Culture

Like for boba, heart for hot pot

nani
なに
what
Culture

“subtle asian traits” is neither subtle nor Asian

An occasionally funny, wildly popular Facebook meme group raises questions about who speaks for the diaspora.

“subtle asian traits” is a relatively new Facebook meme group whose purview is right there in the name. A recent meme that got over 6800 likes features an Asian dad flailing his arms like an over-excited conductor, all to encourage his fish to swim to the other end of the fish tank. All memes are generally in English, though there are strains of text-memes in the group. My favorite kind — that either have bilingual puns as their punchline, or are puns in a variety of languages, like Vietnamese and Cantonese.

(拉人 is slang for arresting people in Cantonese, but sounds exactly like lion in English)

(拉人 is slang for arresting people in Cantonese, but sounds exactly like lion in English)

When I first joined the group late October via an invitation from a Singaporean college friend, these language puns dominated. Less than a month later, and almost three months into the group’s existence, “subtle asian traits” has over 910,000 members and thousands of posts a day, featuring well-meaning ribbing about strict immigrant parents, anime (Naruto and Avatar: The Last Airbender seem to be very popular amongst members), hypebeasts who love EDM raves, the “uwu” emoji, stationery memes about Muji being the best brand for pens, and more. For the most part, posters are Asian, regardless of their hyphenates or position in the diaspora.

“subtle asian memes” was founded by a group of Asian teenagers from Melbourne, but members of come from all parts of the world, from Indonesia to Canada. In an email, founder Darren Qiang said the “relatable content” of an Australian group called “subtle private school traits” had inspired him and his friends to do the same for Asian-focused jokes. “The rapid growth of the page was unexpected for all of us,” he wrote. “When we began seeing how much people enjoyed and related to the page, contending that they’ve ‘never felt so understood’ before, we sought to start regulating posts keeping the content more relatable for the members.”

The rapid expansion of the group has meant that admins and moderators — mostly teenagers and college-aged kids who help out with the group in their spare time — now “manage the content in a way that ... target[s] all cultural differences,” Qiang said. For a short while, the overarching punchline of “subtle asian traits” was the sometimes funny, sometimes touching, sometimes enraging minutiae of coming of age in a predominantly white, Anglophone country. As more and more people joined the group, including copious amounts of white people, it became impossible to curate content and an audience sensitive to the simultaneous tragedy and farce of the generational trauma that people of Asian descent carry with them.

Or as plenty of salty Facebook commenters have pointed out: The memes have gone stale, over-reliant on generalized tropes that whitewash the complex histories of the ethnically-diverse Asian community. How many more memes can one actually make about bubble tea?

A good meme confirms the existence of the audience it’s trying to reach. At its best, a funny meme can be a powerful expression of solidarity in the hands of people who have been historically oppressed, especially when it restricts its own context. Babadook was a star meme for the queer community, just as Harambe was for teenagers, because straight people / adults couldn’t get it.

Asian kids have always fucked around on the internet, but over the last year demands for Asian-American cultural representation have been steadily met by the mainstream. The meteoric popularity of Crazy Rich Asians, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, BTS, Mitski, Yaeji, and 88rising artists like Joji and Rich Brian have further pushed the notion of an Asian collective with actual cultural cachet. “subtle asian traits” is just another means of harnessing the diasporic Asian community’s latent desire for recognition.

It’s crucial to note that there are competing models of race and identity in Asia that don’t overlap with racial discourse in the Anglophone sphere. One of the more interesting things I’ve noticed is that a good chunk of my Asian friends from my American college are in the Facebook group; only one of my Hong Kong friends is. My aggressively bilingual Hong Kong high school classmates are more than capable of appreciating Anglophone memes, but of course they don’t have an interest in “Asian memes.” Most of them have lived in an environment where Asia is just a continent and not the source of an intelligible cultural formation.

There is a long and complicated history of ethnic and transnational tensions across the Asia-Pacific region and even within Asian countries themselves, which are more often than not multi-ethnic. No one in Asia would consider themselves Asian first, and their ethnicity second. The global advent of “Asian” consciousness, including the popularity of a meme group about “Asian people,” is more a demonstration of the fact that the racial discourse of Anglo-American whiteness still acts as our default frame of reference than it is a gesture of international solidarity.

Uh, okay.

Uh, okay.

Scrolling through meme upon banal meme about ramen and boba, I was constantly reminded of Jay Caspian Kang’s quip that “‘Asian-­American’ is a mostly meaningless term”. Asians can only be viewed as a monolith that share the same political, socio-economic, and memetic interests if you buy the logic that different cultures and ethnic groups under the Asian banner are interchangeable, which is precisely the logic of anti-Asian racism. The anonymity of yellow and brown bodies is what resulted in the murder of Vincent Chin, and even though pan-Asian coalitions have been organizing against this insidious strand of racism for decades, it persists.

Calling something Asian in many cases reduces issues of structural injustice to singlar descriptive claims about a non-existent “ethnic” substance. My hesitation about “subtle asian traits” isn’t only that some of the memes rely on dated stereotypes to get their point across; it’s that the ostensible Asianness of these stereotypes, like the ferocity and frugality of Asian mothers, is never questioned.

Then again, it is a meme group mostly enjoyed by teenagers, and I can feel my sense of humor curdle in real time as I wag my finger. When you have a bunch of stressed out teens whose futures are valorized by their parents as a measure of the family’s success at assimilation, memes help release some of the pressure that respectability politics brings to bear on kids stumbling into adulthood. Some of the funniest and most relatable memes in “subtle asian traits” play with the expectations of the model minority narrative and then subvert them; some refuse to engage on those terms at all. The Facebook group is a kind of experiment that could only happen when kids from all walks of life refuse to devolve into battles over authenticity, and instead attempt to build a pan-Asian context that is mutually intelligible to all of its members.

Yet there are fissures and cracks. When a historically minoritized group is the butt of jokes made by and for a transnational, transracial audience, it’s just easier for meme-creators to appeal to the lowest common denominator, and put their spins on long-extant stereotypes. Darker-skinned Asians in the group mention the rampant colorism in the community, and misogyny and homophobia surface every now and then. White people feel the urge to contribute, and in their posts, Asianness emerges as an aesthetic, even an affectation. There remains the uneasy specter of Asianness — as contextless, as deracinated as the memes that purport to champion it.