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Originating in Taiwan, bubble tea was one of many products hard hit by the pandemic. But the internationally-beloved, tapioca-based drink isn’t just any import any longer — it’s an entire culture.
Tapioca pearls are bubble tea’s most important ingredient
TAIPEI — In mid-April, a report entitled “Another Unlikely Pandemic Shortage: Boba Tea” appeared inThe New York Times. This rang alarm bells for fans of the great Taiwanese delicacy, also called bubble tea, milk tea or Zhenzhu Naicha in Mandarin Chinese. The bad news came just as the weather was warming up, the tensions brought about by COVID-19 were easing, and the food and beverage industry was hoping for a pick-up in business.
The global pandemic caused a major shortage in the supply chain of tapioca pearls, bubble tea’s most important ingredient that sets it apart from other beverages. More than 90 % of tapioca starch comes from Taiwan, as the three partners of Boba Guys, a franchise chain, explained to their clients in an Instagram post.
Bubble tea shops everywhere were obliged to limit customers to one boba tea per order, hampering not just a product but a global mascot for Asian-American pride.
According to Alan Yu, founder of Lollicup, a restaurant chain as well a major supplier of North America’s raw tapioca material, at least 20,000 stores in the U.S. specialize in this drink, and the tea is also sold in an additional 30,000 restaurants.
Even fast-food chains such as Sonic Burgers, Chilli’s and Taco are Mr. Yu’s clients for raw materials. They all aim to profit off boba tea which has gone far beyond the Chinese speaking diaspora to become a trendy drink among mainstream American yuppies and young people.
An immigrant from Taiwan and originally making a living in Los Angeles renting VCD and DVD Chinese films, Mr. Yu opened his first Lollicup store in 2000. Today, he is the CEO of Karat, a Nasdaq listed company and a supplier of tapioca starch as well as disposable dining ware. He even opened a “boba school,” training people how to cook tapioca pearls and create boba tea with various flavors. Among his students are coffee baristas who hope to transition to this new beverage craze.
Boba tea represents a suburban, middle-class Asian American culture
Boba Guys
According to Eileen Cheng-yin Chow, Associate Professor of the Practice in Chinese and Japanese Cultural Studies at Duke University, bubble tea has evolved from an identity label for Asian American youngsters into the online “Milk Tea Alliance,” a group rallying young netizens from Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, and Burma to protest against authoritarianism and advocate for democracy. Even when there were numerous hate crimes against Asian in the U.S., boba tea never became a target.
Ms. Zhang Xinwei, a doctoral student at the University of Helsinki specialized in the globalization of food, believes boba tea’s global popularity is closely associated with Taiwanese emigrants and capital flow.
“At first, a part of these Taiwanese emigrants went to Hong Kong and China and took along the bubble tea shops, incubating the first batch of boba tea drinkers outside Taiwan. In turn, when their clients traveled abroad, they took this daily consumption habit with them to new destinations.”
After the 1960s, a batch of Taiwanese immigrants landed in the U.S. and earned their living in the catering business. Once a “hidden menu” item in Taiwanese-American run restaurants, bubble tea was only ordered by Taiwanese clients already familiar with the beverage. It was particularly popular with their offspring who introduced it to their peers, spreading the trend.
“Through the tea, they started to ponder their identity, to create songs and music videos about bubble tea. Just like Kpop, sushi, and Japanese ramen, boba tea also flowed into North America, becoming a cultural trend around the year 2000,” Ms. Zhang commented.
Considered “bars for minors,” boba tea stores are places where youngsters from migrant families can gather with their friends after school.
“Most of the boba tea stores’ customers are teenagers. After going to SAT classes, they meet up there. This a place to cram for exams, but also a place for dates and being broken-hearted. In this space, they can feel a sense of belonging, which surpasses the meaning of milk tea itself as a drink,” says Clarissa Wei, a foodie writer born in Taiwan but who grew up in Los Angeles.
Born in the U.S. in 1984, Philip Wang is a second-generation Taiwanese American and a renowned YouTuber who creates original Asian-themed films. He still recalls his teenage years when the term “Asian pride” was on everyone’s lips. It was the moment when Japanese animation and South Korean pop music entered the U.S., and Asian Americans were increasingly asserting themselves as the export of Asian pop culture confronted a mainstream American culture that was overwhelmingly white.
“For the first time, boba tea made me feel there was a cultural product belonging to the Asian community in the United States”, said Philip Wang, who also owns a tapioca tea shop called the Bopomofo Cafe.
People queue up in front of a bubble tea shop in Hong Kong
Marc Fernandes/NurPhoto/ZUMA
Xinwei recalls the theory of Krishnendu Ray, associate Professor of Nutrition & Food Studies at New York University: To a certain extent, the price of foreign food overseas is a reflection of the combined economic, military, and immigrant strength of the origin country. The higher the food’s price, the higher the group’s socioeconomic status.
Compared with the chop suey dishes associated with Chinatown’s working class culture, boba tea represents a suburban, middle-class Asian-American culture. To Professor Eileen Cheng-yin Chow, bubble tea’s trajectory in the U.S. “resembles that of Starbucks, not that of Chinese food”.
Today, numerous tapioca tea stores are run by second generation Taiwanese or Chinese Americans who were born and grew up in the U.S.. Take Andrew Chau and Bin Chen, founders of the Boba Guys, as an example. As Americans, they leverage English dietary jargon and completely fit in with American middle-class consumption habits, such as using organic milk or vegetable milk. While the chain still relies on imports of cassava starch, the ingredient for making tapioca pearls, they possess their own manufacturing facilities.
More than just Asian eateries, these are American stores selling Asian food, continuing America’s melting pot tradition in step with their personal trajectory.
In 2017, a New York Times article, “Bubble Tea Purveyors Continue to Grow along with Drink’s Popularity,” used words like “exotic” and “Far-East” to describe the tapioca tea drink, causing a huge uproar. Readers criticized the author, saying his concept of the beverage was stuck in the last century. A few days later,The New York Times was obliged to publish an apology piece titled, “Our Readers Call Us Out Over Bubble Tea. They Are Right,” admitting that bubble tea has long been part of American culture.
Xinwei confirmed boba tea’s heritage in a study where European consumers defined the tapioca drink as a beverage enjoyed by North American foodies, even if some of the subjects knew it originated in Asia. Xinwei finds the drink’s American-ness crucial to its success: “If boba tea hadn’t gone to the U.S. and become a part of the young American lifestyle first, I don’t think it would have been globalized so quickly.”
A member of the Ukrainian Armed Forces writes his account of the new dynamic of targeting, and being targeted by, the invading Russian troops, as drones circle above and trenches get left behind.
A Ukrainian military drone operator during a testing of anti-drone rifle in Kyiv.
KYIV — The current war in Ukraine is a game of hide-and-seek. Both sides are very well-stocked with artillery, enough to destroy the enemy along many kilometers. Swarms of drones fly through the air day and night, keeping a close eye on the earth’s surface below. If they notice something interesting, it immediately becomes a target. Depending on the priority, they put it in line for destruction by artillery.
Therefore, the only effective way to survive is to hide, or at least somehow prove to the drones your non-priority status — and avoid moving to the front of the ‘queue of death.’
Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.
In general, the nature of this queue is a particular thing. It may seem to be a god, but is instead a simple artillery captain’s decision of when to have lunch, and when to fire on the house where several enemy soldiers are staying. It’s just a handful of ordinary people (observers, artillerymen) deciding how long their enemies will live depending on their own schedule or the weather, the availability of ammunition or if they’re feeling tired.
People who may have become targets sometimes have the luck to escape death a bit longer simply because other, more important targets appeared in the meantime. “Tonight, we are working on the armored vehicles hidden in the landing,” one artillery operator said recently, “we’ll let those at the checkpoint live until tomorrow.”
Everyone is hiding. The infantry is hiding — it is the easiest thing for them to do. Soldiers are sitting in houses, in the forest belts and forests trying in every possible way to hide the signs of their existence.
The idea of a war with trenches and the movement of large columns is outdated. That is not to say the Russians aren’t moving in large columns, but they’re doing it less and less — as the tragic consequences of it has regularly appeared in viral videos online.
Trenches usually stay empty until the brief, right moment. If possible, communication tunnels are dug to reach the trenches, so that the infantry can dash into them when the enemy has gotten too close to the places they’ve been hiding. But besides that, no one will just sit in the trench and wait.
Of course, there are always some exceptions to all the hiding. You’ll see a soldier sitting and cooking on a fire in a local farmer’s yard. Others even do exercises outdoors.
But this is not Chechnya or Syria. Such behavior by Russian troops is sooner or later punished. The sky is filled with the watchful electronic eyes of our growing fleet of drones.
View of a drone during the anti-drone rifle testing in Kyiv.
The other thing that is regularly hidden is the equipment. First of all, armored vehicles. Plus there are guns, tanks, combat vehicles, all these are exquisite delicacies for artillery. The armored vehicles hide in rural locations under a layer of branches, and in the city, they are disguised as piles of garbage or hidden in the corners of yards so that the house covers them from shelling.
It is not easy to hide armored vehicles. The earth remembers everything: traces remain on the soil, on the asphalt. Their principle is the same as the infantry’s: to go to a position prepared for fire, shoot several times and move to another place without waiting for a shell to fly there.
Of course, the aircraft are also hiding. This month Russian helicopters could only be heard. They fire a swarm of unguided missiles from behind the hill and turn back before those reach and hit the target. This is blind shooting, dangerous only because someone may not hear the helicopter and not hide.
It seems that their helicopters that acted differently have already been taken out by the Ukrainian Air Defense Forces.
The artillery is also hiding. For example, our self-propelled guns take a few shots and run away, because Russian artillery starts firing at them, and after a few minutes ours starts firing at them again. And so on…
Rarely do tanks come out and shoot at each other. I have seen this, or rather heard it, but this was a result of the exceptional recklessness of tank commanders as a special part of humanity.
Trucks are the hardest to hide, large in length and height, the ultimate disposable products of war.
It was not always like that. Confident in the superiority of their artillery and aircraft, the Russians positioned themselves in fields visible for many kilometers. It was as if they were at a military exercise somewhere in the Rostov region of their own country.
They suffered losses from our artillery fire, called helicopters to evacuate the wounded, which the Ukrainians shot down too. And so, it happened again and again, until somewhere in the distant headquarters, there was time to order them to change tactics. To hide.
Some 90% of our losses are from artillery fire. The Russians probably have a lower rate in relative terms (although, perhaps, higher in absolute terms), because the Ukrainian infantry competes with the Ukrainian artillery for the heads of occupiers.
Our advantage in light anti-tank weapons includes “Skifs” (anti-tank guided missiles), Javelins and NLAWs, so the Russians are also destroyed in the line of sight. But in general, although the fighting is fierce, it may be months before soldiers see the enemy with their own eyes .
*The author is an active member of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
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Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.
Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.
Then there is Mariupol, under siege and symbol of Putin’s cruelty. In the largest city on the Azov Sea, with a population of half a million people, Ukrainians make up slightly less than half of the city’s population, and Mariupol’s second-largest national ethnicity is Russians. As of 2001, when the last census was conducted, 89.5% of the city’s population identified Russian as their mother tongue.
Between 2018 and 2019, I spent several months in Mariupol. It is a rugged but beautiful city dotted with Soviet-era architecture, featuring wide avenues and hillside parks, and an extensive industrial zone stretching along the shoreline. There was a vibrant youth culture and art scene, with students developing projects to turn their city into a regional cultural center with an international photography festival.
There were also many offices of international NGOs and human rights organizations, a consequence of the fact that Mariupol was the last major city before entering the occupied zone of Donbas. Many natives of the contested regions of Luhansk and Donetsk had moved there, taking jobs in restaurants and hospitals. I had fond memories of the welcoming from locals who were quicker to smile than in some other parts of Ukraine. All of this is gone.
According to the latest data from the local authorities, 80% of the port city has been destroyed by Russian bombs, artillery fire and missile attacks, with particularly egregious targeting of civilians, including a maternity hospital, a theater where more than 1,000 people had taken shelter and a school where some 400 others were hiding.
The official civilian death toll of Mariupol is estimated at more than 3,000. There are no language or ethnic-based statistics of the victims, but it’s likely the majority were Russian speakers.
So let’s be clear, Putin is bombing the very people he has claimed to want to rescue.
Putin’s Public Enemy No. 1, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, is a mother-tongue Russian speaker who’d made a successful acting and comedy career in Russian-language broadcasting, having extensively toured Russian cities for years.
Rescuers carry a person injured during a shelling by Russian troops of Kharkiv, northeastern Ukraine.
Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/Ukrinform via ZUMA Press Wire
Yes, the official language of Ukraine is Ukrainian, and a 2019 law aimed to ensure that it is used in public discourse, but no one has ever sought to abolish the Russian language in everyday life. In none of the cities that are now being bombed by the Russian army to supposedly liberate them has the Russian language been suppressed or have the Russian-speaking population been discriminated against.
Sociologist Mikhail Mishchenko explains that studies have found that the vast majority of Ukrainians don’t consider language a political issue. For reasons of history, culture and the similarities of the two languages, Ukraine is effectively a bilingual nation.
“The overwhelming majority of the population speaks both languages, Russian and Ukrainian,” Mishchenko explains. “Those who say they understand Russian poorly and have difficulty communicating in it are just over 4% percent. Approximately the same number of people say the same about Ukrainian.”
In general, there is no problem of communication and understanding. Often there will be conversations where one person speaks Ukrainian, and the other responds in Russian. Geographically, the Russian language is more dominant in the eastern and central parts of Ukraine, and Ukrainian in the west.
Like most central Ukrainians I am perfectly bilingual: for me, Ukrainian and Russian are both native languages that I have used since childhood in Kyiv. My generation grew up on Russian rock, post-Soviet cinema, and translations of foreign literature into Russian. I communicate in Russian with my sister, and with my mother and daughter in Ukrainian. I write professionally in three languages: Ukrainian, Russian and English, and can also speak Polish, French, and a bit Japanese. My mother taught me that the more languages I know the more human I am.
At the same time, I am not Russian — nor British or Polish. I am Ukrainian. Ours is a nation with a long history and culture of its own, which has always included a multi-ethnic population: Russians, Belarusians, Moldovans, Crimean Tatars, Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians, Poles, Jews, Greeks. We all, they all, have found our place on Ukrainian soil. We speak different languages, pray in different churches, we have different traditions, clothes, and cuisine.
Like in other countries, these differences have been the source of conflict in our past. But it is who we are and will always be, and real progress has been made over the past three decades to embrace our multitudes. Our Jewish, Russian-speaking president is the most visible proof of that — and is in fact part of what our soldiers are fighting for.
Many in Moscow were convinced that Russian troops would be welcomed in Ukraine as liberating heroes by Russian speakers. Instead, young soldiers are forced to shoot at people who scream in their native language.
Starving people ina street of Kharkiv in 1933, during the famine
Diocesan Archive of Vienna (Diözesanarchiv Wien)/BA Innitzer
Putin has tried to rally the troops by warning that in Ukraine a “genocide” of ethnic Russians is being carried out by a government that must be “de-nazified.”
These are, of course, words with specific definitions that carry the full weight of history. The Ukrainian people know what genocide is not from books. In my hometown of Kyiv, German soldiers massacred Jews en masse. My grandfather survived the Buchenwald concentration camp, liberated by the U.S. army. My great-grandmother, who died at the age of 95, survived the 1932-33 famine when the Red Army carried out the genocide of the Ukrainian middle class, and her sister disappeared in the camps of Siberia, convicted for defying rationing to try to feed her children during the famine.
On Tuesday, came a notable report of one of the latest civilian deaths in the besieged Russian-speaking city of Kharkiv: a 96-year-old had been killed when shelling hit his apartment building. The victim’s name was Boris Romanchenko; he had survived Buchenwald and two other Nazi concentration camps during World War II. As President Zelensky noted: Hitler didn’t manage to kill him, but Putin did.
Genocide has returned to Ukraine, from Kharkiv to Kherson to Mariupol, as Vladimir Putin had warned. But it is his own genocide against the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine.

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