“Subtle Asian Traits:” A New Form of Ethnic Unity


Valerie Wu, Managing Editor

For some, an acknowledgement of identity comes through a journey of self-discovery. For me, it came through memes.

Asian Americans across the globe have found a community through the online meme page “Subtle Asian Traits,” which aims to explore the different facets of Asian American identity through the only way many know how: joking about it.

Created by nine Asian Australian students, the Facebook page — which anyone can join with approval from a member — now fosters more than a million members from ninety-nine different countries. From Kumon to K-Pop, “Subtle Asian Traits” is rife with depictions of the Asian American experience.

As Kat Lin from the New Yorker explains, the “digital solidarity” found on Facebook has appealed to a wide range of second-generation Asian audiences who have found a new platform on which to communicate their conceptualizations of identity.

What resonates with so many Asian audiences about the meme group is its ability to relate to its Asian American audience. There are boba memes and test prep jokes — surface-level understandings of what it means to be Asian in America. Yet at its core, “Subtle Asian Traits” is really a meditation on the diasporic experience on both cultural and linguistic levels.

For me, the selling point of “Subtle Asian Traits” is not its global popularity — although it definitely helps to have worldwide recognition of Asian American culture —but the way it has connected individuals from all over the globe.

The importance of “Subtle Asian Traits” isn’t in what it has become, but rather in the way it was founded: to celebrate the fact that Asian America is a valid and fundamental aspect of identity, one that is neither only Asian or American.

The implications of this ethnic unity are illustrated in how many of the comments have echoed the same sentiment: that we are not alone in our personal and academic struggles as Asian Americans.

A joke about enrolling in medical school as a way to please our first-generation parents results in eighteen thousand likes from Asian Americans around the globe. Looking at the comments, individuals say that the page’s content is the first time they’ve ever felt like someone understood what it meant to be Asian American.

When I log onto Facebook, there is a very high possibility that the first post I see is one from “Subtle Asian Traits.” And it’s no coincidence that all of the friends I see responding to the content are my fellow Asian Americans.

“Subtle Asian Traits” has transformed the way I experience social media; I enjoy looking at memes I can relate to, but most of all I love seeing others relate to them too.

The cultural distinctions that “Subtle Asian Traits” have given a voice to through memes and popular culture are how we acknowledge our identities. Facebook provides a platform that has reached millions and has grown in not only scope, but also impact.

Of course, the community still has its shortcomings. Many of the memes deal with issues predominantly seen in the upper middle-class Asian community, such as test prep and boba challenges. And on a more serious note, “Subtle Asian Traits” is prided for being a collective space for conversations about race, but the humorous connotations of each meme can be interpreted as disregarding it.

Abuse in Asian American communities is almost glorified with jokes about back-scratchers and bamboo sticks. Screenshots of text messages in flawed English from Asian parents profit off of  the “otherness” that has so long been a distinguishing feature of Asian identity.

In addition, many of the posts focus on dismissing trauma as simply another part of being Asian American, but fail to adequately address or propose ways to alleviate it.

That being said, the challenges the online group presents can represent the challenges the global Asian American community faces today: lack of representation, trivialization of political issues and the perpetuation of stereotypes.

And the shortcomings of the more general group have in turn led to many spin-offs, such as “Subtle Curry Traits” for South Asians, “Subtle Asian Christian Traits” for Asian Christians and “Decolonized Subtle Asian Traits” for Asians who want more social justice in their memes.

There is still a long way for Asian Americans to go in terms of tackling racial and societal divides. But “Subtle Asian Traits” has fostered a community that can hopefully come to address them in the only way we know how: connections that matter.