BobaD and Chai Imperialism

By Maanasi Shyno

“As a community we need to be cautious about chai imperialism because it masquerades as making Asian products more accessible, while taking from Asian communities and appropriating Asian recipes.”

When I refer to DDS in this article, I mean Dartmouth Dining Service executives and Dartmouth College admin, not the lovely DDS workers who prepare food and work in dining spaces or their managers.

One of my first conversations with my dad after moving to college was as follows:

“How is the food? Are you eating properly?”

“Yes, I’m eating. The food is good I think.”

“Okay, good… what did you eat today for lunch?”

“Pasta I think and some vegetables...?”

“Pasta again? You know what, why don’t you ask the chef to make idili and sambar? Tell them it is traditional South Indian food. Very healthy. Good for hair.”

“Papa, I don’t think they will make it...”

“Why not? I saw on Facebook they are making burritos. Just ask. Tell them also that…”

I’m sure this is a relatable conversation for many children of immigrants, both because it is centered around food and the clear scarcity of ethnic food at Dartmouth. Freshman year, this drove me to cook Indian food myself (a show of desperation considering I had hardly cooked anything before). But even when students cook for themselves, the closest Asian supermarket or Indian store is over an hour away by bus, making it completely inaccessible to those without a car.

It is understandable that DDS’ attempts at making ethnic food are not often up to student standards of home cooking, but I’d go as far as to say that attempts to make pav baji and brinjal curry (affectionately referred to by DDS as “Indian eggplant stew”) are admirable attempts to serve desi students. In some ways, it dedicates an awareness of the importance of ethnic food to POC students and acknowledges their existence on campus.

All things considered, the establishment of BobaD, a new boba station in Collis Cafe, should be yet another indicator of this. Right?

I have reservations. Several reservations.

I want to first start out by saying, if you are Taiwanese or grew up drinking boba and are thrilled by BobaD, I’m happy for you. What I’m about to say is not a critique of your satisfaction.

During 21F, the rumors that Dartmouth would be opening a boba station in Collis finally manifested as BobaD. But I, and many other students, have a question for DDs: Why start selling boba when there’s already a small Asian-run business just down the street that serves (much better) boba?

I’ll give you an answer: the market. Clearly, there is a market for boba in Hanover considering how well 4U Bubble Tea has been doing over the past year. Despite other businesses in town suffering, 4U has had a steady stream of customers. Given that students make up half of Hanover’s population, students are a large proportion of these customers— a proportion whose spending habits the College has significant sway over through dining plans. For example, many students on the Ivy Unlimited Plan often find that they don’t want to eat out since they’ve already paid for school food. But until 21F, DDS did not offer boba, so there was no incentive not to go into town for one.

Admittedly, BobaD doesn’t quite create the incentive necessary to pull students away from 4U since better, less expensive boba is only a five minute walk away from Collis. Regardless, the decision to open BobaD is a clear encroachment on a space in the market for boba that had already been filled.

I have a hard time believing that student demand prompted the establishment of BobaD because the station is almost always empty. I don’t know anyone who thinks BobaD is a good representation of boba or better than 4U. Sales must be indicating this as well, because DDS heavily advertised BobaD over 21F, which started off with “coming soon” hype flyers and slowly grew more desperate to the point of offering two bobas for the price of one.

DDS was clearly confident that Collis boba would be a hit, having relegated the very popular smoothie station to the corner and nixing the beloved and well-utilized sandwich station entirely. But given the imploring ads, students evidently aren’t buying DDS boba in the quantities that they expected. DDS either poorly surveyed the student population ahead of time, or didn’t bother to at all.

I also struggle to believe that the intention behind BobaD was to provide more ethnic food options for a growing population of POC students. Collis serving boba can not be equated to foco’s attempts at food diversity because foco menus that include ethnic food are intended to serve options that are harder to find or more expensive to get in Hanover. For example, I can get Indian food in town at Jewel of India or Samosa Man, but it isn’t really cost-effective to do so regularly when I’m also paying a significant amount for a campus meal plan. As such, eating Indian food often is difficult; foco offering Indian food attempts to remedy that. Boba, on the other hand, is not consumed as regularly and is more often considered a treat, so going to 4U and buying boba outside the meal plan is not prohibitive in comparison. DDS beginning to offer boba does not make the drink more accessible to students. DDS boba is not about making ethnic options accessible.

My conclusion is that the intention behind BobaD was to compete with 4U and potentially overtake its business.

(And I wasn’t the only one feeling this way. In a recent print edition, the Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern released “DDS Announces New Dining Stations: Clean Cowboy, Still South, Polly’s Restaurant And Bar” by BUB L. TEA, clearly mocking the decision to open BobaD and pointing out Dartmouth’s history of hurting local businesses.)

What makes this so uncomfortable is the specific dynamic created by a wealthy, powerful institution like Dartmouth attempting to compete with a small Asian business when it doesn’t need to. Whatever DDS’ intention, the situation presents a clear racial power dynamic reminiscent of american imperialist tendencies to take ethnic riches. I’ll refer to this practice and dynamic as chai imperialism.

A similar example of chai imperialism can be found in Starbucks’ “Chai Tea Latte” (ugh). No one would say that chai is american. However, Starbucks chai has different ingredients and is made from concentrate; it tastes completely different from the chai I make at home with my family. Most “chai tea” drinkers don’t know that chai has a really rich history deeply connected to British imperialism and class. They believe they are drinking an authentic or close-to-authentic version of a South Asian drink and marvel at the spiciness.

The increased availability of Asian drinks is not inherently bad, but there is an element of exoticism that plays into their popularity, which american companies notice and then capitalize on. In the case of “americanized” chai, the selling point is that it is an “exotic” drink brought mainstream so the goal is not to portray it as changed (even though it is). There is a delicate intertwining here of orientalist perceptions of Asian cultures and the ways in which large companies are the ones turning the profit. Afterall, chai kadas haven’t cropped up all over the country to sell authentic chai despite a clear market for it. Instead, companies like Starbucks realized chai would be a hit and then completely monopolized the chai market.

Another important point to note is that chai is marketed as ambiguously exotic, creating a duality of chai both being racialized and stripped of its roots. Starbucks does not describe their chai specifically as South Asian, which will over time contribute to the erasure of the drink’s South Asian-ness. While many people do currently know that chai lattes are South Asian, many also associate the word chai primarily with Starbucks or are completely unaware of the drink’s origins. Cultural foods and products that go mainstream due to chai imperialism risk being commodified (and thereby appropriated) out of cultural memory, which is a crime of its own.

Although Starbucks’ chai imperialism manifested differently (and more successfully) than BobaD’s, both still demonstrate the inherently racial qualities of this economic imperialism. As a community we need to be cautious about chai imperialism because it masquerades as making Asian products more accessible while taking from Asian communities and appropriating Asian recipes. BobaD is a microcosmic example of the ways in which american capitalism is deeply rooted in western imperialism and interwoven with orientalism. Try as we might, there is no remedy, no way to disentangle these. At the very least, it’s important to recognize the many modern manifestations of imperialism, and the way they affect Asian communities, as starting points for breaking down the meritocracy myth so prevalent in this country. The playing field is not even. Minority businesses should not be expected to pull themselves up by the bootstraps to face billion-dollar corporations or institutions with unimaginable levels of influence.

Whether you’re a fan of BobaD or not, the implications of Dartmouth deciding to compete with 4U are clear. I’d like to see Dartmouth actually start supporting its Asian/American community by dedicating more support to the Asian and Asian American Living Learning Community, hiring more Asian/American faculty, and establishing an Asian American Studies Program. I also wish the College would prioritize basic needs like housing, food access, and mental health resources over flashy additions like BobaD that no one truly asked for. Personally, I will not be buying boba from Dartmouth and will happily make the small trek over to 4U. I hope you will too.