Tea-dos and Tea-don’ts of Being a Forever Foreigner

Tea-Do is self-defined as a “contemporary tea house,” offering appetizers, onigiri, and desserts in addition to the obvious, tea! Their bubble teas range broadly from mango to First Love (red guava, passion fruit, and aloe jelly) to black milk, and with different toppings like popping boba, flavored jellies, and beans, there are endless combinations. I often visit the Philadelphia location with my family because we find that they serve the best bubble tea on the east coast (it’s hard to find a delicious fresh avocado smoothie, mmm). Many other Asians seem to agree and often fill the café too. From the outside looking in, a bubble tea café, such as Tea-Do, seems like an exclusive hangout for Asian Americans; this accidentally and unfairly creates a role reversal where non-Asians are forever foreigners even though Tea-Do is welcoming to other cultures.

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The forever foreigner discourse usually stereotypes Asian Americans to not be true Americans. It elicits questions like, “Where are you really from?” or comments like, “Your English is very good!” Concerning Asian American restaurants and food, first impressions are crucial because they draw in customers, so if you apply the forever foreigner on any ethnicity, then that ethnic group is less likely to give you business.

Tea-Do’s first impression is a bubble tea store full of Asian Americans, but there is more than that. Bubble tea has been in America for a couple decades, yet when non-Asians walk into a store, most heads still turn, questioning their presence. I observed multiple groups of white people peer intently through the window or walk in, whisper to each other (“jelly balls in your drink???”), then walk out without asking employees or buying anything. They looked so uncomfortable, especially compared to Asian Americans who walked in, ordered, and casually carried on with their daily conversations. At Tea-Do, a role reversal occurs and non-Asians are forever foreigners as exhibited by their peering and whispering. This is important to recognize because while Asian Americans are trying to evade the discourse, they need to be careful not to apply the forever foreigner to others. Even more curious, the white people still see Asian Americans as the forever foreigners, believing that Asian Americans segregate themselves despite the role reversal.

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There are two major aspects of Tea-Do that demonstrate it is welcoming to other cultures: the bilingual menu and the variety in the menu. Every menu item was written in both Chinese and English, and this shows the café was not exclusive to Asian Americans because customers did not need to read or order in Chinese. Because I noticed many more people (including employees) speaking English than Chinese, I suspected that not many people actually knew Chinese. Even if they did know it, they did not feel like it was necessary in the café. By being bilingual with Chinese, one may argue that Tea-Do is being exclusive to Chinese Americans. On the contrary, the variety in the menu shows it is welcoming to other Asian (and some European) cultures. They offered onigiri, which is a Japanese rice ball, Vietnamese iced coffee, Italian gelato, and French macarons. Nobody pointed out how onigiri or gelato was not culturally aligned with Chinese bubble tea, providing a diverse environment in general and to Asian Americans themselves. While Tea-Do welcomes other cultures, the evidence is not obvious until you walk through the door and feel its atmosphere.

The role reversal of non-Asians as the forever foreigners reflects an interesting phenomenon about Asian Americans and their presence in food culture. Bubble tea is foreign; it is not as popular as cola or coffee, but it is also not as dramatically foreign as portrayed. Sometimes, bubble tea is offered as a drink in Asian restaurants. Based on the cultural hierarchy model, its access is low so cultural capital is high. Bubble tea is fancy and exotic, something that brings pleasure to the elite groups who dine at such restaurants. Less often, bubble tea is the theme or main product of a store, like at Tea-Do. Its access is high so cultural capital is low, making bubble tea less exotic and not as artistic as in a restaurant since anybody can have it. At bubble tea stores, Asian Americans have no agency: if they go for a good drink that happens to be in an Asian restaurant, then they will be seen as forever foreigners but if they go for a cultural experience by having an authentic drink, then they will exclude non-Asians from the hype of a good drink, being culprits of applying the forever foreigner to others.

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I believe bubble tea will be a part of mass culture without applying the discourse to either Asian Americans or non-Asians, but that may take a few more decades. As for now, DO go to your favorite bubble tea store and DO invite your friends, just DON’T make strong cultural connections between bubble tea and Asian Americans so that nobody feels like a forever foreigner and it does not devalue or overdo the progress Asian Americans already made in evading the discourse thus far.

Interesting links:

http://www.tea-do.com

https://whatcanyoudowithanthropology.wordpress.com/2014/10/02/the-conflict-of-bubble-tea/

References

  1. Nguyen, Mimi Thi, and Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu. Alien Encounters: Popular Culture in Asian America. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. Print.
  2. “The perpetual foreigner stereotype.” Abagond. com. N.p., 2 Oct. 2009. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.
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