The Davis ‘Boba-boom’

The line resembled a snake after a feeding. Bulbous at certain points, a procession of UC Davis students wrapped around the block. They awaited a “Buy One, Get One Free” deal at the grand opening of Sharetea Davis, a new bubble milk tea establishment on 3rd and A.

What about this chilled tea has made it a youthful craze in progressive cities around the globe? The answer is the boba, or starchy cassava root extract formed into jell-like balls, that lurk at the bottom of the tea.  The marble-sized boba is slurped through massive straws. But before we can partake, we must skillfully use the syringe-like end of the straw to puncture the vacuum-sealed plastic covering the drink.

Originating in Taiwan in the 1980’s, the tea has rapidly integrated itself into a multitude of cultures, donning names such as boba, bubble, or pearl tea. A first encounter with this chew-able drink may be off-putting to some, but brave a second attempt and you will soon be tormented by an insatiable desire for sweet bubble tea.

Davis is equally as susceptible to “boba-mania.” Our lively college town approached bubble tea carrying-capacity as it became home to ten new boba tea establishments in the last four years alone, contributing to a total of 18 restaurants that sell the addictive beverage.

With so many bubble tea houses already in operation, the Davis community may wonder why we continue to welcome more tea houses into our ever-shrinking space. One explanation may be in the correlation between the proportion of Asian students in a local university and the number of bubble tea houses in their respective college towns.

UC Santa Barbara, tucked away on a beachside cliff in Southern California, reported a demographic of 19% Asian/Pacific Islander in 2014. Accordingly, the surrounding town of Isla Vista only hosts three bubble tea establishments, matching the lower proportion of Asian students living in the area.

UC Irvine has an undergraduate population of 44% Asian/Pacific Islander descent, providing a convincing explanation for the presence of over 40 restaurants that sell the bubbly beverage in the area enveloping the campus.

UC Davis is predominantly Asian as well—with undergraduate Asian/Pacific Islander population of about 39%. If towns like Isla Vista and Irvine cater proportionately to the given demographics of their universities, maybe the Davis “boba-boom” is not an anomaly at all, but simply an appropriate response to the substantial Asian population at UC Davis.

Whatever your ethnicity, the promise of a “snack-able” drink entices people of every age. In Davis, however, you will seldom encounter someone over the age of 30 partaking in the youth-driven phenomenon. If you do, they will likely be accompanied by a son or daughter.

An explanation for their indifference may be the novelty of the item. Truthfully, buying one of these drinks for the first time can be overwhelming without guidance and suggestions—recalling first time my parents squinted at a looming boba menu, shying away from the questioning gaze of the cashier, and saying with nervous smiles, “I’ll have whatever you’re having.”

Understandably, those adults who spend their free time downtown, would not choose a rambunctious, fluorescent-lit establishment to have a casual conversation after a day’s work. For a 19-year-old meeting friends after class, or preparing to battle physics homework until 3 a.m., an infusion of social and chemical energy is usually welcomed, if not desperately needed.

Bubble tea has unquestionably become a staple for UC Davis and high school students alike.  The boba tea and lively establishments separately serve a variety of purposes, from all-nighter studying fuel, to a place to talk loudly over a stream of K-pop music with friends.

People fidgeting in line for the Sharetea Davis grand opening identified their most common motivation for getting boba. Two-thirds of the people said they generally got boba because of simple cravings, while the remainder classified the outing as a means to socialize with friends.

A young girl of about 18 years-old waiting in line, cheeks reddened from the unrelenting Davis sun, gave a more nuanced motivation for purchasing bubble tea. “I usually go just to pay her back for things,” she responded, playfully pointing a thumb at her friend. Many friends, myself included, have used this drink to settle minor debts.

One thing has become increasingly evident in Davis over the past 5 years—boba tea has formed a mutualistic relationship with the youth of this town, thriving on Asian-American influences as well as the vigor of college students with an insatiable sweet tooth.


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