Boba occupies an iconic status in Asian American popular culture. For many, these balls made of tapioca flour, and the various milk and fruit teas with which they are consumed, represent a distinctively Asian diasporic culture. Yet, boba also connotes the, at times, facile veneer of Asian American cultural politics—the term “boba liberal,” for example, describes someone who celebrates their diasporic identity without any genuine commitments to racial justice or other political projects. Boba’s easy accessibility in a multicultural, globalized world and its celebrated place in Asian American culture belie its more complex history, and thus make it a challenging object from which to tell a critical history of Asian America.

The Chinese American Museum’s exhibition, the boba show, rises to this challenge by delicately balancing boba’s expansive connotations. It simultaneously deploys familiar Asian diasporic tropes to engage a general audience, while encouraging its visitors to grapple with a more complex, historicized perspective of Asian Americanness. The multimedia art exhibition unfolds over two galleries on the museum’s third floor, providing a mix of historical information and “fun facts” with paintings, sculptures, and other artworks, under the larger framework of the boba shop as a “third space” for “Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and BIPOC communities.” Although describing diasporic experiences through the concept of the “third”—someone who does not belong to either the immigrant host country or the diasporic homeland—is a well-worn trope, I was struck by the ways that the curators complicated this narrative through subtle framings that drew on important developments in Asian American studies.

I was pleased to note, for example, that the exhibit foregrounded the longer colonial histories that undergird the production of boba. On the welcome panel, the curators stress that although the popular tapioca pearl was first made in “tea shops in Taiwan in the 1980s,” the cassava (or yuca), a root crop from which the food is made, is native to the Americas, which then “traveled around the world because of imperialism, colonization, and the slave trade.” This reframing brought to mind Lisa Lowe’s influential monograph, The Intimacies of Four Continents, which points to historic connections between settler colonial dispossession, unfree labor from Africa and Asia, and the wealth of bourgeois European republics.1 Without the need for cumbersome academic citation, the curators effectively establish that although boba ultimately begins in the Americas as the cassava root, it is only through the heterogeneous colonial encounters that occurred over centuries that it can arrive, transformed, back to North America, as the object of Asian diasporic consumption.

To elaborate on this point, the curators adjoin a written panel on boba’s colonial origins, aptly titled “Ocean Currents and Indigenous Roots,” with a colorful mural spanning an entire gallery wall. Cassavaflow, by Samoan artist and exhibition co-curator Jason Pereira, depicts a series of human figures working with cassava: a Brazilian farmer harvesting it to make manioc flour and women in Africa, Taiwan, and Tonga making fufu, boba, and glue respectively. Underneath, a long meandering band, painted in blue to provide sharp contrast, dominates the mural; within the ocean it depicts, four distinct swirls represent the cassava’s localized adaptation and transformation in the regions of the Americas, Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. What emerges from Pereira’s mural that cannot quite be conveyed in the text is the archipelagic quality of boba’s history.2 Although the specific sites and uses of the cassava appear unrelated to each other—as if they are isolated islands unto themselves—Pereira’s mural articulates the ocean not as a space of separation, but rather the medium which always interconnects the islands it contains.3

Pereira’s oceanic take on boba’s history is just one example of the boba show’s platforming of Pacific Islander artistry, an important move given the theoretical emphases of the exhibition. Although Asians are frequently grouped together with Pacific Islanders (as in the acronym “AAPI”), Hawaiian activists have long critiqued this conflation, arguing that it implies a false equivalence between two panethnic groups with very different histories of racialization and colonialism.4 In response, Asian American scholars have increasingly insisted that any productive representation of the Pacific requires an acknowledgement of these disjunctures and a commitment to engaging, but not subsuming, Indigenous Pacific Islander knowledges—a move that the boba show’s curators put into practice.5

Cassavaflow, by Jason Pereira, depicts an archipelagic history of the cassava root. (Photo by author)

Cassavaflow, by Jason Pereira, depicts an archipelagic history of the cassava root. (Photo by author)

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I found the interactive art piece, numa’lo: to revive, to be the exhibition’s most memorable example that reflected Asian American studies’ changing relationship to the Pacific. Made by roldy aguero ablao, a mixed queer artist/cultural practitioner from Guåhan/Guam, the artwork consists of a mannequin dressed in plastic and other materials found around boba shops. Since it is located on the museum’s ground floor, it is the first and last piece of art visitors encounter, and they are encouraged to place a black sticker on the artwork before they leave. The piece is at once a critique of the waste associated with modern modes of consumption—which the excess of plastic initially conveys—but also, as the title suggests, an attempt to imagine irrevocable environmental damage otherwise. Plastic, rather than something to be banned or purged, is instead something that is already part of our environment and ingested in our bodies, whether we leave a sticker or not. The piece reminded me of literary scholar Michelle Huang’s argument that plastic is an Asian racial form—that is, plastic’s qualities embody those commonly ascribed to Asians: mass produced, cheap, and inauthentic. Yet, because plastic can photodegrade but not biodegrade, it is something that remains constitutive of who we are despite fantasies of removal, a relationship that Huang terms “ecologies of entanglement.”6 Numa’lo, then, poses an interesting question: if we are already living with the environmental consequences of the proliferation of plastic, might we be able to “revive” it in some other form? Analogously, how else can we think about the entangled histories of colonialism and racialization that manifest in the form of boba, and can we transform it otherwise?

In all likelihood, many of these theoretical considerations will be lost on a general audience whose main point of entry might very well be simply a love of this popular food. For such visitors, the curators have included a number of artistic works that ground the exhibition in the familiar. Studious Boba Girl, for example, felt like an obligatory inclusion. Yoking Asian visual aesthetics reminiscent of anime with the image of an Asian girl hard at work—a code for the model minority stereotype—the girl in question effectively places boba in a larger symbolic economy of Asian diasporic tropes. The curators also deploy a range of media types to keep the audience engaged on multiple fronts. For instance, there is a website accompaniment to the exhibition with facts on contemporary cassava production that viewers can access via a QR code, a short film depicting the process of harvesting cassava, and an interactive digital map for visitors to share their favorite boba spots (although only ten users had done so when I visited).7

numa’lo: to revive, by roldy aguero ablao, gives exhibition viewers an opportunity to interact with ecologies of entanglement in the Pacific. (Photo by author)

numa’lo: to revive, by roldy aguero ablao, gives exhibition viewers an opportunity to interact with ecologies of entanglement in the Pacific. (Photo by author)

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Studious Boba Girl, by Crisselle Mendiola, grounds the exhibit in familiar aesthetics and tropes of Asian America. (Photo by author)

Studious Boba Girl, by Crisselle Mendiola, grounds the exhibit in familiar aesthetics and tropes of Asian America. (Photo by author)

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That the curation and artistry of the boba show appeals to a general audience through multiple modes while also allowing for critical reflections is one of its significant achievements. Public historians can learn much from the way the exhibition frames critical perspectives and stages opportunities for further thought. Its premise is short, but compelling: to “show how the simple cassava plant became the focus of Asian America in our quest to find a meeting place, a safe place, a home.” In the process, brief panels guide the viewer to consider the colonial history of the cassava root’s global spread, the rise of Asian ethnoburbs, and boba’s boom in popularity, while supplementary items throughout the exhibit provide further information. Yet, it is the artworks which really give pause for the viewer to draw deeper linkages and connections, modelling different frames of thinking about Asian diasporic history, such as the archipelagic or oceanic, while foregrounding the distinct but interconnected history of Asia/ns and the Pacific. The balanced curation across multiple media types is a testament to the different skills, disciplines, and perspectives brought to the exhibit by co-curators, Juily Phun, an academic in the Department of Asian American Studies at Cal State LA, and Jason Pereira, a Resident Artist at the Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum, as well as the eight other artists whose work is featured.

However, despite the delicate curation of the boba show, I did wonder whether the exhibition’s small size ultimately limited its potential effectiveness. Spread over only two galleries, the leap from colonial movements of the cassava root to the growth of the Asian ethnoburb felt sudden. As a result, the exhibition’s valiant attempt to bridge heterogeneous engagements with and uses of the cassava root felt like it relied heavily on the viewer to complete the connections being drawn. What exactly, I wondered, is the relationship between the “studious boba girl” and the mannequin covered in boba’s plastic waste in numa’lo, or the mural depicting the global spread of the cassava root from the Americas to Asia, Africa, and the Pacific? How does that relationship trouble the very celebration of the boba shop as a “third space” for all kinds of “AAPI and BIPOC youth” that the exhibit promotes? And, most importantly, will visitors be able to see these disjunctures and critically reflect upon them?

Tandee Wang, University of California, Santa Barbara

Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).


Evyn Lê Espiritu Gandhi, Archipelago of Resettlement: Vietnamese Refugee Settlers and Decolonization across Guam and Israel-Palestine (Oakland: University of California Press, 2022).


Epeli Hau’ofa, “Our Sea of Islands,” The Contemporary Pacific 6, no. 1 (Spring 1994).


Lisa Kahaleole Hall, “Which of These Things Is Not Like the Other: Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders Are Not Asian Americans, and All Pacific Islanders Are Not Hawaiian,” American Quarterly 67, no. 3 (September 2015).


Erin Suzuki, Ocean Passages: Navigating Pacific Islander and Asian American Literatures (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2021).


Michelle N. Huang, “Ecologies of Entanglement in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” Journal of Asian American Studies 20, no. 1 (February 2017): 112.


See “The Boba Belt,” Chinese American Museum,