The not so subtle ways Asians are brought together

January 24, 2019 — by Manasi Garg

What is the “Asian American experience” or “Asian diaspora experience”? Growing up in a Western nation where the predominant narrative in media is, well, not Asian, sometimes it feels as if you’re cherry picking between two cultures — that of your parents and that of the anglicized society you live in — to figure out where you belong and what your identity is.

This idea of cultural clash and confusion, of an inability to reconcile different values and belief systems, is a heavy one and difficult to navigate. Thankfully, light is being shed on the issue, and it’s being done so in the most lighthearted way possible — through a Facebook meme group called “subtle asian traits.”

The group consists of jokes and memes that attempt to (and often successfully) characterize the experience of being a second-generation Asian, ranging from balancing familial expectations with your own interests to worshipping boba and joking about lactose intolerance to touching on the microaggressions Asians face (for example, being told that you “speak good English for an Asian” or hearing someone say “I heard Asian men are unattractive”). In other threads, people argue about the best ramen or boba chain, and punchlines are written in Pinyin, a romanized version of Chinese written in English letters.

Every time I scroll through Facebook, the first posts that pop up in my feed are “subtle asian traits” memes, where I see Saratoga High students constantly tagging each other. It’s pretty likely that most Asians at SHS are in the meme group. And if they’re not, they’ll soon be added by  a friend.

Even non-Asians are in the group, and the membership count is rapidly nearing 1 million. Second-generation Asian immigrants from places around the world, ranging from Australia (where the founders are from) to Canada and to Hong Kong, are all part of the group; members of the group upload hundreds of new posts every day, with approval from moderators.

The group has been accused of exclusivity — the majority of posts relate to the experiences of Chinese and Vietnamese speakers, since those two groups seem to make up most of the group's membership. Posts are often written in Mandarin, Cantonese or Vietnamese, and while sometimes translations are given, most of the time the punchlines are only relevant to people of Chinese or Vietnamese descent.

This has led to offshoots of the original “subtle asian traits” group that pertain to other ethnicities, such as “subtle korean traits,” which has 10,000 members, and “subtle curry traits,” which has 263,000 members and is for the South Asian diaspora, specifically India, Pakistan and other countries in that region.

Unfortunately, beneath the jokes about boba and lactose intolerance, there have been accusations of anti-blackness, colorism and racist slurs in the community through comments and other activity. Southeast and darker-skinned Asians are sometimes labeled as “not real Asians.” Many non-Americans don’t understand the history behind anti-black slurs, and even some Asian-Americans who do know the history use slurs such as the n-word casually, which is reflective of some of the flaws of the Asian diaspora as a whole.

Still, “subtle asian traits” represents many good things. It brings together communities of people who feel that they don’t belong or are misunderstood, and provides them with a space to comfortably be Asian-American, or Asian-Australian, etc.

But it also brings up other questions — is it appropriate to generalize so many different ethnicities and cultures under one label? And should we be feeding into the more negative Asian stereotypes, often dictated by Western media, by simplifying an entire continent into a sort of funny “tiger mom” joke? And is it even possible to have such nuanced conversations about race, class and trauma in a Facebook meme group?

Still, there is something weirdly and undeniably powerful about these meme groups. The validation and the support they all offer in the form of four boxed memes and text posts feels like an eye in the confusing hurricane of identity confusions and cultural expectations. And if that’s too deep, at the very least, it’s a great place to tag your fellow Asian friends in a “tag yourself” meme. Let them know whether you’re miso ramen, a BBQ pork bun or chicken tikka. I bet they’re dying to find out.

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