OPINION: Bubble tea — Identity, community, and the language of addiction

My interest in the topic of bubble tea addiction stems from the fact that in my first month of writing for this publication, I had the fortune (or misfortune, depending on your inclination) to read and write a grand total of six bubble tea-related articles—a clear indication that the food world cannot resist this sweet beverage in all its milky, sugary, and carbohydrate-heavy glory.

The article that stuck out to me most was the pearl boba-themed Smoko Sanitising Box. Though harmlessly cute in design, I had a nagging feeling that it symbolises a bigger problem synonymous with the bubble-tea drinking fraternity in Singapore. This adoration for bubble tea-related paraphernalia reflects the manic culture we’ve come to build around the beverage.

It is no longer merely about the beverage itself. It is, dare I say, in some twisted ways, an alarming mirror of the society that we’re being forced to look upon today.

Smoko Sanitising Box Online 4

The chronic pursuit of communal identity

Bubble tea consumption in Singapore today is, in a word, excessive. This is no different in other parts of the world.

In an analysis by Jenny G. Zhang for Eater, in the U.S., bubble tea and their shops “have become tokens of Asian-American popular culture” to the point where “it’s an identity”. This shared cultural identity that stems from bubble tea applies even in the largely Asian demographic in Singapore.

Zhang goes on to explain how the common experience of drinking bubble tea enables drinkers to forge communities with each other. Bubble tea then becomes the vernacular through which members communicate and find common ground.

“Bubble tea also offers a unique language that no other beverage can provide.”

For example, the feeling of jadedness is easily conveyed through a casual invitation to grab a bubble tea after work. The playful dependence conveyed in an innocuous “I’m tired, I need a bubble tea” subtly signals the drinker’s need for empathy and comfort from their bubble tea community.

Bubble tea also offers a unique language that no other beverage can provide. The ingredients used in bubble tea—sugar levels, types of pearls, flavour combinations—are the lexicon by which drinkers use to define themselves.

They communicate to fellow drinkers if one is an adventurous cheese foam seeker or a straight-laced plain milk tea connoisseur—as if these are pertinent identities in and of themselves. Even personality tests have been playfully built around the drink’s ingredients, further cementing its role in communication for the community.

The shared language of addiction

Op Ed Bubble Tea 2

Shared vernacular aside, bubble tea is a language of addiction, especially for the boba lover whose day inexorably suffers without the prerequisite two cups of bubble tea.

It’s not as if we don’t know the health implications of too much boba. We have been made well aware by countless research and reports warning against the health hazards of excessive bubble tea drinking. Regardless, many still binge on bubble tea.

To drink bubble tea in excess and to keep drinking it against all odds is to pledge stoic allegiance to the community—each cup a signifier of the drinker’s continued patriotic membership in the bubble tea fraternity.

“Nothing seems to inspire an unstoppable and relentless drive in people as possible bubble tea shortage does.”

It’s this herd junkie mentality amongst bubble tea fanatics that feeds the mindless consumption of bubble tea. It’s a condition best exemplified during the mid-Circuit Breaker bubble tea closures, where all across the island, queues snaked around these shops as people clamoured for a final fix.

All of a sudden, it became imperative for everyone to have that one last sip. Truly, nothing seems to inspire an unstoppable and relentless drive in people as a possible bubble tea shortage does.

Even the looming threat of a pandemic does little to deter bubble tea drinkers from risking infection in a queue. Only the government’s intervention to legally force all bubble tea shops to shutter could temper this temptation and eliminate that risky behaviour.

Generous supply for the junkies 

Unsurprisingly, the bubble tea industry is poised and ready to fuel this need for community. As of today, there are over 50 bubble tea brands that operate in Singapore, not counting the smaller nondescript neighbourhood shops that dot the heartlands of the island.

With an estimate of 5 outlets per brand, that makes 250 branded bubble tea outlets across Singapore—an extremely conservative gauge.

This availability is also becoming denser, with even more bubble tea options to choose from within a single shopping establishment. One need not look further than popular shopping malls in Singapore such as Suntec City or Paya Lebar Quarter Mall, where there can be up to seven bubble tea shops from various brands operating in the same vicinity.

We scoff when we see two Starbucks outlets opening near each other, but when it comes to bubble tea, that disdain is quickly dismissed as a mere convenience.

Sugar is the gift that keeps on giving

Op Ed Bubble Tea 3

It is a known fact that bubble tea contains notoriously high sugar levels, which is compounded by the carbohydrate-heavy pearls or boba. In an experiment reported by Channel NewsAsia, a 500ml cup of bubble tea could contain up to 20.5 teaspoons of sugar—more than double the HealthHub-recommended 10 teaspoons per day per adult. 

In actuality, bubble tea addiction more visibly manifests as sugar addiction. Sugar, in its chemically irresistible nature, feeds the excessive consumption of bubble tea. It powers every cell in the brain and when the brain regards sugar as a reward, it craves more of it.

Consuming sugar in excess reinforces the reward, making it even harder to break the habit.

Thankfully, bubble tea shops now allow customers to choose how much sugar goes into their regular fix. Some brands, such as Heytea and LiHO, have even gone as far as to offer customers the option of a sugar replacement, Stevia, in their drinks.

Although a welcomed move,  this hardly circumvents the concern posed by the sweet toppings. Chewy boba, concentrated brown sugar and even ice cream compound the sugar problem.

The insidious justification for addiction

Despite repeated warnings against excessive daily sugar intakes, bubble tea consumption continues to prevail. Like that cute pearl boba Smoko Sanitising Box, we have come to beautify the sugar addiction with romantic notions of community and identity.

In the worst possible permutation of factors, the addiction for a common identity in bubble tea justifies the excessive drinking. In this endless cycle of addiction, in which the needs for sugar and identity feed and justify each other, bubble tea poses as much of a poison as it does a pleasure.

It’s an addiction that is hard to eradicate and one where active steps must be taken. It becomes an even more dire situation should this social ill befall a person who’s naturally predisposed to addiction. I know of a friend who craved bubble tea daily. To counter the addiction, he has taken to consuming a specially formulated green tea that blocks the brains desire for sugar.

“In this endless cycle of addiction, in which the needs for sugar and identity feed and justify each other, bubble tea poses as much of a poison as it does a pleasure.”

Moving forward

The terms ‘bubble tea’, ‘pearl’, and ‘boba’ carry innocuously harmless connotations. Even the bid for community in drinking bubble tea comes across as a natural instinct. However, it is precisely this harmlessness that makes bubble tea addiction more insidious. At the root of the matter, addiction is still dangerous, regardless of how benignly it manifests.

In cases of bubble tea addiction, the first step toward recovery will be hard to take. Perhaps, self-reflection and clarity are the best place to start.