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National

Not Subtle, Very Asian: A Facebook Group Offers Community, Comfort, and Even Love

“This is quite a bit of a long shot but this group is at nearly a million members so I figured why not,” wrote Allison Yao, a 20-year-old student at the University of California, Berkeley, in a December 2018 post in the Facebook group Subtle Asian Traits.

Three months earlier, Subtle Asian Traits (SAT) was a mostly unknown meme group with a few thousand members, described as an “inside joke” by its founders, most of whom are 18 or younger. By the time of Allison’s post, the group’s membership boasted an impressive global reach, largely comprised of 20-something Asians across the English-speaking world—Asian Americans, Asian Canadians, Asian Australians, and more.

Allison posted a photo of herself and an unknown Asian man. She had taken the photo two and half years earlier, on a choir trip to Switzerland.

“Who are you?” Allison asked in the post. “You were the first Asian…that my friends and I had seen in a long while…[I don’t know] if you’re out there, but SAT, do your thing.”

Within a day, the mystery man from Switzerland had already identified himself in the comments section and in a private message to Allison. Although he had not initially joined Subtle Asian Traits, his friends had seen the post and prompted him to reach out.

Allison said they had a friendly conversation “piecing together the bits of the puzzle,” figuring out how and why they “ended up in the same place at the same time.” But while reconnecting with a stranger from her past was enjoyable, she saw her post as an experiment.

“My main purpose was to see what the power of community would hold, in the strength of such a large group, especially in a group that is such common space for Asians now,” Allison told me.

Other “missed connections” posts popped up in Subtle Asian Traits, with Asians searching for elementary-school classmates who moved away and long-lost comrades from online computer games like Maplestory. 

Facebook groups dedicated to sharing humorous memes are the latest trend in internet culture. But, as Allison’s post showed, Subtle Asian Traits has evolved beyond its comedic origins into a million-member global community, shrinking degrees of separation between the members of the Asian diaspora.

***

In September 2018, inspired by another meme page called Subtle Private School Traits, a group of 17- and 18-year-old Chinese Australians from Melbourne decided to form Subtle Asian Traits, a closed Facebook group. Memes span topics ranging from love of boba tea to bilingual humor to the habits of immigrant parents.

“It wasn’t really planned out or anything,” 17-year-old Darren Qiang, one of the group’s founders, told me. Darren and the other founders knew one another from the Chinese language school they attended on weekends.

“It was a very impulsive decision,” Darren recalled. “We were having a chat overnight and our conversation started out as, ‘Hey, it would be cool to start a Subtle Asian Traits.’ Initially, we thought it was just as a joke, just for some fun.”

In a matter of weeks, Subtle Asian Traits had captivated droves of Asian millennials across the western world, catapulting its founders into the spotlights of high-profile publications like The New York Times and generating offers to purchase the group.

“Before we reached 10K followers, the group progressed fairly slowly,” Darren said. “I think it took us three weeks to hit 10K. But as soon as we hit 10K, we would be getting a guaranteed 25K a day.”

(In fact, one in three of my friends on Facebook have joined Subtle Asian Traits.)

After several months of membership in the group, its memes seem commonplace to me. But I remember the joy I felt upon first discovering Subtle Asian Traits, when, in October 2018, a Chinese American friend messaged me “some fun Asian memes.” I remember keeling over with laughter at the oddly specific brand of humor. The memes she sent me would only make sense to those who, like me, are fluent in Chinglish.

Chinglish, a portmanteau of Chinese and English, is the dominant language in my family. When I speak Chinese with my parents, who immigrated to the U.S. in the ’90s, I often resort to English when a word’s Chinese equivalent eludes me. My parents are also active Chinglish speakers; they say they’ve been away from China for so long that they sprinkle English in their sentences to supplant the Chinese phrases they can no longer remember. Chinglish, a product of the Chinese diaspora, aptly showcases the multilingualism of many immigrant families. Before last fall, I’d never seen it in meme format.

“男人 <=> 难人,” reads the first Subtle Asian Traits meme my friend sent me. The first word, 男人 (phonetically pronounced nanren), means “men,” and has the same pronunciation as 难人, which roughly translates to “difficult person.” Therefore, the meme concludes, there are “no coincidences in the Chinese Language.”

“Are you for zhende?” reads the second meme my friend sent me. Zhende is the phonetic spelling of the Chinese phrase for “true” (真的), but as an English speaker from a Chinese household, nothing about this Chinglish version of “Are you for real?” is confusing.

In the first few days after my discovery, I spent copious amounts of time on my phone perusing the page, delighted by the humor of shared experiences, like my grandparents’ insistence that I drink warm water and my family’s reverent love of Costco—experiences I once believed were peculiar oddities of my family and upbringing.

Aside from cultural quirks, Subtle Asian Traits is replete with humorous and relatable recountings of life for Asians in the diaspora. For example, one meme pokes lighthearted fun at the lack of Asian representation in the Harry Potter book series, joking that the only options for Asians at a “Harry Potter themed event” are to dress as Cho Chang, who is of Chinese descent, or Nagini, an evil snake that author J.K. Rowling recently revealed to be Indonesian.

Subtle Asian Traits’ popularity gave me a sense of affirmation. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had found a space where I felt completely at ease with my identity as a second-generation Asian immigrant. In Subtle Asian Traits, I felt no need to explain myself: swaths of members had experienced some permutation of my Spotify playlist titled “Mandobops,” my love of Chinese home cooking despite only being able to cook stir-fried tomato and egg (the most iconic Chinese dish among my culinarily-challenged generation), my trepidation while visiting relatives in China who jokingly derided my Mandarin, my childhood years spent playing Pokémon with my brothers and passing notes to friends in weekend Chinese school classes.

I did not have to explain why daily encounters with racial ignorance were frustrating, nor did I have to explain why something was racially ignorant in the first place. For memes from cultural contexts I was less familiar with, such as jokes in Vietnamese or Korean, I still felt appreciative of the humor. There was a level of shared understanding in this group, made of Asians from every corner of the English-speaking world, from Asian enclaves that hosted third- and fourth-generation Asian Americans, to conservative, all-white suburbs like my hometown, to continents beyond my preconceived notion of the Asian diaspora.

Anne Gu, 18, another Subtle Asian Traits co-founder from Melbourne, told me, “I feel like [in] our culture, there’s this sort of Asian and Western cultural identity, and how we have to juggle both is something that brings us all together…regardless of where you are, whether it’s America, Australia, New Zealand, all around the world.”

“It’s nice to see Asians connecting globally, not just in Melbourne or Australia. It’s gone to a bigger level, which is amazing, because it’s like one big family all around the world,” Anne said. “We only intended it for a joke, relatable memes, and now it’s something bigger than that. It allows people to feel proud of who they are and their identity and culture that they come from, which is really good because it all connects and bonds us together.”

An offshoot page called Subtle Curry Traits predominantly features content for South Asians in Western societies. According to founder Noel Aruliah, a student at Monash University in Melbourne, Subtle Curry Traits was, like Subtle Asian Traits, intended as a joke. However, with the growing popularity of Subtle Curry Traits, Noel feels that it has become something more meaningful.

“This has brought all these traits and cultural things together, which is really nice to see. There’s something that a lot of people can relate to,” Noel explained. For example, memes in Subtle Curry Traits about strict parenting have broad cross-cultural appeal.

The strong sense of community in groups like Subtle Asian Traits and Subtle Curry Traits has inspired members to address community issues, such as mental health. As of January 2019, the offshoot page Subtle Asian Mental Health Support has over 12,000 members.

***

“This is not an orthodox way of getting to know someone.”

Kevin Pu, a recent graduate of Northwestern University and a prospective pediatric oncologist, laughed with a certain self-awareness as he said this. After all, he met his girlfriend, Sophia Sun, a recent graduate of Pomona College who works at Microsoft, through Subtle Asian Dating, one of the most popular offshoot pages of Subtle Asian Traits.

Subtle Asian Dating has been described as the modern Asian millenial’s version of their parents’ marriage markets, which are popular in Asia for matchmaking. In Subtle Asian Dating, comprised of over 300,000 members as of January 2019, friends “auction off” their single friends with posts comprised of flattering photos and suggestive, emoji-laden pros and cons lists. Both Sophia and Kevin were auctioned off by their friends on Subtle Asian Dating.

“So I’m scrolling through the page, and I’m like, ugh, all these boys with their whatever ‘six-six-six,’ six pack, six figure, whatever, whatever, investment banking, I’m not interested in this at all,” Sophia scoffed in a joint conference call with Kevin and me. “And then I come upon his profile—”

“Makes no money, isn’t six feet, and has, like, no six pack,” Kevin interjected, smiling.  

“It wasn’t emojis exploding all over the place, because that freaks me out a little bit. It was really funny and sincere,” Sophia recalled. “So I was like, I’ll just message him. Maybe he’s a receptive stranger, maybe he’s not.”

Given the complicated dynamics of dating for Asians in Western societies—from fetishization to being seen as completely undateable—it is perhaps unsurprising that Subtle Asian Dating is so popular.

Sophia said she felt a certain comfort in all-Asian spaces and described Subtle Asian Dating as “endearing.”

“I just feel like the meme culture among first, second-gen Asian Americans—even just the way I type and talk to my Asian friends is very different than how I would talk to my white friends,” Sophia observed.

Kevin described a sense of “safety and security” in Subtle Asian Dating.

“We don’t run the risk of being discriminated against for our interests or our foods or whatever else, and we don’t run the risk of people assuming things about us because our family’s from a certain country,” he added.

When I initially reached out to Kevin and Sophia, they emphasized that they did not want to be simply “ten seconds of ‘cuteness’” on Subtle Asian Dating, but instead “part of a more long-term change to how Asians…approach dating and interactions with new people.”

Kevin is critical of “rigid dating expectations” that permeate Subtle Asian Dating, such as the valorization of conventional beauty standards and lucrative careers. To Kevin, because Subtle Asian Dating is such a safe space, the ability to “be open” to transcending such limiting expectations is a “unique luxury” of the group.

***

For all the ways Subtle Asian Traits and its affinity groups have brought together Asians across the Western world, it has not come without criticism.

“In many ways, Subtle Asian Traits can reproduce existing inequalities,” said May Lin, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern California who studies race, social movements, and Asian American youth.

Allison’s search for an unknown Asian man in Switzerland, for example, garnered toxic, misogynistic responses.

Members of the Subtle Asian Traits sent her “tasteless” comments encouraging her to date the mystery man, despite Allison posting that she was in a “happy and healthy relationship.”

“What I had most qualms with were the sheer amount of ‘friendzone’ accusations,” Allison said. “I received a lot of accusational comments with slut-shaming themes, like, ‘What are you doing? If you already have a boyfriend, why are you putting so much effort to searching for this long-lost guy across the globe?’ ‘What are you going to do now, friendzone the poor dude?’”

Because the “friendzone” is not a concept specific to Asian communities, Allison believed the comments to be a “reflection of society that is extremely heteronormative and expects any interaction between a male human being and a female human being to have romantic implications.”

“What’s even more interesting is that I don’t identify as heterosexual, but I know for a fact that if I posted a post like this and the other person had been a woman instead, none of these comments would have been there,” said Allison.

“There definitely seems to be a privileging of heteronormative and patriarchal norms within the group,” Lin noted.

“I do think the degree of pressure put on Asian women to cater to the needs of Asian males, to be in relationships with them, is also immense,” Allison said. “In addition to posts I’ve seen on Subtle Asian Traits, as well as Subtle Asian Dating, there’s a lot of criticism against Asian women for these phenomena.”

Outside of the gendered dynamics that Allison experienced, many users have called attention to the dominance of East Asian and Southeast Asian memes, with South Asian content relatively sidelined.

One candid post on Subtle Asian Traits by a Pakistani American user criticizes the notion that South Asians don’t count as “Asian.”

“[A] lot of us have noticed general racism towards south asians [sic] in this group or feel uncomfortable posting here and don’t engage here,” the post reads. It garnered nearly 8,000 likes and reacts.

However, Darren says the issue isn’t gatekeeping.

“The biggest problem is not that we’re not accepting South Asian content,” Darren said. “It’s just that that content isn’t coming in to be approved in the first place.”

This may have to do with the creation of Subtle Curry Traits as an alternative space for South Asian content.

Noel of Subtle Curry Traits also does not see Subtle Asian Traits as explicitly exclusionary, noting that many admins of Subtle Curry Traits are actually friends with Subtle Asian Traits admins. But he admits that the “Asian” in Subtle Asian Traits often does not seem to extend to South Asians.

“You can say the target of Subtle Asian Traits is definitely more of East Asian and Southeast Asian countries,” Noel said.

Despite being a space for a cohort of Asians who often experience racialization in their countries of residence, Subtle Asian Traits seems to shy away from any sort of politicization. According to a Facebook message from Darren, the admins have “decided collectively to stray away from any political agendas or raise topics that are too political.” This perspective was evident in my conversation with Darren and Anne, who stressed that the group was more about shared culture and cultural pride.

But Lin pointed out that visible representations of Asians in Western culture can themselves be political, albeit less explicitly so.  

“Because Asian cultures are perceived as grounds for racial alienation, practicing pride in culture might be a political act in and of itself,” Lin said.

Both Darren and Anne emphasized themes of Asian “empowerment,” but refrained from describing empowerment as a response to inequality.

“I wouldn’t say Australia is necessarily racist to Asian people. As a country, we’re fairly good because our country is made up of immigrants from all over the world” Anne said. “Not many [Asian Australians] get mistreated; it’s all fairly balanced and respectful.”

In the United States, the term “Asian American” is inherently political, arising out of the Civil Rights Movement and pan-Asian movements decrying racism against various Asian American groups. And in Australia, contrary to Anne’s anecdotal observations, some studies show that Asian Australians still face pervasive race-based discrimination, from anti-Asian vandalism to housing discrimination.

Yet, as Lin notes, Asian American groups often opt for outward political neutrality. Although Subtle Asian Traits is certainly unprecedented in terms of scale, it is not the first Western Asian online community; Asian American message boards and Asian American Youtube culture, for example, predate Subtle Asian Traits by nearly two decades. However, Lin sees little promise in these kinds of Asian American and Western Asian forums becoming political or activist spaces.

“Identities need to be connected to political meaning, and folks need spaces to learn concretely how to engage in politics,” Lin said. “I don’t see Subtle Asian Traits doing that explicit political work, which is why I think there’s little promise for this being a space for activism.”

Of course, Subtle Asian Traits is far from a perfect community. But it is mind-boggling to me that my cohort of peers—Asian millennials and Gen-Z’s of the Anglosphere—stand at the center of an unprecedented internet phenomenon. Almost unthinkably, this page, the brainchild of Australian teens younger than me, has reunited long-lost childhood friends, sparked romantic relationships, and formed support systems.

I will always remember the advice Mary Lui, the head of Yale’s Timothy Dwight College, imparted to her students during the final lecture of her course on Asian American history. More than anything, Asian Americans should continue to create spaces for themselves, she reminded us. It is a sentiment I often reflect on as I explore my own Asian American identity and spaces for Asian Americans like Subtle Asian Traits.

Despite Subtle Asian Traits’ shortcomings, I still hold on to the hope that, here, unlike anywhere else, when our fingers are on the keys, we can shape the kind of community we want.