New homes call for old traditions.
In the Australian suburb of Ivanhoe, Kerry Kang’s mother hoped to bring her new household good luck by tossing handfuls of coins onto the floor. Globally, myriad Asians experience similar superstitions – they just don’t realize it.
Kang is one of the nine founders of subtle asian traits, or SAT, a Facebook group which celebrates Asian culture through memes and member-produced posts. He said the group allows Asians to unite over commonalities that were previously viewed as specific to the individual, such as using a hard-boiled egg and coin as a flu remedy. On a global scale, young Asians can now “ha-ha react” at the niche irony of a plane in China delayed by a well-meaning passenger allegedly throwing coins into the engine.
“(SAT) is a singular place to gather all these experiences that I didn’t realize people connected with,” Kang said. “It’s almost like a culture we’ve forgotten other people share.”
Originally conceived in September 2018, SAT began as an in-joke among a group of Melbourne-based high school seniors who attended Chinese school together. They modeled their group after the Facebook page Subtle Private School Traits, said Lydia Jiang, one of the founders. In their iteration, the students added their friends, who posted Asian-related minutiae like hoarding toothpicks from restaurants. The group’s following eventually snowballed to over 1.5 million members, forcing them to recruit more manpower, Jiang said.
“As soon as the group started getting bigger, we saw certain controversial political posts that weren't really positive coming into our group,” Jiang said. “We realized we needed a way to enforce a set of rules.”
To mitigate rising issues, the founding nine administrators recruited their friends as moderators, and eventually opened an application for the position globally. With a set quota of 150 posts a week, the 30-40 moderators are responsible for filtering through pending posts to ensure they are not repetitive or in violation of the group’s guidelines, which bar hate speech and political content, Jiang said. In addition, the moderators mute and ban members, all while maintaining a log of reported users, said moderator Linh Thái.
“We are using our best judgment to ensure that SAT maintains a safe and inclusive environment,” Thái said.
But because of the sheer amount of content, Thái said inappropriate memes will occasionally slip through. In one instance, the group circulated an Omegle screenshot in which a white man told an Asian woman that she looked like the Pokémon Snorlax. Many members assumed the post was a memed fake, Thái said, and didn’t realize the real-life implications for the woman, who was harassed online for her appearance. She later addressed the screenshot in an optimistic follow-up post.
“It was heartwarming to see her post that she’s fine now,” Thái said. “Everyone in (SAT) was giving her consolation, and I think it showed the bright side of our community.”
To Be a Doctor or Not to Be
Beyond meme content, the Facebook page has also galvanized young Asian professionals to post about their unconventional careers, breaking from the upheld binary of doctor or disownment, said Calena Ang, a third-year Asian American studies student at UCLA. She said Steven Lim, of BuzzFeed “Worth It” fame, and YouTuber Gina Darling have both discussed the increasing possibilities for Asians in the entertainment industry, despite institutional barriers, on SAT.
Such stringent career expectations for Asian Americans are remnants of U.S. immigration policy, said Natalie Masuoka, associate professor of political science and Asian American studies at UCLA. The U.S., spearheading laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act, eventually liberalized its immigration policy in 1965 with a few caveats, she said. Immigrants were required to have a minimum of a high school education, and college graduates in the fields of medicine, engineering and science were favored.
“I think a lot of this occupational pressure stems from the fact that we're always the minority in a western culture, so we always have to work that extra bit just to prove we’re on the same level,” Kang said.
But with networks like SAT, young Asians have begun to rally against diasporic expectations, Ang said. Offshoots like Asian Creative Network open a space for arts-oriented Asians to collaborate and share their work, Ang said. Members will share their latest Inktober sketches and koi fish Vans designs, or even request photographers for a forest wedding in Korea.
“For most (American-born or Australian-born Chinese), we’re second-generation and our parents are immigrants,” Ang said. “But knowing there are options out there besides the top-floor occupational expectations opens up the world to Asians.”
But despite greater representation for Asian culture as a whole, online communities like SAT still skew primarily East Asian, said Cassandra Lam, CEO of the organization The Cosmos and UCLA alumna. This bias within Asian digital spaces reflects power structures seeded by colonialist foundations set by the West, she said. Before formal immigration policy in the U.S., most Asian laborers hailed from China and Japan, which allowed for the steady growth of today’s multigenerational East Asian population, she said.
In areas with similar immigration histories, East Asians established the image of what constitutes “Asian,” said Renee Tajima-Peña, professor of Asian American studies at UCLA. But this preconception leaves little room for immigrants who arrived later and diversified the existing Asian population. As a result, the already limited Asian representation in media reflects an East Asian bias. Recent blockbusters like “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Always Be My Maybe,” though landmarks in Asian film, still only present an East Asian profile, Tajima-Peña said. This trend is reflected in SAT through the deluge of Mandarin-based puns and K-pop “standom.”
“The community has to be careful about presenting a homogenous message of what Asian American is, and that's a constant conversation I think even the community itself needs to be careful with in regards to the different types of identities it chooses to promote,” Tajima-Peña said.
However, mitigating the East Asian bias is difficult. Because SAT is reliant on member-produced content, the posts tend to reflect the East Asian demographic majority, Kang said. The dynamics of managing a large Facebook group and maintaining diversity are tricky, Lam said, as there are constraints based on the platform a community is built with.
“While I think Facebook’s infrastructure can be limiting, change and diversity and inclusion are things that have to be asserted and made the norm for that group for change to really ripple through,” Lam said. “It needs to be long lasting and truly transformative as opposed to reactive.”
Mixing It Up
Building their own solution, many underrepresented members broke off into subgroups tailored more specifically to their cultures, including subtle vietnamese traits, Subtle Curry Traits and Subtle Mixed Traits.
Created as a group for those of multiracial backgrounds, Subtle Mixed Traits provides a more politically minded outlet to discuss the nuances of race, said fourth-year political science student Kamilah Zadi. Though being mixed is a shared identity, she said the variations that occur within that identity are a veritable Punnett square of possibility.
“(Subtle Mixed Traits) addresses more of the nuances of race, because we're all mixed and perhaps our identities are more nuanced too,” Zadi said. “I think that members usually have the common understanding that just because we're mixed doesn't mean our experiences are all the same.”
Zadi said SAT provides solidarity within the Asian community, since historically such groups did not have a singular, uniting Asian identity, such as Asian American. She said these identities, celebrated online, soften the tension of nationality-driven strife among newer generations. Korean and Japanese Americans – whose countries share a rocky history and an ongoing trade war – kindle friendships on the online platform.
However, Zadi said the emphasis on commonalities like condensed milk and strict parents can lead to a disregardment of individual Asian cultures, which become lost among generalities. Additionally, despite the inclusivity implied within the generality of “mixed,” Zadi said the majority of the members in Subtle Mixed Traits are some variation of white and Asian, posing an issue for those of other mixes.
“By pushing for a singular Asian culture, (SAT) also feeds into the white supremacist idea that all Asians are the same when we're not,” Zadi said. “Instead of celebrating diversity within Asian culture, it ends up trying to create a monolithic Asian identity.”
Even for the majority of members in Subtle Mixed Traits, experiences vary depending on upbringing. Alumna Michelle Liao, a member of both Facebook groups, said she experiences SAT through the lens of her Taiwanese heritage, influenced by a childhood of late-night MapleStory rounds and dim sum weekends.
In contrast, first-year psychobiology student Julia Mazzucato said she celebrated her Japanese and Italian heritage fervently but separately, making mochi and playing Briscola during holidays. Though Mazzucato engaged with her distinct cultures equally, she said many of her Asian peers invalidated her Japanese identity by claiming she wasn’t “Asian enough,” a dynamic that has influenced her perception of SAT.
“I’d say being mixed was something I was always conscious of growing up, but never became a source of conflict in my life or identity until I got older,” Mazzucato said. “Sometimes, internally, when I look at (SAT) I hear that message in my head of, ‘You don’t understand this post, you don’t belong here.’”
The concept of being multiracial itself is a recent societal development. It was created in contrast to the historic rule of hypodescent, which holds that an individual would be racially classified as a minority if they had a single drop of nonwhite blood in their lineage. Used to uphold white supremacy in the era of slavery, Masuoka said the rule also helped determine who would be forcibly contained in the Japanese internment camps during World War II.
This identity was catalyzed by mixed families who fought for their children’s right to identify as multiracial on governmental forms, like those for school registration, she said. The ability to check off multiple boxes, though just a small institutional opening, allows individuals to view being multiracial as a legitimate identity they can assert.
“Identity isn't necessarily something that you, in and of itself, are thinking about and conceiving in your own individual mind, but also something that has to be institutionally deemed as an accepted identity by the outside external community, such as online spaces or government,” Masuoka said.
Keep Calm and Curry On
In the group Subtle Curry Traits, the content is produced by members of South Asian descent, often exploiting stereotypes from states or regions within a larger country, said third-year linguistics and computer science student Pranav Singh. For Indian members, much of the content stems from the differences between North and South India. One recurring meme pokes fun at the lengthiness of South Indian names, which tend to be more complicated and multisyllabic than North Indian names, he said.
For other South Asian countries like Bangladesh, many memes capitalize on the seaside country’s association with fish, one of its largest exports, said Ishan Saha, a third-year psychobiology student. This shared knowledge has led to the running joke that Bengali people only care about fish, he said.
“(Subtle Curry Traits) is a reflection of all these countries in South Asia, bringing all of them together and accepting everyone as brown,” Singh said. “It’s a nice equalizer of everything in South Asia – there's a lot of things that bind us all together, and at the same time captures all of the different parts and cultures.”
Singh said there is little need for more South Asian content within the original group. The connotation of East Asian and South Asian, viewed as distinct from each other in the U.S., makes the existence of Subtle Curry Traits rooted in practicality, not exclusion, he said. However, Saha said the lack of representation can lead to a greater divide between the Asian population.
Though groups like Subtle Curry Traits provide space for underrepresented groups to control their narratives, they also further contribute to the perception that Asian equals East Asian, said alumna Alycia Cheng, program manager at Asian American Pacific Islander Civic Engagement Fund. Attributing the East Asian bias to the user-generated nature of the group’s content avoids the underlying issue of exclusivity, she said.
But the neat, checkmarked boxes that designate specific identities are not universal, said moderator David Yang. Completing two of his degrees at the University of California, Berkeley, Yang later moved to the U.K. to pursue his Ph.D., but when filling out legal forms for his visa, he said the ethnicity section struck him as unusual. There was one option for Chinese, but a separate option for Asian that specified Indian, Pakistani and other South Asian ethnicities, he said.
“The definition of Asian is largely geographical – there can be mixed definitions of this in SAT because it’s a global community,” Yang said. “I think that because this definition is so fluid, it leads to misunderstandings in the group based on each person’s interpretation of ‘Asian’ depending on where they come from.”
Even the term “Asian American” was created with a set interpretation in mind. In the 1960s, student activists coined the term to embrace their newfound identity as being both American-born and racialized Asians in the U.S., said Min Zhou, professor of sociology and Asian American studies at UCLA. By creating a term for this identity, Asian Americans could find common political ground to advance the community, such as demanding Asian American studies courses on college campuses.
“In the 1960s, there was a need for the panethnic term ‘Asian American,’” Zhou said. “Today there’s a conversation SAT negotiates against, like to what extent the term Asian American is now too homogenizing.”
Asian Baby Girls, Boba and Kevin Nguyen
SAT’s nationality differences, though evident in vernacular disputes about boba versus bubble tea, reveal macrolevel similarities, said moderator Matthew Fong. Many memes are predicated on the stereotypical Asian Baby Girls who dominate American clubs with arm-length eyelashes, he said. The Australian equivalent, Little Girls and Little Boys, taps into the same meme-able reservoir of rave enthusiasm and bubble tea obsession.
The similarity between these stereotypical Asian clubbers, despite their difference in origin, acts as a uniting focal point for young Asians. Fong said many memes draw upon the fact that ABGs are more likely to be found throwing it back than muzzing, a popular Australian rave dance with rapid chopping motions.
Fong said SAT also brings out the Asian quality of trends that transcend nationality and ethnicity. The name “Kevin,” of which a large number of westernized Asians share, was rarely associated with Asian culture before becoming a running gag within the group, he said. The memes range from name polls featuring a variety of Kevins to a baby being baptized with boba, christened only as Kevin.
“Now, when you see the name Kevin or Kevin Nguyen, the first thing you think of is Asian,” Fong said. “This really hasn't been the case before – you’d never see our grandparents be like ‘Oh, right, Kevin.’”
With these cultural eccentricities in place, the Facebook group is tentatively extending into community-building outside the digital realm, with meetups in Melbourne, Australia, hosted by the founders and moderators, Jiang said. One of the American moderators recently organized a trivia night in Southern California, solidifying the worldwide influence of the group, she said. In the future, the founders hope to expand these events and facilitate more worldwide meetups among members.
An online home for Asian millennials and Gen Zers, SAT concentrates a peculiar culture driven by the persistence of Kevin Nguyens and boba – or bubble tea, for those non-Americans. Members can rally around the silliness of these memes but also find something deeper about themselves within the context of a diverse, yet overarching identity, Jiang said.
“It was really a visual representation of the community that we had created,” Jiang said. “We have a lot of cultural differences, but it does mold into one which we can all relate to. In terms of the identity part, it’s not necessarily our specific experiences, but maybe just part of being different that we can relate about.”