“Going here makes me feel so old,” my friend lamented.
“Why?” I asked, chewing my milk tea’s pearls carefully.
I glanced around the room, suddenly self-conscious of my familiar routine. We were sitting in T4, a local boba shop, after returning to Dublin, California, from our third semester in college.
“I don’t know,” she said. “There’s just no one here I recognize anymore.”
Sometime between my junior and senior years of high school, boba culture in Dublin exploded. For as long as I can remember, Quickly (famous for its fried octopus) and Cafe Tapioca (great for post-bowling drinks) had been the only two contenders in town. But then T4 opened, redefining our town’s boba shop aesthetic with its teal color scheme and metallic straws. Then i-Tea joined forces with a froyo store in a local outlet mall. Then Sharetea opened up near a swanky hot pot restaurant. Before I knew it, five boba places, each with its own distinct culture, dotted my tiny city.
Energy buzzed behind T4’s glass doors. Almost every time I went, I saw someone I knew—an acquaintance from a neighboring city, the girl who sat next to me in AP Literature, a former classroom mom. We would make small talk or just yell out each other’s names. It was fun. It was home.
In the summer, I spent late nights of good conversation and fried tofu there. I would text someone to hang out, and we would drive to T4 under the cold glow of streetlamps, K-Pop blasting through the car’s speakers. At the store, we would sit at a table and go through the motions of an old refrain.
“Are you going to get something?”
“No, I thought you wanted something.”
As cheesy as this sounds, we didn’t go for the milk tea. We went for each other. The out-of-season Christmas lights gave the store a charm that made it feel homey. The polo-wearing employees granted us a feeling of security. And the bustle of the place—the loud chatter of teenagers relaying the day’s gossip and frustrations—promised anonymity. It was the stuff Harvard study breaks can only dream of.
When a friend of mine moved to South Korea recently, she mentioned T4 boba runs as markers of her California childhood. And when she came to visit over winter break, we reunited at T4. We hugged and laughed and punctured our drinks’ plastic with oversized straws.
We noticed a group of kids outside the store. “How old do you think they are?” my friend nudged my shoulder.
“Probably...eighth grade?” They had cocky, lopsided smiles and baby fat on their faces. Two perched on the edge of an open car trunk holding multicolored drinks, their plastic covers fraying around the edges. They had a kind of hopefulness that the course load of high school and the advent of adult acne slowly kill.
“Definitely middle school,” she agreed. One kid lifted his face towards the sun. I imagined he was relishing in the feeling of belonging.
“Definitely.” As 19-year-olds, we were older than the average T4 patron. But we weren’t old enough to go anywhere else.
I didn’t want to be one of those college students trying to relive the glory days of high school—those were nonexistent for me, anyway. But I didn’t want to let go of the nostalgia either. T4 was where I went after school, my morale beaten down by seven hours of classes. It was where I struggled to keep Jenga towers intact, the store’s set always suspiciously sticky. It was more than lychee jelly, earl gray milk tea, and tapioca. It was part of what made my hometown a home.
The child inside of me has begrudgingly let go of stuffed animals, Club Penguin, and lack of responsibility—all the while screaming “I don’t want to grow up! I don’t want to grow up!” But it won’t budge on this. I have something good, and I won’t trade it for the facade of maturity.
When I return to Dublin for spring break, I know exactly where I’m going first.