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Warm Balls, Hot Commodity

Illustrations by Meg Buzbee.

Before school started, before the packs of twelve-person first-year friend groups started menacing campus, before twelve-packs of Bud Light began to litter High Street, I met Lisa Satavu. I walked into the Loose Leaf on Whitney Avenue on a tepid August day, sweating lightly. Satavu had her two children in tow, ages 7 and 2. We sat down at a table, all four of us. I sipped a Banana Foster Milk nervously, glancing at the small heart sharpied on the lid. 

Satavu and her husband Marcus own and operate a vast array of businesses in Connecticut. Yale students before my time might remember FroyoWorld frozen yogurt shops in the spots where the Loose Leaf locations on High Street and Whitney Avenue currently stand. It was Lisa and her brothers that first started what is now a successful, New England-wide chain of frozen yogurt shops. Satavu and her husband also own all Saladcraft and Pokémoto locations in New Haven.

When I asked her how she came to own a Loose Leaf, she told me about her business philosophies, about eating spoonfuls of red bean as a child, about working fourteen hours a day when starting FroyoWorld, about her family and her life. 

Satavu had been a teacher before she delved into the food industry. “My brothers were always the business guys,” she said. After ten years of teaching, she decided to join her brothers in managing their FroyoWorlds. But Satavu said that Froyoworld, in New Haven at least, had run its course by the time the boba industry started to gain mainstream traction in 2019 and 2020. 

“With time, things change, just like fashion, just like the interests of people,” Satavu said.  “Granted, everything starts first on the West Coast, but at least in our sense, we felt like Yale is kind of the heart of the East Coast, with all the newest attractions and cultural foods. So that’s why we wanted to bring Loose Leaf here.”

So, like students from across the country arriving in droves to the East Coast, many for the first time, Loose Leaf seems to be another wide-eyed West Coast transplant, finding its footing in New Haven, Connecticut. 

I wrapped up my conversation with Satavu. I was under the impression that I was the one interviewing her, but after the twenty minutes I spent speaking to her, she offered me a job. A week later, I was a “bobarista.” 

***

In The Book of Tea, published in 1906, the aesthete and art critic Okakura Kakuzo detailed  the birth, history, and beauty of making a simple cup of tea. Of primary importance to him was the rare harmony of Eastern and Western cultures in their enjoyment of tea. “Humanity has so far met in a tea-cup,” he wrote.

“In the liquid amber,” he wrote, “within the ivory-porcelain, the initiated may touch the sweet reticence of Confucius, the piquancy of Laotse, and the ethereal aroma of Sakyamuni himself.” Okakura saw tea-making as a religion in and of itself, drawing in philosophies from Buddhism and Daoism. 

I wonder what Okakura would think of a typical summer afternoon in the bustling kitchen of a Loose Leaf Boba shop. Drinks sling with the efficiency of hospital triage, bobaphiles coming and going, still more young people chatting around mouthfuls of the “real tea, real ingredients, and real milk” that Loose Leaf’s website advertises. 

Everything takes on a rosy pink tinge in the light of the iconic Loose Leaf neon signs. “With my besteas,” they proclaim. “Don’t teas’ me!” At the table next to me, two boys talk about their summer consulting internships and their upcoming YSIG (Yale Student Investment Group )interviews. Everyone is drinking boba. 

The tapioca balls, introduced to the United States in the late nineteen-eighties by Taiwanese immigrants, go by a whole host of monikers in both English and Mandarin. There’s the “bubble” in bubble tea, tapioca pearls, boba, etcetera etcetera. I heard a rumor that the word “波霸“ (romanized, literally “bo” and “ba”) stemmed from Taiwanese slang for boobs. I texted my dad the question: “Does 波霸 actually mean breasts in Taiwanese slang?” 

“Actually, big breasts,” he replied. 

So in its very nature, a kind of original sin, perhaps boba is deeply unserious. Squishy, often warm, globular and toothsome—on every Loose Leaf cup is the same phrase printed in small font: “Caution: Little Warm Balls.” While Okakura Kakuzo thought that East and West might be unified in tea, boba itself, in its spherical glory, might be a complete foil to the seriousness of the tea ceremony of East Asian traditions. 

Originally sequestered in Taiwanese American, and then Asian American, communities, boba has quickly spread to major cities over the past five years, and it’s now firmly rooted in New Haven. Vivi Bubble Tea on Chapel, a branch of the nationwide chain, opened in 2016. Whale Tea on Whitney Avenue opened in 2019. The two Loose Leaf locations opened in 2021 and 2022. Now, seeing students toting the characteristic tall, clear cup and black boba-compatible straw is commonplace. 

Many young Asian Americans raised on the West Coast, myself included, grew up drinking boba, brightly colored and distinctly flavored, in chain stores like Tea Station and Lollicup.. Back then, drinking boba was weird. It was a foreign drink, and the pearls were a textural and geometric shock. Years later, everyone is drinking boba, from California to Connecticut.

Loose Leaf, like so many other national boba chains, began on the West Coast. As the sun was going down on a scorching California day, I met Thomas Liu and Jasmine Yip, the founders of Loose Leaf, at their Los Angeles Melrose location. We spoke under a faux-fresco mural of The Last Supper starring Bernie Sanders, Cardi B, Kurt Cobain, Trevor Noah, Oprah Winfrey, and Ellen DeGeneres, drinking pale beige cups of boba.

Liu grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, a predominantly Asian suburb of Southern California, just twenty miles shy of the city of Los Angeles. “It was Asians on top of Asians,” he said. “There was a boba shop on every corner.” 

The complicated cultural makeup of his family, the majority of which moved to Vietnam from China after the 1911 Xinhai Revolution, informs his interest in the food industry. It informs the menu choices at Loose Leaf, too: offerings range from drinks incorporating pandan, a green Southeast Asian leaf that tastes like vanilla and coconut, to the “POG Agua Fresca,” inspired by Mexican roadside beverage stands. 

But both Yip and Liu never shook the idea that boba’s shape, texture, and name were something to laugh at. Jasmine said that their brand is based on the idea that humor, like food, bridges wide gaps. Loose Leaf’s voicemail directs you to place an online order at “warmballs.com.” 

“Everything you do, just enjoy your life,” Yip said. “Customers who have a sense of humor will see you like you’re real people.”

I look up at Jesus-Bernie painted onto the wall, his arms spread open as if proselytizing, and Judas-Oprah grasping a cup of boba in her traitorous hand. Sense of humor, indeed. 

Paul Freedman, a serious, glasses-wearing man surrounded by shelves of colorful books, is a Professor of History and a Medievalist specializing in Catalonian and cuisine history. Standing among the last bastions of non-boba drinkers, he believes that consuming culture, such as media and food, is a misguided way to understand people.

“I don’t think that gastronomy is a path toward understanding,” he told me when I interviewed him. “People your age have been taught a lot of pieties in high school…‘Oh, if we just eat a lot of Vietnamese food, we’re gonna understand a lot more about Vietnam’ is in that category of comforting pieties.” 

I thought back to reading about the religious history and ceremonies surrounding tea culture in Japan and China. I wonder if the way that tea has evolved has required an evolution of the way we worship it, that drinking boba tea requires a repetition of “comforting pieties” to be palatable. 

However, many boba shop owners that I interviewed espoused the idea that boba actually can in fact bridge gaps between people and serve as an introduction to Asian culture and foods. Lisa Satavu is one of them.

“Coming with friends, trying all these flavors, their vision gets a little bit more open about certain things,” she said. 

In Whale Tea on Whitney Avenue, couples sipped each other’s drinks and groups of friends studied the complex menu together as I spoke with Jessie Cheung ’24. Cheung is familiar with how boba functions both as a business and a social setting. She is from Dallas, where her family opened Texas’s first ViVi Bubble Tea franchise. They have since helped establish three ViVi stores across the state. Cheung points to a rising interest in East Asian food and culture, sometimes referred to as the Hallyu Wave, as one reason for the rise in boba consumption. 

“Asian culture is now so much more prolific, especially with the popularity of Korean culture,” Cheung said. “So a lot of people have been starting to engage with boba because it’s so easy. It’s like, instead of getting a coffee, which is a very American thing, you can just get a drink.”

It is boba’s ambiguous identity as an “Asian” drink, now mutated into something unquestionably American, that makes it so interesting to me. While boba is now “easy” to consume, (convenient and ubiquitous and, God forbid, “trendy”) it contains so much baggage. Some Asian-Americans have started using the phrase “lunchbox moment” to describe the times when we opened our lunch boxes full of kimchi and gyoza and curry and fried rice and glass noodles, and were met with caterwauls of “It stinks!” or “Ew, what is that?” Drinking boba in the presence of people who didn’t know what it was used to be a textbook lunchbox moment. Now, everyone is drinking boba. 

My friend Shane Zhang ’25, remembers getting boba with his friends almost every Friday in high school. When he drank boba, he said, it was a way of enjoying a quasi-Asian drink that was palatable to non-Asian friends. 

“It’s like I’m Colossus of Rhodes—I straddle two worlds,” he said. “My balls hang in the balance.” 

I thought of the mythical statue at Rhodes, presiding over intercultural trade and commerce, and about boba, trapped between cultures today. As a cultural export, as a marker of the migration of people and labor from Asia, boba does hang in the balance. Not quite one world, not quite the other. 

Small spherical spill at Loose Leaf High Street sometimes in November, sometime in October, with a mysterious sugar trail leading into the distance.

In many ways, Loose Leaf’s marketing and naming seems to be a perfect example of the evolution of what the concept of “tea” means, from Asia to America, from 1906 to 2022, through a twisting gyre of time and space, to end up in the plastic plant wall of a Loose Leaf in New Haven, Connecticut. 

Boba, when it first came to the U.S., was categorized by the artificial powders, colors, and flavors that Loose Leaf now disavows. While perhaps the moralizing question of authenticity— whether or not the evolution of boba has been a “good” or “bad” thing—is unimportant, what is notable is understanding its journey: as a commodity, the vast distance it has traveled; as a cultural practice and tradition, the long span of time it has endured. My feelings about boba are complicated—it feels good to know that American people are accepting of a drink with Taiwanese origins, that they would be willing to try a beverage with pandan in it. But I think about telling myself comforting pieties in the acceptance of boba’s popularity, that I might just have to accept the fact that I will feel conflicted about white people drinking boba, unaware of its larger history, for the rest of my life. 

During my brief tenure at Loose Leaf, I had to remake many drinks. I would pour out the drink in the sink, milks of all colors swirling down the drain, down into the belly of the hidden sewer system. The boba would be left behind, sticky balls clumping up at the drain. I had to stick my hand directly into the ballish void to force them down the drain, which was always a slightly repulsive but nonetheless deeply satisfying feeling. 

I remember my fists full of boba, cupping humanity’s tapioca in my teacup of a hand. Then I squished them down. 

—Camille Chang is a sophomore in Silliman College.

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