Editor’s Note: The NY Times has since issued a response to criticism received by readers.
We’re in 2017, but The New York Times is in 1997.
In a now archived, tone-deaf article, NY Times journalist Joanne Kaufman confidently reported about the “relatively new” boba tea drinks, comparing the tasty treat to coffee. The article was hastily edited hours later as readers criticized the piece for essentially “rediscovering” something that had already been on the American market for at least two decades.
Boba, interchangeably called Bubble Tea, is a drink that was invented in Taiwan in the 1980s and has been popular in the United States since its introduction to the U.S. market in the late ’90s.
The original article’s URL referred to the tapioca balls as “blobs” and assured readers that they were placed there on purpose:
Kaufman continued to delve into boba, as if it was an entirely new concept to the United States, calling it “an Asian import” and “exotic”.
The piece also uses questionable phrasing that erases the hard work entrepreneurs put in to popularizing the drink, claiming boba simply “washed ashore” to the U.S.
The meta-data likens the dessert-like drink to coffee, which some journalists have pointed out is not a direct comparison.
Celeste Yim penned an Op-Ed to Vice elaborating on why this comparison doesn’t make sense.
“[Boba and coffee] are not interchangeable at all. Bubble tea is sweet, creamy, sometimes fruit-flavored—much more similar to ice cream than an Americano. And like ice cream, bubble tea is not meant to be consumed at 9 AM before a long day at work.”
NextShark reached out to several Boba shop owners for comments on the article.
“We see both sides,” says Andrew Chau, co-founder of Boba Guys (the restaurant referenced in the original article). “We just cracked the Inc 500 this week. We had a full-page spread in INC Mag and a feature in Vogue. I think that’s pretty mainstream.”
“I think the NYT article is definitely a cautionary tale about how not to address cultural foods. It’s a simple case of ‘othering’ the unknown side. I am sure the editor chose “blobs” as the headline because it’s provocative and most people in America don’t know what boba or bubble tea is– sad as it may be for us. I have to explain our company name to people all the time… in New York, Los Angeles, and sometimes San Francisco.”
“We were a part of the article as you can see, so we genuinely believe they were trying to understand what we do. For the most part, the article is fair given that most of America still doesn’t know what boba is. It’s just that they chose a horrible headline. It’s like a bad trailer edit for a movie.”
Quang Vu, owner of Chewy Boba Company, also weighed in. Vu started out as a trademark licensee with Lollicup in 2002 with the first to offer Boba in the state of Florida. In 2010, he decided to branch out on his own, creating Chewy Boba Company.
“[The article] doesn’t really anger me, but I don’t believe that boba is a niche market. The majority of my customer base is Caucasian – more than 65%. With that being said, I don’t think it is near its peak just yet, even though boba has been in the U.S. for around 20 years.”
“I do feel that boba is a trend that is here to stay; our brand is still growing as more and more people are introduced to the uniqueness of the chewy boba and add-ins that we offer in our drinks that makes it fun to snack on while drinking at the same time. The more articles being written about boba without being negative, the better – after all, Starbucks started from somewhere, right? Why can’t boba eventually be where Starbucks is?”
Joe Kaylem Deng, Co-Owner of LimeRed Teahouse, found the article “underwhelming”.
“Honestly, I read it in hopes it would be informative and mean something that I can use for marketing for my shop. But after reading it… I was underwhelmed and didn’t think much of it.”
“Was it tone deaf? Some parts, yes. ‘It washed ashore in the US a few years back’? WHAT? It didn’t just ‘wash ashore’!
“I wasn’t offended. But I did note that this wasn’t the way I would market myself. Bubble tea…how do I explain that Americans love boba more than I do?! At this point, if my shop doesn’t have boba – customers walk out the door. It’s not strange to everybody…we all eat cereal don’t we?
“I don’t like how the article made my livelihood feel like I’m competing against America’s beloved coffee… in fact my shop is taking over coffee too. Coffee with boba: check, mate.
“The way my culture is being portrayed as strange versus an innovation we can all get behind as Americans? I can see how the owner of Gong Cha may say that there is a learning curve – it’s not everyone’s cup of tea – but I see that as with trying anything new, not because it’s ‘foreign’.
“Among the countless amazing entrepreneurs taking a risk to bring this gem from Asia are Asian-Americans that are changing the game and creating something new. The things we’re cooking up in the shops…no one’s trying to be second best to coffee.
“The future of cafes will have both. Because I love myself a good cup of coffee as often as I love my bubble tea.”
Amidst criticism, the article was updated with the following editor’s note:
“Editors’ note: An earlier version of this article prompted criticism by readers and we have since revised the article in response.“
The article redacted its tone-deaf comments, including claiming that boba is “relatively new” and any references to it being an “exotic Asian import”.
The URL has also been updated to feature a more palatable description of “bubble-tea”.