The term “boba liberal” has become a commonplace pejorative, but its original definition critiqued and questioned the heart of Asian American identity.
Every so often, a new bubble tea shop opens up in New York City, usually the first branch of a Taiwanese cafe making its landing on the East Coast. During the grand opening, a restless line stretches down the block in familiar East Asian enclaves: Canal Street, Korea Way, St. Mark’s Place. New Yorkers celebrated the hype for Yi Fang, Biao Sugar, The Alley, Tiger Sugar, Machi Machi. Every opening promises a slightly different twist: elevated versions of the classics, innovative use of panna cotta, a signature milk tea blend that no one else offers.
So much of what we use to define Asian American identity is constructed around food, and boba has become one of the main tenets of this for many youths. It can feel like a marker of belonging is knowing the “rules” of ordering boba. You should have a favorite boba shop that you argue passionately in defense of, a regular order that you can rattle off without thinking. There’s a basic vocabulary required: less ice? Fifty percent sugar? toppings? Do you know what grass jelly is, do you call it “bubble tea” or “boba,” can you pop the straw in effortlessly on the first try?
Of course, this is a specific kind of status mostly applying to younger millennial and Gen Z Asian Americans. For the most part, they’re doing well socioeconomically, well enough to afford regularly purchasing these sugary drinks at $4-$7 an order. They probably live in places with larger Asian populations with access to the trendier chains. It makes sense, then, that if you wanted to coin a term for this rough cross-section of Asian Americans — young, relatively progressive, urban, upwardly-mobile, mostly second-generation — you would choose “boba liberal” as a defining term.
Boba liberalism, defined
Boba liberalism, in the most concise terms possible, is a type of Asian American-specific liberalism that aligns itself with popular or mainstream American liberal values but does not engage with criticisms of imperialism and capitalism.
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It seems widely agreed-upon that the earliest usage of the term dates back to a now-suspended Twitter account, @diaspora_is_red. The original Tweets are no longer accessible, but the thread has been preserved in other articles. Boba liberalism, per the original thread, is “a type of mainstream liberal Asian-American politics,” and a “substanceless trend-chasing spectacle.”
Under this framework, the main criticism of boba liberals is that they are able to make superficial claims to an Asian identity when it best serves them, discussing things like their affinity for Asian foods and their embrace of more mainstream progressive ideas like LGBTQ plus rights, while failing to attack more critical societal issues like capitalism or imperialism. In fact, boba liberalism relies on capitalism: “thinking t-shirts, products, and merchandise are the main way of affirming one’s racial identity…It’s capitalist consumption presented as ‘API-ness.’” There’s little interest in dismantling these systems because boba liberals benefit from them.
A term undergoing evolution
Once “boba liberals” started to become more mainstream, its meaning became muddled. Conservatives using the term “boba liberal” often deploy it imprecisely. They typically consider any Asian American to their left a boba liberal, a broad stroke that includes the leftists who coined the term in the first place. Complaints about boba liberals from the right seem to come from the same idea that boba liberals are buying into identity politics, but what upsets conservatives most is their belief that boba liberals do not prioritize Asian American causes. Boba liberals are “woke” in a bad way because they fail to center Asians. Boba liberalism seems to be equated with feminism, which in their eyes degrades Asian men, and the particular brand of anti-racism that boba liberals preach is seen as prioritizing other races over Asians.
All these proliferating understandings of boba liberalism have inevitably started to contradict one another. On Reddit, people were upset that “boba liberals” criticized Andrew Yang during his presidential campaign (the post also takes issue with NextShark as a publication). On the other hand, leftists criticized “boba liberals” for supporting Andrew Yang. Being critical of Andrew Yang made you a “boba liberal” to some, and contradictorily, supporting him made you a “boba liberal” to others.
The term is becoming so murky that now it just seems to be a widely, broadly applied term of disdain. For leftists, centrist and moderate Asian Americans are boba liberals. For conservatives, anyone to the left is a boba liberal.
Activism in 2020 brought boba liberalism to the forefront
2021 became the trending year of the boba liberal think piece. Most likely, this all arose from the massive spike of hate incidents against Asian Americans. This led to the #StopAsianHate movement, and a larger reckoning with the position of Asian Americans in our society. If there was a feeling of comfort or safety in being Asian American for some wealthier, better-off boba liberals, that feeling was questioned at its core in 2020.
The proliferation of these pieces also has to do with the fact that more mainstream sources of media are now ready to entertain these questions of Asian American identity because it’s seen as relevant in a way that it was not before.
As Asian American political power becomes more of a conversation in American political life, it’s likely that the boba liberals and what they represent about Asian American identity will only grow in relevance.
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