Photo: SUBTLE ASIAN TRAITS

What comes next for Facebook’s biggest Asian community

Society

Do deeper discussions have a place within the meme juggernaut that is Subtle Asian Traits?

For many Australian-born Asians, life can be a little bit confusing. You're too foreign to be Australian, yet somehow, you're too Australian to be foreign. You go to school holding a funny smelling lunchbox that contains some odd combination of rice and curry which will make you the butt of all jokes for most of your school life.

This is a familiar situation for many children of immigrants, who struggle to belong in the country of their birth. There are countless life experiences of a first generation Asian-Australian that only someone who's been through it will understand. It can be an isolating experience.

Not any more. It all changed last year when a group of Melbourne university students who had attended Chinese language school together started creating memes for a group chat about things that only someone from their culture would understand. They made each other laugh.

In August 2018, they decided to let others in on the joke, turning their group chat memes into something more, creating the Subtle Asian Traits (SAT) Facebook group, a name inspired by another Facebook group called Subtle Private School Traits. With the new group, others could see, relate and contribute to their cultural meme commentary.

By the end of the year, the group created in jest had more than a million members and had spread across the world. Celebrities such as American comedian and host of Netflix's Patriot Act, Hasan Minhaj, K-pop star Eric Nam and YouTube movie makers Wong Fu Production had shown their presence on SAT. It had been profiled by The New York Times and BBC.

www.youtube.com

The viral popularity of SAT was unexpected for the group of friends who had only created the group so they would have somewhere to share their jokes. "We were surprised when it even reached Sydney, we didn't think we'd go past Melbourne, let alone the country," said Lydia Jiang, one of SAT's co-founders.

Olivia Lan, 20, of Indonesian and Taiwanese background, said the group "creates more opportunity for people, so they can be comfortable and, in a sense, gain more pride and confidence in their ethnic background."

Twenty-year-old Chinese-Australian Lydia Wong, said "for once, being Asian is not something to be ashamed of and we are able to form a group identity and belong".

Who but someone in the same shoes can understand the fear when you look at your phone after an afternoon nap to see 27 missed calls from your mum?

Despite the numbers, it did not initially click with Jiang what a phenomenon they had unleashed. "It honestly didn't kick in for me until even past New Year's 2019. We had over a million people, it was just a number to me … [then] I started hearing my parents talk about it." She had never mentioned the group or her involvement with it to them.

Jiang believes the reason for the group's success is that immigrant children have never had a safe space where they can really feel at home. Who but someone in the same shoes can understand the fear when you look at your phone after an afternoon nap to see 27 missed calls from your mum?

"It ties in to this identity we have as first- or second-generation Asian-[Australians]. We've never had something like this, a mass community where these experiences of us growing up in Asian households but also in a white society. We've never had somewhere we can share these subtle Asian traits."

Meme factory

Subtle Asian Traits, which receives about 2000 new posts a day, on top of the 10,000 posts pending moderation, is a closed Facebook group. Though created as a "Facebook community for all Asians", anyone can join and submit potential posts. These submissions are then reviewed by the moderators before being posted as quickly as possible. It's a tough ask for the nine friends who have suddenly found themselves at the helm of a cultural phenomenon, one that requires constant attention and one they did not necessarily sign up for.

Many businesses are keen to connect with the 1 million young adults aged 25-40 who are the group's main demographic. The admins say they sparingly agree to promotions, only working with businesses which promote a strong message and quality products and have committed to reinvesting any income into the running of the SAT group. The site promises "merch" is coming in 2019.

With their social success has come the inevitable backlash – with accusations that the site negatively stereotypes Asians and that it is overly focussed on East Asian traits. A rival Subtle Curry Traits group was created to cater to South Asians who felt underrepresented by the original group's content.

One stereotype in particular gets a lot of focus - the international student. Kayley Chan, an Australian of Chinese background, said "there's a lot of stereotypes on International students who come from actual Asian backgrounds and come to study. It's generally about their wealth, dress codes or habits". She said the stereotypes come from humour, interest and fun rather than setting out to make fun of the group.

SAT member Lan put the jokes down to a disparity between ABC (Asian-born Chinese) and International students because the International students are seen as "richer, less cultured and less assimilated".

To help deal with the growing pains, the group recently took applications for 20 additional moderators, from different ethnicities and locations, to better represent their members.

The direction of the site is also under discussion, it was created as a vehicle for culturally-specific humour but the founding members recognise that having built such a rich and diverse community there is an opportunity to address more serious topics.

"There is a lot of things that aren't discussed that often and do need to be discussed within the demographic that we have, and we do realise our potential to benefit the community," Jiang said.

"At the same time, this group started off as a meme group and it's the light-hearted content that people do want. So, we thought these deep discussions might be isolating for certain people ... we're trying to find that balance right now."

The admins have to deal with complex, sometimes philosophical questions from members of the group. It is open for all people to join regardless of race but there is a desire from some members to see it become a space for Asians only. Others have accused the group of encouraging racism by perpetuating Asian stereotypes with its Tiger mum and international student memes.

Co-founder Jiang admitted the admins don't always agree on the direction in which they should be steering the group but said they recognised they had been gifted an opportunity to make a positive difference to their community and they were trying to keep some perspective.

"Honestly, we were pushed into this because no-one expected this group would grow so big and now that we do have this group, it's our responsibility to keep it going because we can't just let it go, it's such a big opportunity.

"Because of that there's a bit of tension in the group sometimes if one person's not doing their job right or if one person is basically not picking up their game … It gets a little bit - you know. But overall, we recognise that it's just a meme group and we shouldn't be getting too big into arguments."

Additional reporting by Rizna Mutmainah