for this project. There’s a section of the book called “Bridging Cultural Operating Systems” that talks about the co-writer in detail.
In this section, Andrew and Bin say they “searched far and wide for the
white right voice to pair with [their] Asian-ness.” (In case it isn’t clear, the crossed out part is their wording and emphasis, not mine.) They “needed someone who could help [them] broaden [their] perspective.” Notably, they didn’t want to pick another Asian writer because they didn’t want people assuming the book was “For Asians, By Asians;” they clarify that the book is “for everyone.”
So who did they pick? Richard Parks III, a white man they describe as “old-school American,” whose family has been in the U.S. since before the Revolutionary War. (You know who else has been here longer than that? Black and Indigenous people.)
The implications are pretty clear: By liberty of his whiteness, Richard is positioned as the quintessential American, the universal every-man who represents the idealized assumed audience for the book.
The Boba Guys further justify their selection with the following factoids:
“[Richard] was already a self-proclaimed ‘xiao long bao snob.'” I don’t know about other people, but I personally do not care for more white people policing the “authenticity” of Asian food.
“We saw him use the only three Mandarin words he knew to get a hat down to half price in Taipei.” Did they ever consider that his whiteness was what gave him an advantage in the transaction, not his actual bargaining skills? (I also question the use of one’s haggling ability as a metric for determining a co-writer for a book about bubble tea, but you know what…never mind.)
I don’t know for sure how much of the book is written by Richard. Some parts have a byline while others do not. Some of the content is clearly presented from one of the two main writers’ perspectives, given the way it references their particular background and life experiences, while other places use an ambiguous “we.”
However, there are color-coded text bubbles in the margins containing meta-commentary from Andrew, Bin, and Richard (blue for Andrew and Bin, green for Richard, based on the fact that the former use iPhones while the latter uses an Android, as explained in-text). A fraction of the remarks from Richard are random and harmless (albeit somewhat pointless), but many are simply Richard being oblivious about the topic being discussed, thus giving Andrew and Bin the opportunity to explain things for the benefit of the audience. It’s probably supposed to come off as cute and quirky, but I was not amused. There is an exchange where Richard ends with “Namaste.” I mean, seriously?
There’s definitely a level of irony to this situation considering how much time they spend in the introduction waxing poetic about diversity, referencing nonwhite cultures as they relate to bubble tea, and appealing to the notion of the multicultural melting pot as the “American Future” (their words). In the end, they still center whiteness. The apparent contradiction is easily resolved by examining the ways in which the above are used to reinforce whiteness-as-default and white supremacy. But that’s beyond the scope of this review, so I suggest Googling for critiques of the concepts and discourses of “diversity” and the “melting pot” if you’re not familiar with them already.
My second critique is leveled specifically at the section titled “How Every Boba Tea Contains Thousands of Years of History,” which consists of a brief timeline of bubble tea history. I stated earlier that the facts of the book were presented in an accessible fashion, but I’d like to qualify that statement: I took issue with the relative attention to detail, commentary, and framing of this section.
As far as the details are concerned, the primary problem lies in the naming of geographies. In introducing and discussing the cassava root (the plant tapioca is made from), the book says it “has been a staple food in South America for 10,000 years.” South America is an entire continent and not a monolith. This vagueness stands in stark contrast to the mentions of specific countries such as China, India, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Portugal in the rest of the section. Later, it does note that cassava is “an ancient staple of native peoples in what is now Brazil,” which is a slight improvement, but it neglects to mention any specific tribe. This may reflect broader societal biases and erasure in the way Indigenous people are written about, but a relatively brief Google search on my part turned up the name Tupinamba, so there is a level of laziness or oversight at play.
Next is the commentary and framing. Although the authors make use of headings like “The West ‘Discovers’ (Eye Roll) Tea,” they also play into and reinforce Eurocentric narratives and the whitewashing of history. For example, while explaining the introduction of cassava to Taiwan, they state that “the Spanish and Portuguese made their presence felt on the Ilha Formosa (‘beautiful island’).” First of all, that is a very roundabout way to say “colonized.” (Interestingly, there is no mention of tea being central to Taiwanese culture due to Chinese settler colonialism in Taiwan.)
Secondly, Ilha Formosa is the Portuguese nickname for Taiwan. I’ll admit that when I first learned of it when I was younger, I thought it was cool, but I’ve since grown weary of this “fun fact” because it ultimately privileges white people’s view of the island. Even as the authors roll their eyes at Westerners “discovering” tea, they also choose to emphasize the name given to Taiwan by Westerners upon “discovering” it. The hypocrisy is awkward, to put it lightly.
As we proceed further down the timeline, it gets worse: “Our eye rolling aside, the truth is: Without British imperialism in Asia, there’d be no boba, because the U.K. is where tea was first mixed with milk and sugar. Lactose intolerance is rare in Northern Europe, but in parts of Asia, we’re genetically wired for it. We’d never have thought to put milk in tea. So…thanks? For your conquest? U.K.?”
They might be joking, but I really did not find this part funny at all. The violence of British imperialism continues to have detrimental effects all over the world, but you’re “thanking” the U.K. because you now have a bubble tea business to run and money to earn? History cannot be changed, the facts are what they are, but I think it’s an incredible failure of the imagination to frame this cultural diffusion as the inevitable result of imperialism. It is possible for people to exchange cultural artifacts and traditions through peaceful methods, on equal grounds, without the violence imposed by colonization. The British chose to take over the world for the profit; it was not a natural event, as much as many people want to argue that this is “human nature” in order to justify the current world order.
In a similar vein, they explain that “It’s important to mention that without tea, there probably would be no United States of America. [Rundown of Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution] …because of the British fixation with tea, Americans turned away from it from the start. This part of history is actually important to us, because it sets up the way boba is perceived as a novelty in America. You couldn’t bridge cultures with boba if we’d always drunk tea here.” Again, I dislike the romanticizing of violent histories for the sake of a small favorable outcome. Moreover, here it becomes even more obvious that their primary concern is selling boba, literally and figuratively, to those who find it to be a novelty.
My third critique focuses on a conversation between Andrew, Bin, and Richard about being a “third culture” kid and the Boba Guys’ “obsession with remixing,” as Richard puts it. I’ll be quoting a long passage below, so bear with me.
“ANDREW: Right, in food, fashion, music–basically anything cultural–we tend to see everything as binaries. People like to ask us, ‘Can a non-Asian wear a Chinese qipao?’ or ‘Can white people run a boba shop?’ But we don’t think of everything in terms of is it ‘cultural appropriation’ or ‘cultural appreciation’? There’s another way we think about it. It’s how we run our company and train our team…
BIN: People shouldn’t just show up, cherry pick their favorite things about a culture and start thinking they can rep it, leaving the people who actually grew up with it behind. Culture is inherently contextual. You take parts of it out of context, it doesn’t carry the same meaning and significance.
RICHARD: So it’s always better to appreciate?
ANDREW: Yes, but what or who defines ‘appreciation’? The world is always changing the more cultures come into contact with each other, the closer they can become. It’s exhausting to sit there and be constantly judging: ‘Hey you, ramen burger guy, you’re doing it right. You honor the ramen code. But foie gras pho guy, you’re doing it wrong!’ Who’s the culture police?
RICHARD: The first time somebody put boba pearls into sweetened milk tea….that was a cultural remix. Was it appreciation? Was it appropriation?
ANDREW: Or before that, the first time somebody put milk into tea.
RICHARD: Tea came from the East, but then it went to the West, where milk and sugar were added, and then it came back to the East, where tapioca pearls got dropped in.
BIN: It’s like music producers passing around their samples, adding layers to it each time.
ANDREW: That’s why we think it isn’t about appropriation versus appreciation. It’s about attribution.”
I concede that two good points were made here. One is the importance of attribution. The other is Bin’s commentary on not cherry picking and so forth. However, the rest of the conversation contradicts Bin’s initial points. You can’t harp on the importance of context when it comes to culture and then completely fail to contextualize conversations about cultural appropriation. Andrew’s characterization of people who call out appropriation as “the culture police” is reductive and adopting the rhetoric of people who deny the harm of appropriation and use such a framing to paint themselves as supposed victims of aggression from militant POC/Indigenous folks.
While it’s true that there are flaws in the way cultural appropriation is discussed, it’s important to understand that these conversations and critiques are fundamentally about unequal power dynamics in cultural production, consumption, and representation. It’s about avoiding and critiquing material exploitation of marginalized people. Richard’s East-to-West, West-to-East summary of how bubble tea came to be flattens the geopolitical landscape and strips the history of its context. Go figure that Andrew and Bin spent several pages talking about imperialism in bubble tea history in the most lukewarm way, only for the white guy to come along and subtract it from the equation completely.
There’s an added layer to the irony and hypocrisy when you realize that Andrew and Bin appropriate AAVE (African American Vernacular English) throughout their book. At the end of the introduction, they describe themselves as “culturally wildin’.” When they react to Chun Shui Tang admitting they don’t care about proving they were the first to make bubble tea, they quip, “As the kids say, we were shook.” They attribute “shook” to “the kids” without realizing that it actually comes from AAVE and was subsequently appropriated into mainstream slang. In fact, a lot of popular slang comes from not just Black culture but specifically Black queer culture, so there are layers to the appropriation.
My fourth and final critique (I could probably say more, but this review is too long as it is) concerns the final section, “Reflections from Asia.” Bin shares a story about his Agong (his paternal grandfather) in Taiwan while Andrew talks about his Uncle Michael in Shanghai, reflecting on their family histories and the connection between their relatives’ darker pasts and their own brighter present as successful entrepreneurs. The basic gist of their stories is “look at how much our elders suffered, but now we the younger generation are living the American Dream.” It’s both implicit in the way the stories are narrated and explicit in the heading of the section that immediately follows the stories: “Our (New) American (Boba) Dream.”
Aside from being incredibly trite, this narrative reinforces the myth of American meritocracy and exceptionalism. It’s the model minority myth all over again, packaged in platitudes about “making progress as a society” through cultural remixes. It ignores history and context and big picture thinking about race and class in favor of personal anecdotes of success. I’m tired of it.
In conclusion, this book was disappointing. I had an idea of what to expect based on my first impressions of The Boba Guys, but they somehow managed to fail even the low bar I had set up. Some of my critiques may seem a bit nitpicky, but I honestly don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect people who are positioning themselves as experts on “boba culture” to be more self-aware about how they’re presenting that culture. Food is political, as is culture. By refusing to engage with that reality, they’re doing themselves and their readers a disservice.
If you want to buy the book for the bubble tea recipes, I suggest looking for reviews that address that aspect. If you want thoughtful and nuanced information and commentary on bubble tea culture and history, look elsewhere.
If you made it to the end, congratulations and thanks for reading.
I normally don’t do this, but since this review actually took a considerable amount of labor, I’m linking my PayPal for anyone who wants to tip me: paypal.me/theshenners.