Asian Americans growing up in the United States, especially in Southern California, are having a different experience than their counterparts 20 to 30 years ago. There is a growing sense of Asian American pride and a unique cultural identity that has made it “hip” to be Asian in the U.S.
On any evening, after 9:00 p.m., college students and professionals pack the Factory Tea Bar. But the bar serves no alcohol; there is only sweetened tea, often served with ice, milk and an import from Taiwan: large chewy tapioca pearls called boba.
“The boba place is unique to Asian people and so, if you want that Asian comfort, you come to a boba place," explained Tiffany Porter, a U.S-born Chinese-American, "and so you can feel at home with a lot of other Asian people.”
Porter is part of what sociologist Oliver Wang calls "the boba generation".
“I think the boba generation, if you will, can span everything from today’s teenagers up through people probably my generation. I’m in my early 40s now. It covers a good 20 years or so,” he explained.
Wang said in the last 20 to 30 years, what it means to be Asian in Southern California has changed. He said when he was growing up, Asian Americans felt invisible.
”We performed well academically but we weren’t necessarily at the top of the internal cultural hierarchy that existed within schools or within a community, and I think that’s been a huge shift in this area in the last 20 or 30 years," noted Wang.
Wang said this generation grew up seeing more Asian faces on television -- locally and through satellite.
They are no longer stereotyped, he said, and they now can see how other Asians portray themselves -- as trendy, like in this music video Boba Life by comedians called The Fung Brothers
“I know boba is even more ubiquitous in Taiwan than here, but they don’t have the same culture built around it,” said David Fung, one of the Fung Brothers.
Boba culture in Southern California has been embraced by people who came from across Asia, including Indonesian-American Lina Yaori who socializes at boba cafes.
“We like relaxing. We like chatting," she remarked. "And then we like to enjoy the drink.”
Chatchawat Rienkhemaniyom may be from Thailand, but he knew boba teas have widespread appeal. That's why he opened the Factory Tea Bar. Business is booming.
“Boba has become life, become one of their life, a part of their life,” he said.
And that Asian-American lifestyle is spreading across the U.S.
“On every college campus, there’s enough Asian people, there’s enough Chinese people, Taiwanese people, where they’re going to have one boba shop no matter how crappy it is, and all the Asians know about it,” Andrew Fung stated.
Boba cafes have become a symbol of a cultural shift among Americanized Asians. They're still in touch with their ethnic roots but also take pride in being uniquely Asian American.