Words by Itzel León | Photos by Talia Hodge
The sound of water running fills the pistachio-colored room while ice is scooped. Everything goes silent until a tall man with buzzed hair intensely shakes tea and ice together as it swishes back and forth in a clear cup.
He purses his lips, concentrating on the cup in his hand and then stops, setting it on the counter. With a slight accent, he calls out the order and watches his customer take a drink.
“Do you think it’s too sweet?”
“I think it’s perfect.”
“Are you sure?”
He looks at the customer hoping to see a good reaction to dismiss his worries. Separating them is a counter decorated with a giant lucky cat, a little chalk sign that reads, “Our wifi password is tealovers” and army pamphlets that are most likely from the U.S. Army recruiting office next door.
The customer smiles at him, reassuring him the tea is great. The strangers wish each other goodnight before parting ways.
Located at 1699 E Main St. in Kent, Ming’s Bubble Tea is a veteran-owned business that has gained popularity from its authentic drinks and kind owners.
A Korean boy band, Big Bang, plays from the speakers as the owner talks to his wife in Chinese. Even with a serious face, his eyes are kind and happy as he waits for his next customer.
Across from them is a “Hopes & Dreams” wall where customers write their wishes. Most of the wall is covered in multicolored sticky notes and wooden blocks hung up by red yarn. The hopes and dreams range from getting well and finding love to equality and “to finally meet my father.” They’re anonymous—some happy, some sad, but always catching people’s eye.
“When I was little, near my middle school we had this coffee shop, and they had this little wishing wall,” co-owner Yueming Dong says. “You write your own wish or things you want to say and the owner would hang it on the ceiling. I thought it was really cool, and I liked to read other people’s wishes. I just felt the positive energy.”
After Dong and her husband, Mingliang Xie, or just Ming, opened their tea shop, she decided to have her own wishing wall.
“I always wanted to do this. I feel this positive energy, and I feel that no matter who you are, people in general have a good wish,” she says. “It makes me happy. It makes people happy to see it, and I do hope their dreams come true.”
Xie was born in China and came to the United States in 2009. He joined the army to pay for college, but never finished his studies because he disliked school, so he left. After leaving school, Xie stayed in the army and planned to become a linguist. Because Dong wasn’t a legal U.S. resident at the time, the army didn’t grant Xie the top secret security clearance he needed to become a linguist.
So instead, Xie and Dong decided to get married. After that, Xie worked until he and his wife decided to make Dong’s dream come true and they opened the first bubble tea shop in Kent.
Bubble, or boba, tea originated in Taiwan in the ’80s and has become popular in the United States in the past couple years. The drink is tea-based, shaken with milk or fruit flavors and then pearls (tapioca balls) or other “toppings,” like fruit jellies, are added.
“We have six or seven drinks in front of you,” Xie says to me, concerned, as I assure him that the wait is fine.
I take a seat and he sighs looking at the list of drinks that still need to be made. With only two people working behind the counter, it’s no surprise he’s sweating from shaking all the teas. Xie takes pride in his bubble tea shop because of its authenticity. No powder tea is used and they emphasize the tea is freshly shaken. Their stickers, the same color of pistachio as the walls, read “freshly shaken—taste the difference—share the love.” All of the products used at Xie’s are shipped from Taiwan, which can be a setback at times when they run out of products and have to close for the day, but he says it’s worth it. He wants to make the customer’s experience as authentic as possible.
“Here’s the peach black tea. I’m so sorry for the wait,” Dong says to me.
She stands about a foot shorter than her husband. With her long black hair pulled back and a few strands in her face, she smiles because this is what she’s always wanted to do.
When Dong was in high school, she would go with her friends to get bubble tea after school. She says bubble tea shops in China are like coffee shops in U.S. cities, and she misses seeing these shops everywhere. That’s why she appreciates Xie so much. She says he gave up a lot, including the linguist job in the army, to marry her.
“Going into active duty is something he always wanted to do, and he passed a really hard test,” she says. “This was going to be a whole other career for him, but he gave it up for me, and I appreciate that a lot.”
In their culture, it’s custom for parents to give their children money when they get married. The children either use that money for their wedding or a house. Xie and his wife chose neither. Instead, they used their savings and the money given to them by their parents to open up Ming’s Bubble Tea.
“You guys busy today?”
“A little bit,” Xie replies to a customer.
Despite making drink after drink and telling customers their waiting period would be around 10 minutes, Xie doesn’t fail to be optimistic.
“There’s really nothing to complain about, life is good,” he says. “Even if it’s not going the way you want it to be, you’re alive, you’re breathing, you know? Sometimes I do have negative emotions, but I try not to pass that to my customers.”
Xie is a people person. He’s gotten to know customers and make friends with them. He says it’s the best part of his job because it’s not all about making money. It’s about making connections through people. Even though he doesn’t really listen to Big Bang, and they’re constantly played in the shop, he has them on his playlist for a customer that recommended them.
Ming’s Bubble Tea was the first to open in Kent, but more have been popping up in the area. Xie isn’t too worried.
“We never really wanted to compete with anybody,” he says. “As far as I know, we have the best bubble tea in town. And I’m very confident to say that. They’re just catching up with us.”
Xie says the money they make doesn’t matter as long as they have a good reputation.
“As long as you’re delivering the best quality you think you can possible to your customers, that’s success. You want your customers to recognize that,” he says. “Luckily for us, our customers have recognized that.”
Reviews of Ming’s Bubble Tea on Facebook back his statements up, and there’s nothing but good things said about the service and the tea.
Some read, “Not only does this store have the best customer service, but they are friendly,” and, “Ming is awesome and super welcoming,” and multiple comments about the cashier being friendly, helpful and kind with “great service and outstanding owners who go beyond to please customers.”
Even when they’re busy, and both Xie and Dong are occupied making drinks, they don’t forget to say goodbye to their customers in either English or Chinese, thanking them for coming in.