Monday, July 30, 2012

Boba Tea aka a High Ranking Love of My Life

Us Taiwanese have our challenges.  We cannot fly our own flag at the Olympics. We cannot grow very tall.  We cannot let go of our obsession over Hello Kitty. But we lay claim to introducing the world to the ingenious beverage that is Boba Tea.

Let's first talk origins.  Now I have personally read heartrending origin stories of boba tea in several tea stands all over Taiwan.  I have a healthy amount of skepticism, not unlike the doubt I cast over the old farmer who sits giving autographs by the Terracotta soldiers claiming to be the first to strike this amazing discovery (come ON, the dude never ages!), towards anyone who claims to have invented BT. There are two probable tea shops, one located in Tainan, the other in Taichung with a higher degree of legitimacy, but the verdict is inconclusive.  Suffice it to say, someone at some point, in Taiwan, decided to put tapioca balls in milk tea, increase the diameter of a regular sized straw, and start a world-trending sensation in the cold tea industry.  

Next let's try to nail down proper terminology.  In the beginning, the drink was given the lovely name of Zhen Zhu Nai Cha, the "Pearl Milk Tea", invoking the beautiful Chinese tradition of embellishing the names of our dishes, transforming plain old tapioca balls into a treasured jewel.  Later on, as the pearls evolved (got bigger), someone crassly named it Boba tea.  Boba is a Taiwanese colloquial term for large breasts.  It's kind of a bummer, really.  Luckily, some English speakers have taken to calling it "Bubble Tea", which is both a sound play of Boba Tea as well as descriptive of the round objects suspended in the drinks.  For the purpose of this blog, I'm going to shorten it to BT.


For those who may have never tried BT, let me just break it down to you exactly what it is.  Bobas are tapioca balls.  Its primary ingredients are starch, water, and sugar, mixed together and shaped into small balls of varying diameters.  Originally, people ate them just by itself in sugared water as a dessert.  At that time, they were usually made to be clear in color.  Eventually people started liking the taste of brown sugar in them so the dark colored tapiocas came to be popular.  Taiwanese people are very particular about the texture of our food. A common description for bobas are "tan-ya", which literally means bounces-off-teeth.  For some odd reason we like to work to consume our food.  Chicken off bones, crab meat from the crevices of the claws, nuts encased in hard shells, the process is half the fun.  Consistent with this ethic, we feel simply gulping down liquid is hardly belaboring, let's work the jaw muscles as we drink. Boba tea is made by filling about 1/4 of a cup with tapioca balls, then filled to the brim with milk tea. It is consumed by straws large enough so you can enjoy a perfect proportion of both liquid and solids with each and every sip.

Adding boba to tea is like accessorizing.  It may not have cost you very much to add that colorful scarf or shiny belt to your cute little black dress, but it sure transforms the entire outfit.  Who would've thought something as plain and ordinary as starch and sugar could make a pauper of a drink into a prince? 

BT is more than my comfort drink, it is my Savior drink. I have had the darkest days of my life brightened by the presence of BT. My husband knows instinctively how to smooth over a fight. No flowers or chocolate for me, a cheap drink off the tea stand taps into the most romantic part of my soul. Stress melts when I anticipate that first cold rush of bubbles shooting up into the roof of my mouth, and the ensuing slow rhythmic chewing as the caffeine adds a kick to my system.  It's a perfect balance of white and dark, fluid and substance, yin and yang.  

You should try it.  I like it a lot, can you tell?

Sunday, July 15, 2012


Continuing the conversation on false assumptions of Chinese displays of affection, Kimberly asked this question:  "Is criticism from Chinese mothers a display of genuine love?"

This is a loaded question mainly because we move into the territory of defining what "love" is, which differs widely even within America's own culture.  Needless to say, trying to digest all the various ways Chinese define love will be outside the scope of this blog.  However, I think I understand where the question comes from. I'm sure the perception of the harsh and more poignantly, constant, criticism of parents toward children is hard to watch for Americans who care for these families. Let me just offer some food for thought which hopefully helps shed some light on the spirit behind which the criticism is extended.

My first baby was born in the States.  As I stepped into that life stage in American culture, I was naturally exposed to the ways American parents interacted in their society.  The first time I heard an American Mom brag about how cute their baby is to their friends, I was shocked. A traditional Chinese value (I am aware times are changing quickly and generalizations are what they are, so I do stress this is as a historically traditional Chinese value) is humility. Bragging on yourselves is not virtuous.  Even when others compliment you, you are to disagree vehemently and reject any compliments to exhibit your humble stature.  Imagine a society where your identity is wrapped up with your family's identity (unlike American individualism, where each individual's identity stands on their own), bragging on your children is equivalent to uplifting your own self. This causes great confusion to Westerners who may want to show kindness by complimenting a friend's child, only to have them respond, "What? My daughter is not beautiful, she's fat and her eyes are too small." Before you judge them to be super critical of their own child, trust me when I say inside the parent is swelling with pride at your compliment.

As the child grows and the criticisms continue, the American struggles to see beyond the pure horror of a grown adult being chastised severely by their elderly parent.  Again, I'd like to remind the American how much the family's identity is wrapped up in each other, so what appears to be relentless criticism toward the child is often self criticism or constant reminder to the child their behavior represents their whole family.  The stake is high: get those high scores, find a better job, get in relationships with the right people, our family's honor depends on it.

Americans will also be surprised the adult child allow themselves to receive the criticism without putting up a fight.  This is because the concept of hierarchy is so much more pronounced in Chinese culture compared to the West. Age is a powerful status in Chinese culture. The one person who has more power than the all-revered Chinese emperor is the emperor's mother, the elder of the emperor (Think the infamous Qing Dynasty Empress Dowager, Ci Xi). As soon as your baby brother is born, the older sister has clout at 2 years old.  Jie Jie gets to tell Di Di what to do and get away with it.  Speaking back to an elder is a sign of grave disrespect, so no matter how ugly the criticisms can get from an elder, you'll seldom see push back.  It may seem unjust but keep in mind the child grows and one day becomes an elder with the rights to criticize.  What goes around comes around.

One more thing I'd like to mention is the difference between obligations to each other.  In American society, parents relinquish most of the obligations as their child goes off to college.  Chinese families are committed to being intimately involved for life.  So American kids would typically not put up with their parents' criticisms, especially after they've become adults, but they also don't expect their parents to be obligated to them for financial support or to help raise their kids. The criticism Americans hear is only one part of an implicit mutual agreement: I will do and sacrifice everything I have for you for the rest of your life and this gives me a right to continue to input into your life.

Thus far, I've tried to refrain from making value judgments.  Not right, not wrong, just different.  This is a personal topic for me to tackle because I have my own Christian convictions as well as Western influences (not to mention a bit of a badass personality) which makes it VERY difficult for me to handle criticism from my elders. I especially believe as a follower of Jesus, I am responsible to fight against the injustice of a patriarchal society and stand up for my own value as a Chinese woman, rejecting harmful words for myself, for my daughter, and for all the beautiful girls of this culture. However, outsiders to this culture must be hesitant to judge before listening and understanding the vast commitments Chinese families have towards each other.

I love you = Wo Ai Ni?

Language is so much more than the words we utter.  Along with verbiage, our communication is expressed through tone, body language, and cultural implications.  Living in the cross section of American and Chinese culture, the missed layers of communication I observe between members of the respective cultures is at best humorous, and at worst, cause for broken relationships.

Take, for example, the usage of the phrase "I love you." I have heard Americans say those three words to people they've barely met.  I slowly learned not to squirm uncomfortably when I hear these words of affection thrown around like a greeting or more often a closing quip as companies depart.  My American friend recently admitted to me sometimes she feels those words are cheapened by how freely and frequently they are tossed around in her family. Being Chinese I've had to learn this cultural phenomenon and I've observed the following three situations in the way Americans say "I love you":

1.  A semi-to total functional family who genuinely respect and support one another may express I love you frequently as a sign of authentic love for each other.  They see the importance of leaving no room to doubt for their children or spouse to truly receive the heart behind the verbally spoken words.

2.  I love you becomes an acquiescence to societal norms in an effort to cover up what's really not-so-functional underneath.  Imagine a parent who is never around and drops the L-bomb at the end of a phone conversation in order to soothe their guilt.  Or a marriage whose passion has grown cold but continue the ritualistic "I love you-s" each morning as they go off to work in order to keep up the appearance of a healthy bond.

3. Sadly there are truly broken, perhaps even abusive, homes where family members have never been loved nor been told they are loved.

The problem arises when Americans encounter Chinese families who have never uttered those precious three words, "wo ai ni".  I'm afraid the American easily jumps to the conclusion the Chinese must therefore be a number 3 family.  I'm even more afraid when Christian Americans make it their mission to demonstrate true love to Chinese families with the assumption they must not know how to love if they don't say it.  This is simply a false assumption! Chinese families know how to love fiercely.  They do it through immense generosity, unwavering loyalty, and a lot of food. We love differently, not better, not worse, but definitely different.

This is not to say I don't think there's value in verbal expressions of love.  Some non-traditional Chinese families are starting to freely say I love you to each other and I believe that can be a healthy development. But I do believe the community should decide for themselves when or how they want to exhibit the love without being judged for being unloving unless they express themselves a certain way.

I'd be interested to hear what my American or Chinese readers think about this subject.  Do you say "I love you" to your families and friends?