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Bwoggers Debate: Boba, Bubble Tea, Or Milk Tea?

There comes a time when us staffers at Bwog have a little bit of a disagreement: this time it’s about the popular tea drink (or not tea) that contains tapioca (or not).  

New Bwogger Lori Luo had some thoughts on why the popular drink should be called boba, Deputy Editor Vivian Zhou thinks it should be called bubble tea, and GSSC Bureau Chief Andrew Chee adds that it should be called milk tea. 

The Case For Boba: 

Late this August, I packed up all of my clothes, ordered a bunch of dorm stuff from Amazon and Bed Bath and Beyond, said goodbye to my dog, and took a 6 hour flight from SFO to EWR. The next day, my parents insisted on going to Columbia to look around, even though I’d be moving in the next day. As I walked them around campus, my mom looked around and remarked, “This is where you’ll be living for the next four years.”

After I’ve settled in a bit and gone through NSOP, there have been many things that I’ve been culture shocked by, some pleasant (Morningside Heights feels like a cleaner, less hilly San Francisco) and some unpleasant (what is humidity??). But the biggest shock of all is the horrible realization that people from the East Coast call it ‘bubble tea’ and not ‘boba’.

Let’s get this straight: I am an avid fan of boba. As a kid, my mom and I would go get boba like many people would get ice cream with their parents. Boba was my treat, and over cups of boba, I’ve had many fond memories with loved ones and friends. I’ve had cheap boba, fancy boba, 99 Ranch Market boba even, and just about everything in between. Evidently, I’ve had a lot of boba in my life, and I think that entitles me to some opinion on its name.

So, as a very passionate boba-consumer from the West Coast, here’s a list of reasons as to why you should call it ‘boba’ not ‘bubble tea’”:

  1. ‘Boba’ has alliteration. Both syllables start with ‘b’, which makes it super easy to pronounce. On the other hand, ‘bubble tea’ tries to be a simple phrase, but is stuck uncomfortably between cute and oddly formal.
    ‘Boba’ rolls off the tongue easily. The fact that the word is half vowel makes it smooth and refreshing. You relax as you say it, but with ‘bubble tea’, you have to strain as you pronounce it, almost spitting out the syllables. Why struggle when you can relax?
  2. Due to it being called ‘bubble tea’ here on the East Coast, stores have taken to calling the pearls ‘bubbles’, which is just a completely inaccurate name. ‘Bubble’ implies that the tapioca balls will be hollow or at least pop, neither of which happens. Instead, they’re squishy and solid, which is the opposite of a bubble.
  3. I know that ‘bubble tea’ technically refers to the bubbles that are made when you’re shaking the drink to mix it, but when have you ever bought boba and got a drink with lots of actual bubbles in it? Never.
  4. The word ‘boba’ refers to the pearls themselves. Since boba has to have boba in it, it makes sense that we would refer to the drink via its most crucial element: boba.
  5. American boba is not the same as boba overseas. We can all recognize that. So it makes sense to use the term from the part of America that has the highest concentration of boba. The Bay Area is the foremost expert on US boba. As such, we should use the name that the Bay Area uses: boba.
  6. One of the most popular chains for boba, Boba Guys, is called Boba Guys not Bubble Guys or Pearl Guys. Clearly, they recognize that ‘boba’ is the correct name. Their popularity only shows how correct they are.
  7. The name ‘bubble tea’ limits the drinks that the boba/pearls are placed in to teas, which is unfortunate since shops are always increasingly creative with what they make. Calling it ‘boba’ expands drink horizons to literally anything, since there’s no specificity in the name. Creativity!

The Case for Bubble Tea: 

Before moving to New York and coming to Morningside Heights for college, I lived in Shanghai, China for 18 years. So if we are going to be talking credentials, I am literally from China and I’ve lived there my whole life. Coming to college, I experienced way more culture shock than I thought I would. People asked me why I spoke English so well, made fun of me for calling air conditioning “air con”, and more. Amongst these shocks, a trivial yet defining shock would be people who refer to bubble tea as “boba”.

In Shanghai, there is literally bubble tea at every corner of the street. The amount of bubble tea shops there is comparable to the amount of Duane reades here. And I’m not talking Americanized bubble tea like Tea Magic or Boba Guys (yeah it’s good but it’s very westernized). I’m talking about real Chinese bubble tea, costing $1 instead of the overpriced $5 average here.The bubble tea places in Shanghai are far better than anywhere in the U.S and Morningside Heights definitely does not even come close to comparing.

So as a very passionate BUBBLE TEA consumer from China, here are the reasons why it’s called bubble tea and not boba:

  1. Calling bubble tea boba is inaccurate because you are literally just referring to the actual tapioca in the tea. So technically if you want some boba you would just be getting a bowl of tapioca and no tea.
  2. Bubble tea, on the other hand, is a much more broad term that includes all types of drinks. To argue against the fact that bubble tea specifically refers to tea, all these new tea shops that put pearls in their fruit smoothies are untraditional and thus should not be considered in the name.
  3. Technically, the drink should be called pearl milk tea (when referring specifically to tea with milk and pearls). However, pearl milk tea is way longer to say than bubble tea. Bubble tea is a good length while still maintaining accuracy.
  4. Colloquially, people have started referring to pearls as bubbles. Even though “bubbles” was originally referring to the bubbles formed from shaking the drink, the tapioca also do look like bubbles so what’s wrong with calling them that? In fact, the pearls look more like bubbles than boba.. Which brings me to my next point…
  5. If you speak Chinese, then you would know that “boba” or “ means big boobs. This is how the term ”boba” started: a small tea shop in Taiwan changed it from “bubble tea” to “boba” after being inspired by big-boobed Cantonese actress and sex symbol Amy Yip. So yeah, when you say boba, or name your store boba, it actually means “BIG BOOBS”. How do your childhood memories look now?

The Case for Milk Tea:

Lots of walls of text up here. But we already have enough to read for class so let’s cut to the chase.

  1. Milk tea is less of a mouthful. Less syllables than bubble tea and the same as boba, but it flows better off the tongue than boba.
  2. Milk tea allows you to get milk tea with other toppings besides bubbles. Tapioca balls are an entry level topping. Honestly, unless you’re at Boba Guys who actually has good bubbles, or Bar Pa Tea who has small bubbles, tapioca balls are just an inferior topping. It tastes like nothing and it just makes your mouth tired from all the chewing. Instead, you could get popping bubbles, grass jelly, jellies, the list goes on. You can do so much better. You DESERVE so much better. Personally, I like red bean and pudding.
  3. What if you’re lactose intolerant and can’t drink milk? Just get almond MILK. That’s still milk tea. Boom, milk tea welcomes folks of all levels of digestive tracts.
  4. Milk tea is the calm neutral choice, while bubble tea and boba are just plain belligerent and hostile for no reason. Milk tea is Kakashi, bubble tea is Naruto, and boba is Sasuke.
  5. “BuT miLK tEA doEsn’T iNcLUdE frUIT teAs” yeah that’s because nobody drinks that shit. Maybe if we were in China and we had Hey Tea, that would be a reasonable statement. But we’re here in Morningside Heights. So just go bite an apple and drink some water or something.
  6. Before I became Yung Soylent Papi I was Yung Milk Tea Papi, so you already know where my loyalties lie.

disclosure: I searched “boba tea” to find this image via Flickr

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