Last week, my boyfriend and I were pondering (yet again) what we were going to do for lunch. Our fridge was still relatively full, but my tight meeting schedule and his lack of desire to cook culminated in us deciding to venture outside and get takeout somewhere. As I hemmed and hawed over what “somewhere” would be, my boyfriend said the fateful words:
“Want to get Urban on the way?”
In this context, “urban” stood for Urban Ritual, a tea and boba cafe that opened last fall in the downtown area of my neighborhood. As skeptical as I normally would be of modern, hipster-sounding places that seem designed just for millennials, the drinks at Urban Ritual soon won me over. It took a lot of self-discipline on our parts to exercise restraint and not stop by every other week.
With all the craziness in the world going on, treating ourselves to an Urban drink felt like a refuge, a small part of our lives that we could make a choice about and control. Once we finally decided on a place to buy lunch, I walked out into the sunshine, feeling like the day might actually get a tiny bit better.
How wrong I was.
On the way to getting lunch, my boyfriend made a detour to the pharmacy, so I arrived at Urban Ritual first and was greeted with a sign on a closed door. I looked at it long enough to spot the words, “COVID-19” and “heartbreaking moment” before I fled. With a pit in my stomach, I texted my boyfriend to let him know and tell him I’d be walking home first.
Over the last week and a half, I’ve thought a lot about why this affected me so much. Sure, I was a regular customer and enjoyed their drinks a lot, but it wasn’t like I had a personal connection to the shop or the owners. It was the silliest thing in the world to be mourning, when people every day are fighting for their lives, compromising their own health to help people, and endangering themselves to keep the community from completely collapsing. So why the hell was I acting like a fundamental part of me had been taken away?
Perhaps it was only because I really missed being able to get boba whenever I wanted. Or perhaps I felt sad that a small, independent business I frequented had finally succumbed to the economic consequences of this pandemic. Whatever the real reason (if there is one), what I do know is that boba has played a significant part in making me feel a certain kind of pride, knowing that it’s an unabashedly Asian import that’s become a widely accepted and sought-after phenomenon here. In a way, the evolution of boba and tea drinks in the U.S. feels to me like a nod to my experience growing up as a first generation Asian-American, trying to carve out my own unique identity in a society that likes to remind me of my minority status.
Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans are the ones who’ve propelled boba into the status it has in the U.S. today. So to see local boba businesses like Urban Ritual and Boba Guys having to close their doors indefinitely, juxtaposed with increasing reports of targeted violence towards the Asian community, has, in a very convoluted way, made me feel like my personal identity is being threatened. It also doesn’t help that our current president has opted to use language that only serves to emphasize difference and encourage xenophobic sentiments.
I realize that this all sounds pretty melodramatic. And to be honest, I’ve never really given boba this much thought before either. But I guess the old adage of, “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone,” rang particularly true here, and what started as a thought exercise has clearly gone down a whole psychological rabbit hole that I’m not sure I can extricate myself cleanly from at this point.
In any case, I’m making do for now by stocking up on tea leaves and brewing my own tea at home. It’s not quite the same as a freshly shaken tea drink with fun toppings, but it gets the job done and reminds me to be grateful, above all else. I hope everyone is staying home and staying healthy, physically and mentally. These are unprecedented times but one way or another, we’ll get through this together.