I’ve been asked this one question many times.
Usually I’ll give the short answer. I’ll say that I love boba, that it means a lot to me or that I grew up with it. But it’s more than that.
I was born in the outskirts of L.A. to a family of Cantonese immigrants, who imparted a strong food culture. When my aunties call I’m more likely to hear “Did you eat yet?” than “Hello”. Dinner time meant waiting for everyone to come home from work to be together at the dining table and dishes were communally shared from the center. As a family we would chat over the TVB channel in the background and you were expected to sit at the table (or when a lot of people were over, at least next to it). And sometimes after dinner or on lazy weekends, my uncles would prepare some hot tea to relax over. They’d invite me to join too, even if I did nothing but sit around and sip in silence.
Eating out was generally a treat, and on the weekends my family would usually go out for breakfast / lunch at a huge dim-sum restaurant. These were characterized by huge banquet halls and tables that could be opened up into a circle and easily fit 12 guests. When you get seated you’re immediately asked what type of tea you’d like and a fresh pot is served. You’d call for food from aunties walking around the dining area with carts or trays calmly chanting the dishes they were offering. On a packed Saturday lunchtime, the whole restaurant would be humming with clanking and Cantonese yelling.
My paternal grandma still goes out to dim sum regularly, and never misses a chance to ask me to go out for lunch. She’s lived in the same house for decades now, a few blocks away from L.A.’s Chinatown neighbourhood, and everyone around town seems to know her.
“Back again for lunch I see, it’s so good to see you.”
“Wow, are these your grandkids? Look at you!”
I’m usually expected to stand up straight and to greet people in my best Cantonese. My aunt jokes about how popular my grandma is. It’s funny, but also crazy to think about. She moved thousands of miles away, to an unfamiliar place, barely speaking any English. And she was able to find this community and become a part of it.
I can’t remember my first boba milk tea, but I have fond memories of the first boba shop I frequented. It was a small Quickly’s, tucked in to this 2-story plaza off the busy Valley Boulevard. Quickly’s is one of the OG boba franchises, and this particular store was a humble mom & pop operation. It had simple wooden tables that slightly wobbled, walls plastered with pages of handwritten menu items, and they sold a bit of everything, from $1 boba milk tea to popcorn chicken and scratchers. There was an undeniable charm to the familiarity and candor of the place. On many evenings in my adolescence, you could find me sitting around here with an empty cup, chatting the day away while playing cards or chinese chess.
After I moved to attend UC San Diego, I still visited my family in Los Angeles as often as possible. My hours-long visits turned to planned meetups or quick pit-stops. I’d still bump into familiar faces but with less frequency. Around this time too, boba’s popularity was starting to skyrocket and new boba stores were rapidly opening up in the SGV. I wanted to visit every single one of them. So every trip home to see family or hangout with friends was coupled with milk tea. Going to get boba was a good excuse to share some time, stories, and laughs. Over time boba became more than a drink, a treat, or a caffeine boost. It became a tool for me to share a conversation with someone else.
When my mom would tell me that we would be going to “drink tea” on the weekend it meant that we’d be going out to a dim sum restaurant. And more than that, we’d be spending time together as a family, over food and tea. Now that I’m older, I tell my mom I’m going out to drink boba with friends, with the same meaning and context as all those trips to get dim sum. That Quickly’s is no longer there, replaced by a different restaurant. But I really chose boba all those years ago, as one of those silly ideas you have with friends late at night.
“WE should open a boba shop!”
And it stuck. During my time at UCSD I always wanted a boba place to be able to go to, one that felt like another home like that Quickly’s. And I decided for it to be for me, it had to be made by me. So when I get asked “why boba?” I may just say that I love boba. I’ve been spending time at boba places my whole life, with countless cups, laughs, and memories. I hope Camellia can do that for someone else too.