Lily is an international student who is studying in LA. But, she doesn't want to be one who is always in the Chinese bubble.

Do English native speakers use 'bubble' to describe "a group of people with family, work, or social connections" such as circle?

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    Since the onset of COVID-19, I'd say. Jul 30, 2020 at 15:04
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    Well, it’s more than that. The implication is that those in the bubble remain separated/isolated from their surroundings.
    – Jim
    Jul 30, 2020 at 15:07
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    What separates a circle from a bubble in this use is excluding outsiders. So that world is close to 100% one thing, one culture, one set of expectations. Jul 30, 2020 at 15:13
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    To be clear, did you mean that Lily is from China? Jul 30, 2020 at 15:58
  • Newspaper examples of Chinese bubbles for students at foreign universities: 1 2 3 4
    – Henry
    Jul 31, 2020 at 1:43

2 Answers 2


Bubble carries an often-negative connotation that anyone or anything inside the bubble is unnaturally or dangerously isolated from the world, and often the additional sense that this isolation is delusional or imperiled, or both.

In contrast, a person has multiple circles. I might not be admitted to one circle or another, but there are others; I am not confined to one. Even if I say my inner circle are all Ivy Leaguers, it means my closest friends or colleagues are graduates or faculty of Ivy League universities, but it does not mean I do not associate with people who are not. If I say my bubble are all Ivy Leaguers, on the other hand, it implies I associate exclusively with such people, or that I disregard my association with people who are not.

It is certainly possible in Los Angeles to spend weeks at a time exclusively among ethnic Chinese people, speaking only Mandarin, eating Chinese foods, consuming Chinese media, and so forth. If Lily is living in a "Chinese bubble" in Los Angeles, it means that her experiences are mostly or entirely Chinese in this way.

There is no implicit criticism that this is a bad way to live because it is Chinese—a Danish bubble or a Brazilian bubble or an Australian bubble would be equally limiting. The sentence is rather praising her for leaving her familiar, comfortable existence to experience new things, for taking advantage of the opportunities for cultural expansion that are afforded to international students.

The earliest sense of bubble is of a volume of gas or liquid present inside another gas or liquid, separated by a thin membrane. This gave rise in the 20th century to describe thin-walled structures which held their shape without bracing, for instance buildings supported by pressurized air (e.g. tennis bubble), or the canopy of the Lincoln Futura concept car. In turn, bubble came to be the popular term for a sterile chamber around a hospital bed created with plastic sheeting. The OED's earliest attestation is from the New York Times, October 5, 1966.

A few years later, this sense of bubble was amplified with the celebrity case of David Vetter, who was born with a severe immune disorder and forced to live permanently inside such a sterile chamber. The news media termed him the "Bubble Boy" and his case and that of Ted DeVita and others inspired a 1976 television movie starring John Travolta called The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, all of which solidified the meaning of a bubble as an environment in which someone lives in isolation from the world.

The recent rise in the concern about life in a bubble stems from various observations about the decline of social cohesion in Western societies, brought on by different villains depending on your political point of view: social media, 24-hour news, wealth inequality, mass immigration, Russian trolls, and so on and so forth. Different sectors of society disagree about whether a phenomenon is a problem or not, much less over how to solve them, and pick and choose the sources of authority and information to suit their ideological predispositions, and even sort into parts of the country where people are more agreeable to their point of view. Then, when confronted with people who do not share the same ideas, they are shaken and disturbed.

In particular, the 2016 Brexit vote came as an incredible shock to the British (and European) establishment, followed shortly by the at least equally shocking election of Donald Trump. This led to considerable concern about the elite bubble of highly educated, upper-middle and upper income, and politically centrist elites in the news media, public policy, corporate management, academia, and so forth who associate mainly with people who are just like themselves and who consume the same culture.

You can find the sense of bubble as living in self-reinforcing isolation from the real world now in Merriam-Webster in relating to political opinions:

an enclosed or isolated sphere of experience or activity in which the like-minded members of a homogeneous community support and reinforce their shared opinions

  • Wow, I didn't know "bubble" can 'mean' so much. Thank you so much. But, I wonder how come one can't find the meaning on this aspect in the Cambridge dictionary and the Oxford Learner's dictionaries online? Cause they are not American ones? Jul 31, 2020 at 4:23
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    @simplebeing I see this meaning at dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/bubble , third in the list. OED has this meaning "A protected or fortunate situation which is isolated from reality or unlikely to last. Frequently in to live in a bubble" attested since 1918, so I don't know why it's not in Oxford Learner's
    – AakashM
    Jul 31, 2020 at 10:28
  • See also the phrase "living in a bubble" which became popular after the famous TV show...
    – barbecue
    Jul 31, 2020 at 13:30
  • Thank you, AakashM. Guess I only looked it up in the English-Chinese version instead of English one at Cambridge dictionary. Jul 31, 2020 at 13:32

This answer is from experience inside and out of the North American expatriate bubble. I'm a bit passionate about the subject, so please tell me if this is a rant.

I am a North American native, but have lived in South America for most of my life. As a foreigner in the various countries that I have lived in, I can say that "Bubble" describes perfectly almost any kind of closed community, and I have heard it often to refer to a "community of expats".

P1: "Has Peter learned to speak Spanish?"
P2: "No, he spends most of his time in the Bubble, and works online for Xander's editorial."

An old proverb says, "Birds of a feather flock together", and expats from the same region tend to associate, too--just look at Chinatown in a big city. Globalization has done very little to open cultural frontiers in this respect, from the POV of natives and that of the foreigner. Anyone who has had the experience of being a minority can tell you that even "melting-pots" are not as inclusive as they should be, and although colonialist communities seem to ignore the "bubble effect", it is obvious from the outside; and it's walls, while transparent, are nearly impregnable. We are, world-wide, as bad as ever in discriminating against people based on culture and genealogy, again both as expats and as "second-home" countries receiving strangers.

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    Nope, it is not about a rant. It just describes someone who studies in the US and simply doesn't wanna hang out with the people who are from the same country and speak the same language. Jul 31, 2020 at 3:36

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