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The Meme-ification of Asianness

In the Facebook group Subtle Asian Traits, more than a million young people are articulating what it means to be Asian.

The Atlantic

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Early every Sunday growing up in Australia, Anne Gu attended Chinese school, the weekend classes where many children of Chinese immigrants learn Mandarin. There, she bonded with her classmates over their shared sense of obligation. “We understood we had to be there because of our culture, our parents,” Gu told us, “while our other friends were sleeping in.”

They kept in touch via group chat, exchanging jokes about life as first-generation Asian Australians. “Someone was like, it would be fun if we made a Facebook group, and we all agreed,” Gu said. In September of 2018, she and her friends created a group and added “all the Asian friends” on their Facebook friend lists. They called it Subtle Asian Traits, after a then-popular Facebook group among Aussie teens called Subtle Private School Traits.

The high-school seniors had intended it to be a small community of friends from the Melbourne area, so when its member list ballooned to 1,000 people, “I was like, no way,” Gu said. Three months later, the group iwas among the most popular on Facebook, with more than a million members from around the world at the time of reporting, and more every day. “This group is the reason I go on Facebook like 10 times a day now,” one member wrote in it. The group skews young, and popular posts invoke the quotidian relatability of grabbing bubble tea with friends and enduring strict parents—or dealing with ignorance.

One popular meme in the group riffs on something dreaded by many diasporic Asians—the “Where are you really from?” line of questioning:

(The primary language in Hong Kong is Cantonese, not Mandarin.) For many in the group, it’s an all-too-familiar microaggression.

The group has become a place for diasporic Asians to talk about encounters like this, despite being scattered across the globe, many in neighborhoods without a lot of people who look like them. “Subtle Asian Traits demonstrates another example of the importance of specificity and universality. To reach the most people, you have to be incredibly specific,” says Takeo Rivera, a professor at Boston University who researches Asian American cultural production.

Subtle Asian Traits has now inspired at least 40 other groups, according to Subtle Asian Yellow Pages (itself another Facebook group): Subtle Asian Dating (for more than 275,000 Asian singles), Subtle Asian Dating: Wholesome Edition (newly created, for more than 100 Asian “wholesome” singles), Subtle Asian Christian Traits (for more than 63,000 Asian Christians), Subtle Asian Pets (for more than 22,000 fans of corgis and more), Decolonized Subtle Asian Traits (“for the AAPI who want less boba and more SJW with their memes”), and more.

The past couple years have shown a visible hunger among the Asian diaspora for cultural purchase: Look at the success of Crazy Rich Asians, the hype over the international rise of K-pop, and the clamor for literature by Asian authors. But media visibility for Asians remains lacking in many respects. In the United States, according to statistics compiled by scholars at six different California universities, only 4 percent of series regulars on TV last year were Asian American and Pacific Islanders—and more than half of those shows were canceled that year. “Asians haven’t had the opportunity to have their voice heard in media. We’re underrepresented,” Gu said to us. “Our Facebook group is giving so many Asians an opportunity to voice their thoughts.”

The Facebook group is a digital manifestation of a “third space,” or the in-between space in which “cultural hybrids,” such as the children of immigrants, adrift between two national communities, shape their unique identities. It’s fitting that the group’s founders met at Chinese school, another third space.

“We have to sort of bounce between both cultures in our lives,” Gu said. “I feel like the group has helped people come to terms with it, and know they’re not alone, and that there are so many people around the world who have the same struggles and same experiences.” Subtle Asian Traits has revealed the breadth of the diaspora. While most of the members in the group are Asian Australians and Asian Americans, reflecting the large proportions of Asians in both countries, other members hail from countries such as Sweden and Switzerland—“which I hadn’t even known had that many Asians,” Gu marveled. “And we can still laugh and agree on the same memes.”

One prolific poster in the group, Laura Ngo, grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, and didn’t have many Asian friends at school, with the exception of those she met at the Vietnamese church. So she found them online. “I feel like it’s reconnecting a lot of Asian Americans with people from their communities, and it’s like one big group of understanding—all these jokes that you don’t have to explain,” Ngo says.

The surge of these groups speak to a “need and yearning for a safe space—where Asian Americans can express our authentic selves,” explains Jenn Fang, the founder of reappropriate.co, a blog on Asian American feminism and race. Subtle Asian Traits is the latest iteration in a long line of online Asian communities, like Yellowworld and Rice Bowl, popular message boards from the early 2000s, or Asian Avenue, an early social-networking site for Asian Americans.* Fang, a message-board alum, joined Subtle Asian Traits after hearing about it from us.

The group, like many other Facebook groups centered on shared experiences, has a therapeutic function. Some of its content references cultural pressures that many immigrant children face. “Any other not-skinny/not-small Asian folks out there who struggle with body image shit? Especially as a Korean ... every time I go back to Seoul, I feel this crippling insecurity, like by not being thin I’m a disgrace to my culture,” one discussion post reads, with thousands of sympathetic responses. “My father almost flipped a shit and started yelling at my brother when he didn’t get into Columbia,” another popular post reads. “I know that immigrant parents go through so much to set themselves up in a new country. I really know that my parents struggled. But what do you guys think is fair for the kids or not?”

Other posts retain the cavalier tone of memes, but hint at trauma. A poll asking, “What did your parents beat you with? Lol” received thousands of responses as well. The choices: belt, back scratcher, sandals, fly swatter, and shoehorn. (Belt won.)

There is a tension inherent in Subtle Asian Traits’ attempt to place diverse experiences under one “Asian” umbrella. Some worry that its posts can perpetuate stereotypes about tiger parents and model minorities. Others have accused it of excluding content about South Asians, despite billing itself as a space for everyone. There are the usual problems with trolls that surface in any corner of the internet, too.

Alisha Vavilakolanu, a 21-year-old psychology student, notes that “people were using slurs against South Asian people [in the group],” but the moderators didn’t intervene until, she feels, it was too late. She looked up the group’s moderators and found no South Asian representation. “It’s important to have people on the other end who can recognize [abusive behavior] and immediately be like, ‘That’s not okay, we don’t accept that.’” The concern about its lack of representation of South Asians helped in part to spur the creation of yet another meme group: Subtle Curry Traits, which features more South Asian–focused content, though it has fewer members (about 223,000 at the time of reporting).

When we shared criticism of the group’s low South Asian visibility with Gu, she said, “It’s a very big group, so it’s very hard to control what gets posted and what’s not. We try to be as inclusive as possible. At the end of the day, there are more East Asians in the group than Indians.” Gu and the 14 other administrators and moderators spend hours reviewing the more than 4,000 daily submitted posts as if working “a full-time job,” as Gu put it. When they come across offensive posts, they screenshot them and discuss what to do over a group chat. The teenagers have become gatekeepers of cultural production, holding the power to shape norms—including the sticky question of what is “Asian” enough to be posted in the group.

They’re also getting many requests about monetizing the group. Indeed, the administrators have started posting sponsored content for an Australian mattress company promising a bed so firm “your bubble tea won’t spill no matter how many you’re drinking.” According to Gu, the money will go toward covering expenses to “protect our online [identities].”

But the teens, who are currently on break for the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, are still trying to focus on their original goals for Subtle Asian Traits. “We labeled the group [Facebook category] as ‘family,’ so that’s what the group’s purpose is, to allow people to feel like they all belong to something,” she said, alluding, like nearly everyone we spoke with, to the loneliness of being a diasporic Asian, fitting in neither here nor there. Perhaps the explosion of this Facebook community was inevitable: People want to find their people.

Some enterprising group members have taken it upon themselves to move its conversations offline. Hella Chen, the co-founder of Subtle Asian Dating, told us, “There was a need for this in the community that would allow for a better way for people to connect with others. Dating was the thing in the sense that people wanted to get to know someone personally.” And at least based on some posts in the group, members have been able to find love with fellow Asians.

Matt Law, a 27-year-old entrepreneur, organized a Subtle Asian Traits meet-up in New York City that attracted more than 400 people—and he plans to host more. “In the beginning it was like a joke, to see if people were interested or not, and in the end, people ended up being very receptive,” he says. “It’s a great way to bridge community and have people meet up in person and not just talk through the Facebook group.” Group members are organizing meet-ups in Vancouver; Toronto; Boston; Washington, D.C.; and other cities.

And Gu, for her part, bonded with her own family over the group. When she saw a post about a traditional Chinese dish made of scrambled eggs and tomatoes—a simple comfort food she’d forgotten about—she asked her parents to make it for dinner. “I was like, I haven’t had this in ages, and my parents were like, ‘Okay, we’ll make it for you.’” Her parents had forgotten about the dish, too. It was a moment of connection between generations, one made especially potent by the prevalence of the group’s themes of intergenerational alienation. “And then my dad made it again like the week after.”

Nicholas Wu is a fellow at National Journal.

Karen Yuan is an assistant editor at The Atlantic.

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This post originally appeared on The Atlantic and was published December 27, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.

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