A Not-So-Subtle Social Media Phenomena

By Claryss Kuan

In a world where the internet is central in our everyday routine, there is a collective need for spaces in which we can connect with other like-minded people and bond through shared experiences. And if you can’t find those spaces, you create them.

This mindset is what inspired a group of students in Melbourne to create the now-wildly popular Facebook group, Subtle Asian Traits (SAT), a private group for sharing memes about specific and commonly experienced Asian household activities. They didn’t expect the group to become so famous so quickly, but as soon as word about it spread within the young Asian community in Melbourne, it hit a million followers (now close to two million in two years!) These followers are based in multiple countries, and among them are celebrities such as actor Simu Liu (Kim’s Convenience, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings) and comedian Hasan Minhaj (Netflix’s Patriot Act).

Popularity gained by the collective experiences shared

I first stumbled upon SAT during my third year living in Melbourne, only a few months after it was created. When I was added to the group, the initial burst of homesickness I felt was overwhelming. It has become a piece of home, the smell of my grandma cooking her famous Malaysian red curry, the pop of firecrackers during Chinese New Year, even the sound of my parents nagging me out of love. The underlying narrative of the group manages to include me in a way that other groups cannot, and it pieces together a collective experience through humour, relatability and a celebration of diversity.

With the majority of the 1.9 million followers in SAT being either first-generation Asian immigrants, international students or people immigrating to another country, the one thing we have in common is a typical Asian family household experience. The similarities in parenting methods, the stereotypes, the multilingual jokes – all of it adds up to form a place where we don’t have to try and fit in. It is a space where we can simply just be, without having to explain ourselves.

These topics have also led to heavier shared experiences being raised. For the SAT community this may include the unrealistic expectations from our parents, the general lack of affection throughout childhood, and the xenophobic and prejudiced behaviour found in some older Asian generations. Using humour and memes as a coping mechanism, these subjects, which are usually taboo, are able to be discussed more openly.

In a way, this is exactly what spaces like SAT are supposed to be used for: to have difficult conversations with people who understand, regardless of whether you know them personally or not. There is a certain comfort in talking about these experiences and indirectly healing from the shared trauma we have faced, be it from dealing with slightly unrealistic academic expectations from parents, the aforementioned xenophobic behaviour from elders or just getting constantly questioned about how is it that our English is SO good.

East Asian identities overshadowing others

When I look a little more closely at the narrative of SAT, regardless of whether it’s a minority group, I worry that it still comes from a certain viewpoint and feeds a certain truth of what it means to be Asian. Simply being Asian is not an identity – the cultural experiences felt by South, East and Southeast Asians are all different, and therefore cannot be lumped under one category. Sadly, this is what we tend to do, and even I am guilty of using ‘Asians’ as a blanket term, with no excuse except conveniency.

The Asian narrative in SAT focuses mainly on the experiences of people from East Asia, mostly of Chinese or Korean descent. People from South and Southeast Asia barely get a mention, as posts reaffirming their experiences are drowned by a wave of posts surrounding East Asian culture.

To further complicate things, SAT was originally meant for the young Asian-Australian community: first generation teenagers whose parents immigrated to a first-world country in search of better opportunities. This creates a whole new viewpoint when exploring SAT, which is that the space was specifically curated for people who were brought up in a Western country with Asian values, essentially limiting the content posted, and therefore what ‘Asian’ identity actually looks like.

But maybe this is good, too. When South and Southeast Asians realised they were not represented enough, spin-offs from SAT began to emerge, such as Subtle Curry Traits, Subtle Cantonese Traits, Subtle Malaysian Traits and so on. There are even subgroups for people to come together based on shared interests, including Subtle Asian Cooking and Subtle Asian Ravers, and even a group where you can find love, which is, as you guessed it, Subtle Asian Dating. The increase in Asian spaces in the media has made me quite optimistic that different people from various Asian backgrounds will be noticed and celebrated.

In a space where diversity and inclusion are supposed to be the standard, why is it still lacking?

I am torn between wanting to embrace SAT for shining a light on Asian representation, whilst also being disappointed that this spotlight is only being held on a certain group of Asians, who are, as Steffi Cao puts it, “light skinned, with East Asian heritage”. Yet this disappointment is slightly alleviated by knowing that, despite this, the wall that has been preventing inclusive spaces to exist for so long is slowly beginning to fall.

Claryss Kuan is in her final year of the Master of Publishing and Communications at the University of Melbourne and she is our current editor of the MZ blog. As a Malaysian-Chinese student living in Melbourne, her writing aspires to reflect the experiences many international students face when living abroad.

Cover photo by Vine on Pexels.

Leave a Reply