The Linsane Art of Opening Cultural Doors with Tea
Crossing the culture barrier, one tapioca ball at a time.
One of the most rewarding experiences since Boba Guys started up has been being able to share a bit of our culture with our customers. After a week of Linsanity, we have had several people ask us about Jeremy Lin, the New York Knicks basketball star of Taiwanese descent who is breaking down stereotypes about Asian Americans. It is hard to suppress our excitement about someone who is blazing a trail for individuals like us.
The Linsanity phenomenon shows that people like being pleasantly surprised, either by an underdog story or someone unexpectedly breaking barriers. The questions Boba Guys’ customers ask us show there’s more than one way to change people’s perceptions of another culture.
One of our values is accessibility. Many people are still learning what bubble tea is, and tapioca pearls are often foreign to the American palate. We’ve heard a lot of people say, “It’s… interesting. I like the milk tea, but I never had to chew my drink before.” We take these comments in stride. Americans did not always love sushi or coconut water, nor are those delectable imports, like bubble tea, for everyone. That people are trying something new is already rewarding enough.
We believe food is the door into other cultures; we usually find insight into a different way of life by experiencing their food. What is the dominant taste: sweet, sour, or savory? Are the dishes typically served hot or cold? Are dishes meant to eaten individually or communally? These answers give us a glimpse into the cuisine’s place and people of origin.
Boba Guys, to our surprise, became a small platform for this kind of conversation. We often see people explaining what boba is to their friends and offering to pay for their drinks, or meet customers who tell us about their recent trip to China or Taiwan.
We work extremely hard to make Boba Guys accessible and inviting, but the level of candor is pleasantly refreshing. Our favorite examples are when people ask us about the relationship between Taiwan and China. It usually goes like this:
Customer #1: I know this may be touchy, but can you explain what the difference is between Taiwan and China?
Friend of Customer #1: No, don’t ask them that. Don’t talk about politics.
Customer #1: I know, but I don’t get why my Taiwanese friends always correct me when I say they are Chinese. They never explain.\n
Growing up in traditional Taiwanese and Chinese families, we had to reconcile the relationship as well, so we understand where the question is coming from. We are very grateful that people would look to us—a boba shop—to answer such tough questions. People don’t expect us to give a History Channel explanation, but are nonetheless excited when we explain the tension in everyday terms. Andrew often explains it like a corporate merger or marriage gone sour.
However, few of our conversations ever get so heavy. Most of the time, we address simpler topics like explaining how tapioca is made or the difference between Hong Kong milk tea and Taiwanese style milk tea (Hong Kong-style uses a different type of milk). And sometimes, it happens the other way around. When we introduced our horchata boba, we explained what horchata was to Asian Americans unfamiliar with the popular Latin American drink made with rice milk.
As we continue to improve our business, we hope people talk about Boba Guys the same way they talk about Lin—with interest, curiosity and hopefully some affection. We want to continue to engage with our customers and share our culture with them. And just maybe, we can change the way people see boba milk tea.
The Boba Guys share their adventures in food enterprise every Monday.