Pearl milk tea and all it means to me

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Pearl milk tea and all it means to me

Writer Nicole Ong poses with her signature Pearl Milk Tea.

Writer Nicole Ong poses with her signature Pearl Milk Tea.

Medha Upadhyay

Writer Nicole Ong poses with her signature Pearl Milk Tea.

Medha Upadhyay

Medha Upadhyay

Writer Nicole Ong poses with her signature Pearl Milk Tea.

Nicole Ong

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Boba: the quintessential drink of the Asian Baby Girl, a common topic in the widely popular Facebook group Subtle Asian Traits, and my primary source of calories. It is impossible to characterize Bay Area foodie culture without mentioning boba. Yet even with boba’s growing popularity, for me, it has always symbolized one thing: connection.

Standing hand-in-hand with my dad in front of the Quickly cashier, little me waited impatiently to order a pearl milk tea (PMT). Perhaps not the best thing to serve a child, it was enough to satisfy me. PMT was not just a drink, it was an experience. I distinctly remember swallowing the pearls whole (because, what can I say, I thought it made me cool. It definitely did not.), and being chastised for it by my dad as it seems I was unfamiliar with the concept of choking. I fondly recall being kept awake by the caffeine content in a large cup of PMT, I ran to my dad when I tired of playing Nintendo under the covers.

My childhood memories are hazy, but I often think back to those nights of PMT, my dad and me. I never went into a boba store in search of the world’s best boba, but went seeking time with my dad; for me, it was all I needed.

When I moved to Singapore for my first and second grade years, boba didn’t remain between me and my father — it became a tradition with other family members; my grandma, for one. After piano class, I would slink down the mall’s escalator to the boba stand on the floor below, ordering a green apple slushy with pearls. I would walk to my grandma’s car, bright green drink in hand, and smile smugly when she asked, “Where’d that come from?” She wasn’t mad; in fact, she even stole some sips. It was time together. It was everything I ever wanted. 

Throughout middle school and freshman year, Friday afternoon trips to Tea Top or QQQ were the routine. Several awkward tweens, celebrating the week-end, huddled around a phone and screamed about the latest memes or up-and-coming celebrities. For a moment, we forgot about homework and tests: it was just us, our drinks and the stories we shared. 

As high school progressed and we became busier, boba trips were the one of the few times where I would see some of my friends. After weeks or months of radio silence, one would text another, “Want to get PMT sometime?” Then, the silence was broken, a friendship was rekindled, and we were launched back into middle school. No longer were we separated by SAT scores, AP homework or college applications, but connected by boba. 

I miss the boba runs, the shared laughs and all that boba symbolized to me. In attempts to postpone the looming threat of adulthood and bridge the typical adolescent disconnect with family, I find myself texting my brother, “Do you want anything?” if I’m in a boba shop, or stuttering out, “Can we get boba?” to my dad every now and then. Now, boba is my imperfect solution to the growing apart caused by growing up.

As college application season intensifies, I am often found huddled in a boba store, listening to JJ Lin and furiously typing my college applications or scrolling through memes. My boba tastes have expanded to mango green teas and bitter oolongs, but sometimes, I order a PMT out of nostalgia; I stab my straw through the plastic film lid and sip. Some days, it tastes just how it did when I was young. 

 I joke with my friends, “people might give up on you, but boba will never leave.” In some ways, I guess it’s true. I may fear growing up and all the uncertainty it entails, but I will always know one thing: a sip of boba always throws me back into my childhood days, when it was just PMT, my dad and me.