COVID is Causing Shortage of Boba, and This is Why It Matters

Rayne Xue

While COVID-19 has already upended supply chains of goods such as toilet papers and computer chips, boba, to the surprise of many, is becoming its latest “victim”. Beginning in mid-April, worker shortages due to the pandemic have been holding ships of imported goods out on the sea, and tapioca starch shipped from Taiwan and Thailand, which is the main ingredient American boba industries use to make boba pearls, is among the waiting cargo.

Leaving millions of boba tea lovers in dismay, this dreadful news quickly took over headlines of mainstream media, as major news platforms such as the New York Times and NPR published articles on the topic. The shortage has received even more attention and response on social media: an Instagram post by popular boba tea company Boba Guys prewarning the boba crisis has gathered more than 90,000 likes and hundreds of comments with sad emojis. For many older people, the echoing chaos and desperation among the younger generations have caused confusion and raised the following questions: Why has boba tea, a signature Asian drink, become such a significant and inseparable part of Gen-Zer’s and Millennials’ daily life? And why is the absence of merely a component of the drink causing what seems to be an unproportionally large amount of panic.

Originally, the popularity of boba was limited to East Asian communities in the U.S., as it is served primarily as a token of their modern heritage and sometimes, a taste of their home. For young people, particularly international students who temporarily reside in the U.S., boba tea is indispensable at parties, friend gatherings, or even afternoon study sessions. For those who have come across oceans and straight into an unfamiliar environment, savoring every gulp of boba tea is intoxicatingly nostalgic, as they rely on the comforting drink just for the feeling of being home.

Over the years, the tempting taste of boba tea has expanded its appeal well beyond Asian communities and made it a favorite of virtually all young people. Typical boba teas are made from boiled tea, which is then mixed with either fresh milk or juice to create a range of flavors. Milk-based boba tea is rich in texture, while juice-based is refreshing and best served cold. With its tastiness and variety, boba tea has gathered huge popularity, and it can be reflected down the streets of Chinatown and around the corners of shopping malls, where love for the drink has brought youngsters of various racial and cultural backgrounds together for a reason as simple appreciation of boba tea. When the pandemic began, demands for take-out boba tea soared as many Americans took the sweet drink to be a source of affordable pleasure amid such a time of uncertainty. Even across drastically different cultures, drinking boba tea has become a universal trend synonymous with consolation and friendships.

Nevertheless, no matter how much boba tea evolves from its original “black tea + fresh milk” model, the boba pearls — the black, chewy, syrupy tapioca balls — remain its soul, its steadfast constant, and its most classic trademark that keeps customers addicted. From this standpoint, it is not difficult to understand why boba tea lovers are panicking to such an extent: with their daily life being permeated so deeply into boba tea, they simply cannot accept their favorite drink without its essence. The entire issue is not just the absence of boba in the drink, but a matter of people struggling to find positivity during such a hard time.

However, for the boba tea lovers, here comes the good news: the shortage will come to an end. Hopefully, as new shipments of boba tea supplies come in within a couple of months, boba tea fans shall resume their lifestyle that is soaked in boba tea, and the beloved drink shall continue to bring happiness during and after the pandemic.

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