Is there anything more real than bonding over shared trauma through Pikachu memes?
When a friend added me about a month ago, subtle asian traits had about 300,000 members. Every Asian person I know — from middle school classmates to second cousins to a handful of people I’ve matched with on Tinder — appeared to be in this massive meme conglomerate. The Facebook group has nearly tripled in membership since I joined and has ballooned to a whopping 869,000 since its creation in September.
The group, founded by a group of Asian-Australian teenagers from Melbourne, is flush with memes about boba tea, clever linguistic puns, and a joint sense of otherness. It has inspired countless spin-off groups like subtle asian eats, a platform to share mouthwatering photos of food and swap restaurant recommendations, and subtle asian dating, a matchmaking group so your mother will get off your back about finding a significant other. There’s even a subtle asian kevin traits, poking fun at the name’s inexplicable popularity among Asian parents.
The geographic spread of its members is striking — subtle asian traits is made up of young people from Australia, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and a variety of other countries. Despite coming from all over the world, a majority of the members share a common experience: being the children of Asian immigrants.
“The second gen Asian experience is so universal,” Will Park said over Facebook Messenger. “Because they fit in super well until they’re abruptly reminded they don’t.”
Like Park points out, growing up with immigrant parents is an experience tinged with constant otherness — subtle asian traits denizens bond over being shuttled between piano lessons and test prep academies while their white friends attended slumber parties. They joke about Western teachers’ inability to pronounce their names, and about being embarrassed when they brought pungent homemade lunches to school.
What better way to discuss the Asian diaspora than through memes? Petrana Radulovic and her cousins send each other the posts focused on “cultural disconnect.”
“We’re the only parts of my mom’s side in the U.S. so it’s been a way to bond,” she said over Instagram DM. “And it’s also been reassuring to me personally to see other mixed-raced people identifying with their Asian side.”
Like Radulovic, being part of subtle asian traits has opened the door for conversation starters in my family. I’ll send my mother memes about Hong Kong culture, and it’s a lighthearted way to check in despite living on opposite coasts. When I sent her a “tag yourself” meme with dim sum dishes, she concluded that she identified most with sautéed veggies.
“Guai means good,” she texted back, filling in the gaps for my woeful Cantonese.
(My friends insist that I’m much closer to siu mai, but I would never admit that to my own mom.)
Like most of the millennial and Gen Z population, the members of subtle asian traits turn to dark humor to discuss serious topics, like the insurmountable pressure to be successful. In one post, the OP writes out a mugging where the perpetrator asks for “your money or your life.”
“You’re an Asian American struggling with the pressure of trying to prove yourself academically and occupationally so that the sacrifices your parents made to give you a better life by working late nights and saving money are not in vain,” the OP jokes before quipping, “And not to mention, you’re also lactose intolerant.”
Loving dairy products despite the genetic predisposition to lactose intolerance is another frequently meme’d bonding experience.
Aside from just laughing about the stress second generation kids face, the posts open up conversations about more complex topics. In darker examples, subtle asian traits members casually discuss parental abuse and mental health issues through jokes.
One OP, who asked to remain anonymous for this piece, joked about friends asking why they flinch before high fives. Fellow members tagged each other in the comments and traded stories of corporal punishment — for many people with Asian parents, that trauma is a shared experience.
Casually discussing trauma has its benefits. In another meme, an OP reminded members of subtle asian traits to visit their schools’ mental health centers. Considering how stigmatized therapy is in the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, any encouragement to seek help — even if through memes — is an improvement.
Spicy memes, but no spicy discourse
At times, subtle asian traits can be problematic.
Beneath the jokes about lactose intolerance and attending raves, there’s a slimy layer of misogyny and racism. The group is dominated by people of East Asian descent who often casually use racial slurs for black people while complaining about white people appropriating Asian culture.
Jeung Bok Holmquist points to examples like an East Asian guy tagging is Indian friend in a meme and calling him “not Asian.”
“When I first joined the group I thought it was kind of cute because it was an Asian meme group and there were just jokes about boba and food,” they said via Twitter DM. “But now I think it’s mostly moderate East Asians buying into stereotypes and not thinking critically about themselves.”
If anything, subtle asian traits is emblematic of the East Asian community itself, and participates in the very Asian practice of avoiding uncomfortable discussions.
“Asians don’t wanna discuss spicy discourse because then we’d have to recognize our own privilege and how often we benefit from the marginalization of other races,” Nicole Segovia, another group member, reasoned over Instagram DM. “And a lot of people aren’t ready to admit it yet.”
Although growing up with immigrant parents may be something all of subtle asian traits has in common, there’s really no such thing as a pan-Asian experience.
The geographic diversity of its members makes it more difficult. The United States, for example, has a history of both xenophobia toward Asian immigrants and a horrific past of slavery and segregation toward African Americans. Many have criticized the anti-blackness that permeates the Asian-American community as a symptom of the “model minority” myth. But do people of Asian descent outside of the United States understand that context?
How do you discuss the nuances of race, colorism, class, and privilege in a meme group? Is policing problematic content even possible in a group of nearly one million people?
Segovia says she “can’t imagine a very serious discourse post going well in a meme group.” But she did find a meme calling out members for using slurs hopeful because it started a thread discussing why people shouldn’t use it if they aren’t black.
“I hope these posts would spark a larger conversation and that the group would uplift the voices speaking out against them,” Radulovic said, referring to the more decisive comments in subtle asian traits. “But I know the internet is not always kind and that can devolve into something else entirely.”
The sheer size of the group makes it incredibly difficult to moderate, but a more diverse set of mods and admins can encourage posts that open up discussions. But just introducing the topics — like with the meme above — is taking a step forward. People dedicated to their shitty opinions probably won’t be swayed, but exposing otherwise clueless members to context can’t hurt.
Other members are trying to open up conversations by infiltrating the group and its spinoffs with memes. Ryan Okazaki, a student at the University of California, San Diego, took an ethnic studies class about Asian-Americans and politics this semester. As part of a project, he and his group have been making more divisive posts, like this highway ramp meme with “talking about race” on one side and a car labeled “Asians” careening toward the side that says “boba, raves, anime, finding your Asian love interest.” Okazaki posted it in a secret spinoff group for LGBTQ Asians because it was originally denied by the admins of the main subtle asian traits.
“I made the meme in order to make racial discourse more digestible and accessible to Asians online,” Okazaki said over Facebook Messenger. “My group members and I are trying to post more political content … so look forward to those!”
All in all, a meme group is a meme group. With the recent success of Asian representation in North American media, from Crazy Rich Asians to Kim’s Convenience to To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, it’s no surprise that it ignited a collective pride.
“The collective sense of being Asian has made it feel more of a thing to be proud of,” Ria Kim said over Instagram DM. “I think SAT [subtle asian traits] was so successful because we were able to share and laugh at these stereotypes without fear of it being turned negatively back on us in the public sphere.”
But that collective pride in such a rich diversity of cultural experience can still be improved and molded into a more inclusive space.
There has to be a way to put that in meme form, right?