One prolific poster in the group, Laura Ngo, grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, and didn’t have many Asian friends at school, with the exception of those she met at the Vietnamese church. So she found them online. “I feel like it’s reconnecting a lot of Asian Americans with people from their communities, and it’s like one big group of understanding—all these jokes that you don’t have to explain,” Ngo says.
The surge of these groups speak to a “need and yearning for a safe space—where Asian Americans can express our authentic selves,” explains Jenn Fang, the founder of reappropriate.co, a blog on Asian American feminism and race. Subtle Asian Traits is the latest iteration in a long line of online Asian communities, like Yellowworld and Rice Bowl, popular message boards from the early 2000s, or Asian Avenue, an early social-networking site for Asian Americans.* Fang, a message-board alum, joined Subtle Asian Traits after hearing about it from us.
The group, like many other Facebook groups centered on shared experiences, has a therapeutic function. Some of its content references cultural pressures that many immigrant children face. “Any other not-skinny/not-small Asian folks out there who struggle with body image shit? Especially as a Korean … every time I go back to Seoul, I feel this crippling insecurity, like by not being thin I’m a disgrace to my culture,” one discussion post reads, with thousands of sympathetic responses. “My father almost flipped a shit and started yelling at my brother when he didn’t get into Columbia,” another popular post reads. “I know that immigrant parents go through so much to set themselves up in a new country. I really know that my parents struggled. But what do you guys think is fair for the kids or not?”
Other posts retain the cavalier tone of memes, but hint at trauma. A poll asking, “What did your parents beat you with? Lol” received thousands of responses as well. The choices: belt, back scratcher, sandals, fly swatter, and shoehorn. (Belt won.)
There is a tension inherent in Subtle Asian Traits’ attempt to place diverse experiences under one “Asian” umbrella. Some worry that its posts can perpetuate stereotypes about tiger parents and model minorities. Others have accused it of excluding content about South Asians, despite billing itself as a space for everyone. There are the usual problems with trolls that surface in any corner of the internet, too.
Alisha Vavilakolanu, a 21-year-old psychology student, notes that “people were using slurs against South Asian people [in the group],” but the moderators didn’t intervene until, she feels, it was too late. She looked up the group’s moderators and found no South Asian representation. “It’s important to have people on the other end who can recognize [abusive behavior] and immediately be like, ‘That’s not okay, we don’t accept that.’” The concern about its lack of representation of South Asians helped in part to spur the creation of yet another meme group: Subtle Curry Traits, which features more South Asian–focused content, though it has fewer members (about 223,000 at the time of reporting).