Bubble Tea and the Columbusing of Food

by Andrew Wilson

The Case: The New York Times Fiasco

On August 17, 2017, The New York Times published a seemingly innocuous article titled “The Blobs in Your Tea? They’re Supposed to be There” with the goal of highlighting the rise of bubble tea shops around the country (Kaufman). The article instead swiftly launched a firestorm of negative feedback by other news outlets and multiple NYT readers. Just hours after the gaffe, The Huffington Post published a piece exposing paragraph by paragraph the major mistakes and implications of the article, while The Washington Post bluntly pointed out The Times’s hypocrisy in regards to the newness of bubble tea, citing an earlier report titled “Bubble Tea? So 2002. A Sampling of Food-Trend Predictions” (Herreria; Wemple). One anonymous reader, whose comment was later featured by The New York Times, summed up that the article, “for me evokes the unpleasant feelings of being the kid in a non-diverse neighborhood bringing ‘weird’ lunches to school” (Reader Center). The overall criticism was clear and simple; the article was a disaster.

The New York Times quickly wrote an apology discussing the merit behind the complaints and, later the same day, the article was drastically revised online. Gone were touchy phrases like “embraced through the Far East,” “relatively new to the mass market in the United States,” “harder to get caucasians and African-Americans and Latinos into the store” because of its “learning curve,” and the made-up word “Boba-ista” which smashed together the word boba with the term barista. The title was drastically changed to “Bubble Tea Purveyors Continue to Grow Along with Drink’s Popularity” to avoid immediately alienating the readers with the word “blobs.” The original piece is fairly difficult to find now, swept under the rug of internet revision, but the article has left behind a wake of criticism.

The topic of the article, bubble tea (or boba tea), is more than a fleeting trend. From the website of Kung Fu Tea, an East Coast franchise, boba is a “tea-based drink invented in Taichung, Taiwan in the 1980s”, recognizable for its tapioca balls, that spread across Asia in the 1990s and throughout urban areas of the United States by the early 2000s (KFT). The drink is not new, as The New York Times incorrectly portrayed it when trying to entice eager foodies. While the article may have been changed to address the concerns, there is no denying the underlying question left by the gaffe: How are Americans appropriating ethnic foods through white media, and what are the effects?

The Implications: More than Just the Tapioca

Many readers might wonder why it matters that The New York Times wrote an insensitive article about bubble tea. The motive behind and the portrayal of bubble tea is the primary issue here; the article was criticized for being written for a predominantly white readership with the purpose of explaining a trendy food item in the hopes of leading a fad. In trying to make the drink seem attractive, The Times also resorted to making the item seem exotic and stripping bubble tea of the cultural significance built around it.

This strategy resonated with me because I had my own “discovery” of bubble tea which highlights some of my cultural ignorance. Two years ago, a friend of mine offered to meet up at a boba tea shop near my house as a cheaper and quicker alternative to grabbing lunch. I had never drank bubble tea before, but I said yes and ended up having the original milk tea and playing board games with him for two hours. I’m a pasty San Francisco guy, far removed from any cultural ties with the drink, but I could still enjoy it. We went back multiple times on subsequent weekends for the chance to be in a casual space that served drinks we both thought were delicious. It was the perfect atmosphere for a Sunday afternoon hangout or a quick after-school meetup. Eventually my friend and I invited others to join us. When someone new tagged along, it felt somewhat like we were showing this new food to them. We helped them order, demonstrated how to punch the seal with the straw, and gleefully watched their initial expressions. We were not blatantly telling them “try out this new thing we found” or “look at us, we’re so cultured,” but we wanted to share what we had grown to love. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn much about the history or nuances of what I was drinking for months. I honestly thought it was new.

The article (and my own experience) can be tied to a larger cultural phenomena called “Columbusing.” The term, originating from a CollegeHumor Youtube video, is blunt but appropriate for the situation. Columbusing is discovering something, but for white people (CollegeHumor; Salinas). It can be satirically compared that as Columbus “discovered” a continent already home to millions of non-white people but claimed it as his own land, White America Columbuses “new” ethnic foods or activities that have long been cultural staples (Salinas). It’s trendy; there is a level of pride associated with being a pioneer. It does not always have to be food; the CollegeHumor video also gives their own examples including the appropriation of reggae, moccasins, and even twerking. The habit is incredibly common, especially in the United States which promotes the inclusion of other cultures into the melting pot. While the degrees of magnitude are different in each case, and cultural exchange can often be positive, it’s essential to realize that there is a widespread underlying tendency for white American culture to adopt non-native artifacts as their own.

Columbusing of food is a widespread issue, where small examples can combine to paint a larger picture of trivialization. The issue is not new for white media at all. News outlets all want to be the accepted leader of a trend for bragging rights, so everyone tries to be the “first” to publish a piece predicting the explosion of a trend. There is a game played within each organization, consciously or not, that weighs the risk of misrepresenting or being dull and the reward of being seen as the origin. Small but noticeable insensitivities are sometimes made when taking these risks to hype up the readers. In the larger culinary sphere, BuzzFeed published “Have You Heard About the New Kind of Pie that’s All the Rage Lately?” raving about what seem to be empanadas; their “People Try” video series has drawn criticism for trivializing exotic cultural foods as strange new trends (Salinas; Kimberly TA). Time Out London recommended an incorrect way to eat Chinese soup dumplings in an introductory video, showing them being disgustingly “popped like zits” on a plate before consumption instead of being correctly eaten in one quick bite (Judkis). The New York Times has been the home of many more mistakes; Quartz journalist Sarah Todd made a comprehensive list online outlining the newspaper’s claimed “discoveries” in the past decade including ramen, Korean food, banh mi, fernet con Coca, and pho.

These all might seem like minor offenses, but these examples highlight how media outlets can trivialize food. While news outlets will inevitably see positive responses from the majority of their audience, some readers and viewers from the adopted cultures will feel alienated and disrespected. It’s terrifying to have childhood foods or traditional dishes trivialized. Even more, the cuisine of minorities can be praised or put in the spotlight, but the people aren’t. As NPR reporter Brenda Salinas pointed out, “it seems like a paradox to relish your fajitas while believing the line cook should get deported” (Salinas). Interest in foreign dishes does not always equate to any extra love for foreigners. Food is inherently and strongly tied with the cultural history of a group, but only the best features, as defined by the dominant co-opting group, are used, while the other aspects are ignored. Minorities do not benefit, only the Columbusing majority does.

The situation is even worse than it seems at first because the people of the cultures where each Columbused food originates do not have much control over the process. Minority groups have no say in what foods get Columbused or how; “when they become trendy, it is based solely on the approval of white people” (Shah). When dishes are Columbused and praised, without any of the complex history behind it explained, minorities can feel like “outsiders use tweezers to pick out the discrete parts of your culture that are worthy of their attention” and that the actual people behind it never mattered (Salinas). The case is true with the article from the NYT: Very little emphasis was placed on tying the drink together with its Taiwanese origins or any broader picture because what mattered was making the drink a trend by highlighting traits that might seem unusual at first glance. Only The Times could control if the piece was published or not. While critics might argue that the increased attention benefits these cultures, when news outlets make stories about culinary trends being new it actually becomes “inherently dismissive” because even with history behind it, “tagging something as a trend also gives it a shelf life that is set to expire after its moment of popularity” (Shah). The item is never treated seriously because of its portrayal as a trend by media and the foodie public, which is damaging to groups wishing to receive more notoriety and respect. It is counterproductive. The damage is done by trend-hungry media outlets, while the minority groups being trivialized by Columbusing have no actual say in what happens with their cultural items.

The Outlook: A Call for Sensitivity

This problem calls for cultural reflection. Columbusing doesn’t have to be so widespread; it just takes some self-awareness. The extremes are obvious. We probably shouldn’t insensitively Americanize meals but call it ethnic like Oberlin’s “tandoori beef”, since Hindus don’t eat beef, and we shouldn’t say that the tastes of certain foods are being “elevated” by famous white chefs when they lead trends by opening restaurants. However, a general interest in learning about other culture shouldn’t be stifled either (Friedersdorf; Tsai). There can be an unfortunately blurry line when analyzing each situation, but much of the co-opting and insensitivity issues can be lessened by simply realizing that the majority of seemingly new foods may, in fact, be long-standing traditions in other countries.

One of the great things about living in the United States is the ease of experiencing new cultures. With large cities like Boston, LA, New York, and San Francisco that are home to hundreds of ethnic groups, this country is truly one of the most diverse in the world. It’s a massive boon for consumers and multiculturalists. There is nothing wrong with venturing outside of one’s comfort zone and traveling to a nice restaurant on the other side of town, but just realize that these “new” things are often someone else’s cultural home. Learn something about another culture when getting lunch with a friend; expand the cultural lens. Don’t write off foods when they aren’t immediately likeable or have Buzzfeed-esque disgusted reactions, because thousands have spent their childhood loving that same food. Share things, but know that they probably aren’t new. When it comes to trying bubble tea or something currently popular, just remember there likely is a culture and people behind it too. Keep that in mind next time you head out for that cool “new” thing someone wants to share.

Works Cited

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Chow, Kat and Maria Godoy. “When Chefs Become Famous Cooking Other Cultures’ Food.” NPR, 22 March 2016, http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt. Accessed 9 October 2017.

“Columbusing: Discovering Things For White People.” Youtube, uploaded by CollegeHumor, 7 July 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BWeFHddWL1Y.

Friedersdorf, Conor. “A Food Fight at Oberlin College.” The Atlantic, 21 Dec. 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive. Accessed 30 September 2017.

Herreria, Carla. “New York Times Regrets Article Suggesting It Justs ‘Discovered’ Bubble Tea.” Huffington Post, 17 Aug. 2017, https://www.huffingtonpost.com.

Judkis, Maura. “A British magazine suggests ‘popping’ your soup dumplings. Please don’t.” Washingtonpost.com, 30 Mar. 2017. Academic OneFile, proxy.bc.edu. Accessed 28 Sept. 2017.

“Our Readers Call Us Out Over Bubble Tea. They Are Right.” The New York Times, 17 Aug. 2017, https://www.nytimes.com. Accessed 28 Sept. 2017.

Salinas, Brenda. “‘Columbusing’: The Art Of Discovering Something That Is Not New.” NPR, 6 July 2014, http://www.npr.org. Accessed 30 September 2017.

Severson, Kim. “Bubble Tea? So 2002. A Sampling of Food-Trend Predictions.” New York Times, 28 Dec. 2016, p. NA(L). Academic OneFile, proxy.bc.edu. Accessed 28 Sept. 2017.

TA, Kimberly. “Why Buzzfeed’s “Perople Try Durian (The Smelliest Fruit in the World)” is Racist.” Project Ava, 6 May 2016, https://projectava.org. Accessed 1 October 2017.

Tsai, Luke. “Cooking Other People’s Food: How Chefs Appropriate bay Area ‘Ethnic’ Cuisine.” East Bay Express, 23 August 2016, https://www.eastbayexpress.com/oakland. Accessed 2 October 2017

Shah, Khushbu. “The Problem With Calling An ‘Ethnic’ Cuisine A Trend.” Thrillist, 3 August 2017, https://www.thrillist.com/eat/nation. Accessed 30 Sept. 2017

Wemple, Erik. “New York Times story on bubble tea brews up a scandalito.” Washingtonpost.com, 17 Aug. 2017. Academic OneFile, proxy.bc.edu. Accessed 28 Sept. 2017.

“What is Bubble Tea?” Kung Fu Tea, https://www.kungfutea.com/what-is-bubble-tea. Accessed 2 October 2017.