In Praise of Subtle Asian Traits

The name “subtle asian traits” might come across as modest or unassuming, but the Facebook meme group with that name is anything but modest. Now one of the largest private Facebook groups in the world, “subtle asian traits” has had wild, unprecedented success. To put things in perspective, meme groups – membership-based platforms for sharing and enjoying memes related to a central theme – are not new on Facebook. Some of the most populated and well-known meme groups have existed for long periods of time before achieving large memberships and recognition from major media outlets. Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash, for example, was founded in October 2015. It grew large enough to be featured in the Washington Post by February 2016, and currently has more than 407,000 members. New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens (or NUMTOTs), profiled in The Guardian, has amassed more than 126,000 members since March 2017. By contrast, “subtle asian traits” has only existed since September 16, 2018 and, in the span of four months, has expanded to include over 800,000 Facebook users.

What does it mean for perhaps the fastest growing meme group on Facebook to be entirely devoted to memes about “Asian” people and their experiences? In a century when the predominant global trend on people’s lips is “the rise of Asia” and new immigrants to the United States look increasingly Asian, Asians – particularly in the diaspora – are searching for their own stories and building their own communities on online media platforms. But unlike older forms of Asian media such as media content from the homeland and YouTube channels, the popularity and potential of “subtle asian traits” lies in both a burgeoning demand for new ways to talk about and express “Asian” identity and the democratic form of the Facebook meme group which facilitates these conversations. In the skyrocketing growth of “subtle asian traits”, we can see hints of a rising pan-Asian, transoceanic discourse of Asian identity that has the capacity to alter the ways in which Asian communities throughout the world think of themselves and each other.

Idly scrolling through the discussion page of the group, patterns and tropes among the memes emerge. Some of the most popular memes involve aspects of “Asian” culture that resonate with the experiences of diasporic Asians. For example, worldwide cultural fads and icons that originated in Asia compose the comedic fodder for the majority of the memes on the group. Jokes about personal obsessions over bubble tea (boba) – a quintessential “Asian” drink – get thousands of likes and comments. Japanese cute or “kawaii” culture is also all the rage, with memes playing on the popularity of the emoticon “uwu” multiplying in the past two months. And members have recently begun to use the ever-popular Pokémon series, represented by the lovable, bewildered Pikachu, as a conduit for all sorts of comedic observations about the experience of being “Asian”.

But beyond universally identifiable references to globalized Asian tropes, “subtle asian traits” has also served as a platform for memes about cultural tropes that come with the experience of growing up “Asian” or being a minority in a non-Asian country. A category of memes about the trials and tribulations of Asian parenting, often focusing on text exchanges between less-than-perfect Asian children and their disappointed parents, has invited flurries of comments as Asian youth eagerly tag each other to laugh at (and commiserate over) their interactions with their parents. Diasporic Asians have taken to the group to share comedic takes of being unable to speak their “mother tongue”and having awkward interactions with relatives intent on helping them preserve their ancestral language and culture. Ignorant non-Asians, particularly White people in Western countries, are the butt of many jokes ridiculing the racism and lack of knowledge underpinning awkward interactions ranging from praise for having “good English” to assumptions that those with “foreign” names must be foreigners. Eager both to create content and laugh at memes that represent the small, quotidian, and often unrepresented aspects of being “Asian” in a nominally “non-Asian” place, members of “subtle asian traits” flock to these memes for the “vindication” that their experiences are not foreign, but “normal”.

So far, so “Asian” – and indeed, if a magically coherent message can be tortured out of all the memes on this groups, it is the fact that “Asian” experiences do exist and transcend the boundaries of ethnic groups. Many of the posts described above about the struggles of diasporic Asians are coded as “Chinese” or “Korean” memes, but the comments below them are filled with Asians of other ethnicities and languages who relate to the experiences behind the meme. Memes remarking on these striking similarities have sprung up, including several that openly wonder whether or not the meme group can bridge divides between Asian language and ethnicity groups through highly relatable content. Even differences among Asians can be comedically handled to reveal underlying commonalities. Examples of this include the handful of posts ‘debating’ the best ways to call Asian food items (is “lychee” pronounced “lai-chee” or “lee-chee”?) and the best cuisine in Asia. Commenters vigorously defend their choices based on their membership in language and ethnic groups – and a few brave souls attempt to calmly explain why people take different stances – but the overwhelming victor in the fray is the common, intense pride for the food of one’s ancestral land. Historically a tenuous category, a broadly ‘pan-Asian’ diasporic identity is finding some solid ground on the memes produced by different types of Asians on “subtle asian traits”.

In fact, the Facebook group format of “subtle asian traits” perhaps facilitates inter-Asian dialogue better than other forms of media and online platforms. One aspect of Facebook groups is that all content is viewable to members while scrolling through the discussion feed of the group. Because users inevitably come across memes produced for audiences of other ethnicities, they are exposed to experiences different from the ones that they might think of as “Asian”, creating numerous opportunities for encounters that can broaden the “Asian” experience for those who frequent the meme group. This concentrated environment, coupled with the global nature of Facebook, is also creating avenues for unprecedented transoceanic conversations among Asians transcending diaspora and homeland. Contrary to what some might expect, “subtle asian traits” was launched by Asian Australians who met at a Chinese school – of all places – in Melbourne. The mix of diasporic Asians from Australia and the United States on the meme group has led to discussions about the similarities and differences of the experiences shared by Asians in both countries.Beyond Australians and Americans, the meme group also not only hosts members from Canada and several European nations, but also thousands of users from Asian countries who contribute memes specific to Asian experiences in the homeland.

Just as diasporic memes provoke common reactions among Asians of different ethnicities, many memes posted on one continent have reverberated among Asians living on other shores. For instance, a meme about the Australian Dairy Company, a famous diner in Hong Kong, was first posted by an Australian, and then liked and commented on by thousands of members from Hong Kong, Australia, the United States and other regions. Many of them undoubtedly related to the meme because of their past experiences at the Australian Dairy Company, a famous tourist attraction, but perhaps just as many saw the meme as a reflection of the Hong Kong café culture which is commonplace both in Hong Kong and in diasporic Chinese communities throughout the world. The meme thus provided a way for Hong Kongers, the Hong Kong diaspora, and the many other Asians who have been to a Hong Kong-style café to connect and bond over a shared experience.

Despite these many instances of shared experience across ethnicities and oceans, as one meme put it, a significant portion of “subtle asian traits” members might find the group’s content “20% relatable” yet remain “80% confused”. Public, comprehensive data on the demographics of the group are not available, but informal polls launched by curious users indicate that the meme group overwhelmingly consists of people of Chinese descent. A quick scroll through the discussion confirms that Chinese – and more broadly East Asian – content predominates. Many memes are even written using Chinese characters or romanizations of Mandarin or Cantonese, making much of that content inaccessible to those who do not read or speak Chinese. “Other types of Asians”, especially “brown” Asians such as those of South and Southeast Asian heritage, have called out their underrepresentation and affirmed their membership as “Asians” worthy of recognition as such. Already a discussion topic of increasing importance among Asian American academic and activist circles and college campuses, the exclusivity of what “Asian” means has been thrust into a larger spotlight on “subtle asian traits”, as users contend and contest the idea that their “humor does reinforce or open dialogue on what the ‘Asian experience’ is.”

These important inter-Asian conversations are being propelled not only by the large audience of “subtle asian traits”, but also by a second aspect of the Facebook group format. Unlike older Asian diasporic media – most notably YouTube sensations such as Wong Fu Productions, Ryan Higa and kevjumba – which have privileged the voices of East Asian men through forms in which content is produced by the few and consumed by the many, making memes is easy and accessible to nearly every Facebook user. The democratic potential of “subtle asian traits” thus lies with the ease by which content that challenges hegemonic conceptions of “Asian” experience can be made by the very people who are underrepresented. Nonplussed by the lack of non-East Asian content, members of other types of Asian descent have thus created scores of memes with content for their own ethnic groups. These posts attract hundreds to thousands of comments from members who can relate, often with exclamations such as “finally one that we can understand” and “WE OUT HERE ON THE MEME PAGE”. Asians of mixed racial origins, all too often left out of Asian and Asian diasporic media, have also turned to posts and memes to share the struggles of being Asians of mixed descent and invite other mixed Asians to offer messages of support and solidarity.

The two unique aspects of the Facebook meme group format previously mentioned – unavoidable exposure to all posts and democratized content production – come together in a final, powerful conversation: the expansion of what “Asian” means across ethnic and geographical boundaries. The clearest example of this is the way in which Asian users of different ethnic or linguistic backgrounds attempt to make sense of memes they do not understand. Many of the comments found on “subtle asian traits” tag friends of other ethnic backgrounds to ask for explanations and translations for memes written in languages other than English. Sometimes these friends decline to translate, perhaps because such content might be too culturally specific or the friend is tired of translating. When they do, however, the translations they provide help everyone understand the joke. Furthermore, the content of the memes posted by Asians from the homeland can be completely new to Asians in the diaspora, offering opportunities to learn about other types of “Asian” experiences. In a meme environment where everyone wants to laugh, the memes on “subtle asian traits” offer a launching pad for Asians to learn about and celebrate the unique experiences of their peers from different ethnic and geographic backgrounds on a daily basis.

It is, of course, easy to overstate the transformative nature of “subtle asian traits”. The predominance of members of East Asian descent in the group remains a factor that makes truly “pan-Asian” conversations on average harder to come by than conversations about East Asian identity and experiences. Indeed, perhaps the greatest testament to the group’s inability to create a fulfilling home for all Asians was the creation of “Subtle Curry Traits”, a meme group themed around South Asian content (though a surprising amount of the content still overlaps), less than a month after “subtle asian traits” began. Furthermore, the common use of the English language limits the participation of homeland Asians to those who are either privileged enough to gain English proficiency or who already live in an Asian region where the English language is widely used and taught (e.g., Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines, India, etc.). Heated language from diasporic Asians regarding sensitive subjects between the diaspora and the homeland – such as North/South Vietnamese hostility and the question of Taiwan’s and Hong Kong’s relationship with China – also potentially discourages homeland Asians from engaging in the meme discussions.

But the undeniable fact of the success of “subtle asian traits” tells us that the memes and meme discussions made possible by the group are impacting and transforming the ways in which Asians around the world are interacting with one another and conceptualizing “Asian” identity. The democratic and global nature of the meme group format enables many Asian youth to share their truths and identify with others across the world for the first time, effectively campaigning for increased online representation of Asians. If nothing else, “subtle asian traits” is proof of the potential of a new pan-Asian, transoceanic community which is just waking up to how diverse, yet how similar, it truly is. As they scroll through the discussion feed of this far-from-subtle meme group, Asians around the world will remark that they are not alone nor are their stories unique, for they share so much with so many other individuals around the globe.

Photo: Map of the World 

About the Author

Quinton Huang '19 is a Staff Writer for the World Section of the Brown Political Review. Quinton can be reached at quinton_huang@brown.edu

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