More than just memes: How Subtle Asian Traits has become a cultural gamechanger

Adehlia Ebert, Adeline Tinessia

The rise of social media has seen the emergence of myriad new forms of individual & group expression. Arguably the most noticeable of these new forms of media is the  inescapably ubiquitous cultural phenomenon that is the ‘meme’. While still widely regarded as frivolous internet guff, memes are proving to play a powerful role in the construction of online identities and communities. 

Subtle Asian Traits: An Overview

Testament to the capacity of memes to create online identities and communities  is the Facebook group , ‘Subtle Asian Traits’. Subtle Asian Traits is a page that was started in late 2018 by a group of nine Chinese-Australian students as a forum to share meme content they found to be ‘relatable’(Mao 2018). With over a million members across six countries posts to the page often receive  tens of thousands of likes. Content is largely varied, and covers a host of different ‘subtle asian traits’, with posts concerning everything from Tiger Mums and study habits, to Bubble Tea and Mi Goreng. All are united by a common thread, however – namely, the many subtle traits of life as a next-generation Asian migrant living in the West. 

It is unsurprising that Subtle Asian Traits has experienced significant popularity. The page is undeniably hilarious. It’s thousands of pictures, videos and statuses provide endless procrastination potential for young audiences. The page receives over 3000 submissions each day, only a handful of which are approved by administrators (Kwai 2018). Consequently, the memes posted are of a very high standard and often chosen specifically for their humour, positivity and inclusivity.

Figure 1: Memes use humour to acknowledge shared experiences. Source: https://mashable.com/article/subtle-asian-traits-meme-facebook-group/

The meaning behind the memes

The significance of Subtle Asian Traits can be attributed to more than its entertaining value.  The page also acts as a powerful tool to construct a subculture identity. 

The last decade has seen comprehensive research conducted into the ability of memes to construct and perpetuate identities. It is currently accepted that memes allow individuals in online spaces to accept or reject the attributes of a group and validate or shape the identity of the community in which they’re involved (Wiggens 2019, pp. 118-120). Subtle Asian Traits clearly showcases this phenomena. For many migrants, there can be a considerable complexity and difficulty in reconciling the identities of where they live and where they come from. Subtle Asian Traits embraces this challenge as the basis of its own distinct identity. Teachers mispronouncing their names, being asked ‘where do you come from?’, eating ethnic food at school – all are experiences unique to this group and all are subjects of popular memes. By sharing experiences common to migrant communities living in the West, those experiences are normalised and even championed in a way that is humorous, reassuring and engaging. Thus, the Asian migrant identity is validated as its own subculture, creating a sense of belonging for this marginalised group.

Figure 2: Memes acknowledge the unique experiences of migrant communities. Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-12-16/subtle-asian-traits-post-1/10615020

Memes are particularly important for the identity formation of minority groups (Gal et al. 2016). Subtle Asian Traits is a forum where Asian-Westerns are no longer the ‘other’, despite being a marginalised group within the dominant culture of where they live. The traits which individual migrants may perceive as differentiating themselves from their offline peers are celebrated and normalised. As aptly described by Chinese-American Nathan Louie, the page is a space where being Asian is the norm (Louie 2018). Consequently, Subtle Asian Traits gives rise to a sub-culture wherein the comparatively marginalised Asian-Westerns assert their own unique identity vis-a-vis the dominant mainstream culture.  

The creation of collective identity naturally translates into a sense of community. Individual page members are not isolated, but rather recognise their place in a larger whole. Subtle Asian Traits has actively constructed this by hosting meet-ups in cities around the world. The members themselves also acknowledge that it is a perhaps rare chance for them to build their own subculture and create a sense of belonging for marginalized people like them. As one girl told the page’s creators, ‘[Subtle Asian Traits] was the first time she felt a sense of belonging’ (Mao 2018).

 

Figure 3: Subtle Asian Traits is a space where Asian migrants are no longer the minority. Source: https://www.yapnative.com/local-man-stops-talking-friends-focuses-subtle-asian-traits-instead/ 

Subtle Asian Traits embraces every culture as members, and memes, come from all over the world. Not only does Subtle Asian Traits bring together individuals, it also brings together diasporas. With memes about the idiosyncrasies of the Chinese languages, the food of the Philippines and the pop icons of Korea – the page is a space where many Asian diasporas interact. Here some acknowledgement must be given to the facilitative role of the digital age. In an era when much of the world’s population has access to the internet, physical distance can be overcome by online proximity. 

Drawbacks and Limitations: Exclusion

Despite Subtle Asian Trait’s formative influence over identities and communities, it is not free from controversy. In fact, the page has a number of flaws that render it an imperfect forum for the representation and integration of Asian groups.

 As the name suggests, Subtle Asian Traits is intended to represent all subsets of the Asian community. It is envisioned as a place to share laughter over the experiences of Asians living abroad and to reconcile the cultures of their ethnicity with the cultures of their place of living. However,  when the posts are almost exclusively targeted towards a particular community, it creates a sense of othering for those that are not included. When the majority of content is targeted by and for a specific subculture, such posts can “often be done negatively via expressions directed at the ‘other’, often as a way to maintain the ‘in-group’ identity or curb anxiety about that identity changing (Wiggins 2019,117).” In a sense, when the posts are almost exclusively about the East Asian experiences, it may alienate the experiences of other subcultures or diaspora. Its intention is to serve as a representative platform for smaller groups within mainstream society, being Asian diasporas. Yet the process of content creation now results in the marginalization of other subcultures by more dominant and populous groups, as seen in the under representation of South Asian and Southeast Asian diasporas. This remains an ongoing challenge for Subtle Asian Traits.

Subtle Asian Traits has been criticised for being too East Asian centric. This is important particularly as internet groups have become a site for collective identity formation (Gal et al. 2016). If the current degree of East Asian representation is maintained  within the Facebook group, it may continue the othering of non-East Asians diaspora, in addition to the continuing the skin colour hierarchy that exists within many  Asian cultures , which is typically to the detriment of South Asians and Southeast Asians. Furthermore, evidence of racism towards other ethnicities, including Africans and Caucasians, is beginning to emerge.

 

 

Figure 4: The page is noticeably East Asian-centric. Source: Subtle Asia Traits Facebook Group

Towards an Inclusive Community 

 Moderators of the Facebook group have acknowledged the siphoning of contents towards the East Asian community and away from other Asian cultures. “We have noticed that, we’re not going to deny that,” said Ms Kang, one of the developers of the group (Kwai 2018). Moderators admit that most of the posts they receive tend to focus on the Chinese and Vietnamese communities, however, they are encouraging other communities to participate. The moderators actively look through over 3000 posts daily, ensuring that unwanted sentiments are not published. Alternatively, a way to tackle issues pertaining to overrepresentation  could perhaps be the approval of less East Asian centric content, . The administrators of the group could also proactively promote the submission of content related to other subcultures, to ensure to ensure that there are post-able content of various subcultures.

Such exclusivity has not gone unnoticed by the 1,4 million followers of Subtle Asian Traits. Splinter groups have emerged to focus on specific sub-cultures that follow the same themes as Subtle Asian Traits. For example, a Facebook group called Subtle Indonesian Traits started in 2019, with posts focusing on experiences that are commonly shared by Indonesian diasporas. Other groups have also emerged focusing on other Southeast Asian subcultures, such as Subtle Vietnamese Traits and Subtle Malaysian Traits.

But the question remains, can there be group that collectively unites sentiments shared by all Southeast Asians? Are Southeast Asians too diverse and different for such a forum, as suggested by the burgeoning of splinter groups dedicated to specific subcultures? The aftermath and splintering of the  Subtle Asian Traits page suggests that such a page would not be possible. There are innumerable nations, ethnicities, cultures, and religions throughout the Southeast Asian nations, which would render the creation of a cohesive and unified identity among the countless diaspora around the world would  be near impossible.

 Remaining Challenges

Furthermore negative behaviours that have emerged from  Subtle Asian Traits, including perpetuation of negative stereotypes towards Asian diasporas in western countries, continue to plague the Facebook page. Additionally, other stereotypes such as high-expectation Asian fathers and the ‘nerdy’ and ‘high achieving’ asian students tend to generalize and in fact exaggerate stereotypes and reinforce the perception of model minority in western countries respectively (Zhao 2015). The model minority fallacy is a dangerous concept that inhibits the breaking down of stereotypes and the provision of equal opportunities for minority groups. Perceptions of asians as ‘model minorities’ degradates the achievements of  individuals, and does assist in the alleviation of discrimination and institutional racism.

 

Figure 5.1. The memes sometimes exaggerate negative stereotypes. Source: https://www.reddit.com/r/aznidentity/comments/b6a4zg/mentally_colonized_korean_mf_posts/

Figure 5.2 The memes sometimes exaggerate negative stereotypes. Source: https://www.reddit.com/r/aznidentity/comments/b6a4zg/mentally_colonized_korean_mf_posts/

The fragile balance between identity creation and identity crisis

Subtle Asian Traits has many positive aspects, including the unification  of Asian diasporas and the sharing of common experiences. The platform has provided an avenue, in which  users may derive a sense of belonging in an increasingly globalized world, where identity formation is of critical importance. However, the page has also encountered a series of community management issues which must be addressed to ensure the sustained success and longevity of the platform. Firstly, posts and comments on the  page exhibit which exhibit racist or exclusionary messaging, be that against Caucasians, African-Americans, South Asians and Southeast Asians, must not be accepted. Secondly, the page need to seek to address current behaviour that serves to reinforce negative stereotypes and self-deprecation. Lastly, the group’s East Asian-centricity, which tends to alienate other Asians, including Southeast Asians, must be managed.

The issues that arise with such a page, beg the question of whether it is possible to unite diaspora through a collective Asian, or Southeast Asian identity when the experiences shared by those people are so different and diverse. What could be a key to solve this problem?  Comment your ideas to us!

Bibliography

Ding, Z. (2015), ‘The Internet Meme as a Rhetoric Discourse: Investing Asian/Asian Americans’ Identity Negotiation,’ Master Thesis, Bowling Green University.

Gal, N., Shifman, L. & Kampf, Z. (2016), ‘“It Gets Betters: Internet memes and the construction of collective identity’, New Media & Society, vol. 18, no. 8, pp. 1698-1714.

Kwai, I. (2018), How ‘Subtle Asian Traits’ Became a Global Hit’, The New York Times, 11 December. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/11/world/australia/subtle-asian-traits-facebook-group.html?register=email&auth=register-email. [18 June 2019].

Louie, N. (2018), ‘Subtle Asian Traits: A Meme Page Cultural Vindication’, Noteworthy – The Journal Blog, 13 November. Available from: https://blog.usejournal.com/subtle-asian-traits-a-meme-page-cultural-vindication-3da91c19056c. [18 June 2019].

 Mao, F. (2018), ‘Subtle Asian Traits: When memes become a diaspora phenomenon’, BBC News, 19 December. Available from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-46394931. [18 June 2019].

Wiggens, B. (2019), The Discursive Power of Memes in Digital Culture: Semiotics, Intertextuality, and Ideology, Routledge, Milton.

Zhao, Ding. (2015), The Internet Meme as a rhetoric discourse: Investigating Asian/Asian Americans’ identity negotiation. 

 

 

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