Surprised Pikachu, a staple of Subtle Asian Traits.

We have to talk about Subtle Asian Traits

Dec 21, 2018

As a second-generation Asian-American teenager growing up in southern California, I spent a lot of time on the internet. My friends and I sought out the internet as a space to consume content created by other Asian-Americans. We gushed over K-pop fan fiction on Tumblr, related to our favorite YouTubers like KevJumba, and got our trends from influencers like Michelle Phan.

The vast majority of entertainment that we consumed was detached from white mainstream content. Instead, it came from these online spaces created by artists and makers of the Asian diaspora. The cultural fabric of our adolescence as first- and second-generation immigrants was this cultural creation on the internet, and it greatly shaped how we conceptualized ourselves and our identities.

In the past 15 years, the number of YouTubers, Facebook groups, Tumblr blogs, and Instagram accounts created by and for the Asian diaspora has exploded. The latest addition is the Facebook group Subtle Asian Traits.

Cover photo of the Subtle Asian Traits Facebook group.
Cover photo of the Subtle Asian Traits Facebook group. / Photo: Facebook

A space for memes and anecdotes about the immigrant experience, the Facebook group was created three months ago by nine Asian-Australian students, mostly second-generation Chinese- and Korean-Australian. The community has expanded quickly and now boasts over a million members.

The online world created by the Asian diaspora is developed and complex. But the content often falls into one of three categories: foodie, style, and comedy.

There are meme-sharing accounts like AsiansNeverDie and Ricefeed, comedic YouTube channels like the Vietnamese-Australian Community Channel and that of South Asian-Canadian Lilly Singh. There are foodie Instagram accounts like Chinese-American StirAndStyle and beauty YouTubers like Chinese-Irish BubzBeauty.

Like Subtle Asian Traits, these accounts have a large following, some in the millions. And for immigrants and children of immigrants, they represent pieces of shared cultural production that is neither white nor Asian, but distinctly Asian-American, Australian, and European.

One of the memes shared on Subtle Asian Traits.
One of the memes shared on Subtle Asian Traits. / Photo: Facebook

The posts on Subtle Asian Traits are not merely funny memes and videos; they are the creation of our collective consciousness. A meme is not merely a meme, but a touchpoint of universality to see our pain, families, and lives reflected back at us—to know that we are not alone, but rather one of many.

But is it enough?

Although this internet culture has been powerful in providing a cultural space, it has shortcomings. The content is largely limited to the stale themes of immigrant parents’ foreignness, the pressure to succeed, the wonders of boba, and childhood references. Rarely does the content ever move beyond the cultural into the political.

Mocking immigrant parents’ foreignness has been an especially recurring trope in the social media world of the Asian diaspora. (There’s no shortage of parody videos on YouTube.)

Joe Jo of JK Films plays an “Asian mom.”
Joe Jo of JK Films plays an “Asian mom.” / Photo: YouTube

But the mockery raises the question of whether we are laughing at or laughing with our parents. The act is often a means to distance ourselves from our parents’ foreignness and, in turn, position ourselves as proximate to whiteness. Often, the content can veer less toward empowering and more toward manifestations of internalized racism.

And while there’s a plethora of YouTube videos made by East Asian-American men hypersexualizing Asian women for clicks and online personalities appropriating Black culture for likes, little commentary exists in that space on politicized topics.

It’s not impossible to mix the comedic and political.

It’s not impossible to mix the comedic and political. In fact, in this cultural moment, it’s unavoidable. Memes and comedy are often used as vehicles for commentary on politics and race.

There’s a wealth of Black-American content creators, such as Franchesca Ramsey, Akilah Obviously, and Jouelzy, who mix comedy with sharp commentaries on race for large audiences.

In contrast, there are far fewer diasporic Asian accounts with followings of such size that touch on political issues.

There is room to grow in this realm. It’s not out of the question for creators of the Asian diaspora to produce content that politicizes their spaces, whether it’s memes on Subtle Asian Traits that offer sharp commentary on race, videos that shed light on the recent deportations of Cambodian-Americans, or calls to action on Instagram.

In the end, the limitations of our virtual world mirror the political apathy of parts of our communities in the real world.

In the end, the limitations of our virtual world mirror the political apathy of parts of our communities in the real world. It is ultimately connected to greater complicity in structures of class and race oppression. The enormous growth of Subtle Asian Traits clearly demonstrates the yearning of the Asian diaspora for a collective consciousness. Each post, meme, and video exposes an element of our culture, snaking its way through our screens and into our consciousness.

But as we consume this content, created out of our souls and experiences, we must also be critical of its limitations. We must push to move our collective identity in these online spaces beyond just the cultural realm and into a politicized identity.

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Goldthread.

Asian AmericaSubtle Asian Traits