Subtle Asian Traits: When memes become a diaspora phenomenon

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Meme reads "Ma I'm going out" followed by responses next to emoji flags of Western nations. They read "See You", "Au revoir", "Adios!", "Bye!". Next to the label 'Asians', the response is: "Out? Where? With who? Why? Who'll drop you? When will you come? Eveyr day out out. Is this a house or a hotel? How much money will you spend? Uff. No time for parents. Only going out. When I die, then you'll know."Image source, SUBTLE ASIAN TRAITS
Image caption,
Parents are often the target of humour on Subtle Asian Traits

For many people of Asian descent living overseas, a Facebook group called Subtle Asian Traits has become a cultural phenomenon.

Its jokes and memes - especially about life as a first-generation migrant - have made the page wildly popular. Almost a million people have joined the group since it began in September.

The posts, which can be made by anyone, have also sparked conversations about cultural identity.

Its rapid success has stunned the group's founders - nine Chinese-Australian high school students who live in Melbourne.

"We were always sharing memes and jokes about Asian culture and growing up in a foreign country and kind of just wanted a place to share them together," co-founder Kathleen Xiao, 18, tells the BBC.

Anne Gu, 18, another founder, says they were thrilled when the group hit 1,000 members but "now it's just gone insane".

Image source, ANNE GU
Image caption,
The founders say they want the group to be relatable and inclusive

"We didn't think at all that it would get this big, or so serious," she says, referring to its growth into an online community for Asian diasporas.

She says the initial idea had been to simply share jokes about family life, Asian cultural "quirks" and bubble milk tea. (There are a lot of memes about this very popular drink.)

What are Subtle Asian Traits?

The posts span a range of topics, but they often focus on Asian culture as experienced by the children of migrants.

That's why most members are young people from Australia, the US, Canada and the UK, rather than those living in Asia.

Ms Xiao believes that the page is so popular because it identifies "just little things in our lives that no one talked about before".

Many memes are about household customs - such as boiling tap water for drinking or using a finger to measure the perfect amount of water needed to cook rice.

Image caption,
Thousands chimed in on this post to relay their own time-keeping frustrations
Image caption,
Slippers are a regular feature in many Asian households

Other jokes centre on the experience of being a first-generation Asian person in a Western society, and "how we struggle, sometimes, to reach a balance between our two cultures", says Ms Gu.

There are memes about "not being Asian enough": bilingual mishaps, struggles with Chinese homework, rebelling against family rules and traditions.

Then there are posts referencing experiences of casual racism or being made to feel "not white enough".

Image caption,
Having to explain one's heritage is a frustration often noted in the group

A common source of humour is "Asian parents" - who are stereotypically portrayed as cautious, strict and overbearing.

As a Chinese-Australian millennial, I burst out laughing at one of the group's most popular posts. It was captioned: "One day I told mother I didn't eat breakfast".

Image caption,
This post received more than 30,000 likes

It bore an uncanny resemblance to texts from my own mother, particularly phrases like: "I did not have a good sleep last night because of this."

Ms Gu says the page is designed to be "relatable". Some users have sent the administrators messages of thanks.

"One girl said it was the first time she felt like a sense of belonging," she says.

Ms Xiao says the page helped her realise her experiences were common.

"Growing up in a foreign country, it's just something you don't talk about because you're afraid that people won't understand you, or that you'll be made into a minority," she says.

Finding 'the balance'

Like other internet groups which attempt to offer insights on cultural identity, there are some inherent challenges.

Some initial criticism suggested that the group wasn't inclusive of all Asian cultures, as most posts related to East Asia.

Ms Gu says the administrators have since prioritised including more diverse content. And in the group's rules (of which there are five, because four is an unlucky number in Chinese culture), users are encouraged to "be inclusive to all Asian races".

Image source, KATHLEEN XIAO
Image caption,
Kathleen Xiao (l) and her friends call each other "ABCs" (Australian-born Chinese)

Other critics have said that memes about "tiger" parents or bad driving serve to reinforce negative stereotypes. One user on Reddit equated the humour to internalised racism and "self hate".

Ms Gu acknowledges that some of the humour plays off stereotypes, but argues that most post-makers "have generally come to terms with their cultural identity".

"They understand the balance," she says. Such posts can also help people "to experience potentially negative experiences in childhood in a more humorous and positive light... like a healing through humour".

She adds that the page has also deepened her own cultural pride - something she had not expected.

"I hope it gives others the confidence too, to not be so shy about their culture," she says.