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How Subtle Asian Traits made a generation of Asians feel understood on the internet

Soon after finishing pharmacy school, Linda Zheng went on the Facebook group Subtle Asian Traits to thank her parents for the myriad sacrifices they’ve made over the years, including the five-hour roundtrip drive they made to attend her graduation ceremony.

“To say they sacrificed a lot for me would be an understatement,” she wrote earlier this month. “They stood by and encouraged me even when I was struggling with my mental health, which is not something they quite understood at first. They waited for me anyway, and now they can finally breathe a little knowing their little girl is officially done with school.”

The post took off in a matter of hours, eventually getting more than 19,000 likes and 360 comments. For Zheng, a Chinese-American living in a predominantly white South Carolina suburb, the outburst of support encapsulated the appeal of Subtle Asian Traits, a group that has become an indispensable form of cultural exchange for many members of the Asian diaspora who grew up with social media.

When I joined, it just felt very comfortable and very at home,” Zheng tells Mic. “I love being Asian, I love my culture, I love the food — all this has been difficult for me to get here. Being reminded of these things, and being able to keep up with Asian news, just made me feel more empowered and more connected with people who can relate to my own experiences.”

“It’s made the world a much smaller place.”

Founded in 2018 by nine Chinese Australian high schoolers, Subtle Asian Traits has grown into a global phenomenon with nearly 2 million members, most of whom live in the U.S. It’s built substantial followings on TikTok and Instagram and inspired dozens of spinoff pages, including Subtle Asian Dating (which boasts 660,000 members) and Subtle Asian Pets (nearly 100,000 members). A number of Asian American celebrities, including actor Simu Liu and comedian Hasan Minhaj, have used the platform to communicate with fans. As Subtle Asian Traits’s membership grew and diversified, so did its ambitions: Recently, the group launched a merch store and compiled a list of resources for addressing anti-Asian racism.

Cofounder and full-time college student Tony Xie says the group, which started simply as a space for him and his Chinese school friends to share jokes about their identity, has given him a global perspective on the Asian diaspora. “It’s made the world a much smaller place,” he tells Mic. “Anyone in the community can share their experiences with the whole world. That’s never been done before for Asians specifically.”

To approve posts and moderate language, Subtle Asian Traits relies on a team of roughly 30 moderators around the world. Even then, Xie says, it’s hard to keep up with the volume of submissions: The group sometimes reviews several thousand submissions per week and still has a backlog of thousands more pending approval. Right now, there are 12,000 pending posts.

Scrolling through the page’s content can sometimes trigger emotional whiplash. Viral stories, often accompanied with photos, come in many forms. In one post that’s garnered more than 100,000 likes, a Singaporean-Hong Konger wrote about the initial strain that his relationship with — and eventual marriage to — a Ghanian woman put on his socially conservative family. In another post, a member shared an anecdote of a traumatic childhood experience in China: being tricked into eating a pet chicken he had raised.

At the same time, the group has fielded criticism for amplifying the voices of East Asians in countries like the U.S, Canada, and Australia, over the voices of other multicultural Asians. It’s something that Xie says has been difficult to avoid, as a majority of the group’s members are of East Asian descent and live in those regions. But that hasn’t stopped people from more diverse backgrounds from finding a sense of community.

Yuri Govender, a sixth-generation South African Indian, tells Mic that the page opened his eyes about how common interracial dating is outside of his country. In 2019, Govender wrote about his relationship with a Vietnamese girl in California. He included a photo of himself hiding in her closet; Govender wrote in the post that the girl’s mother didn’t approve of their relationship because of his race. The post, which included a joke about the “green card hustle,” received more than 19,000 likes and 3,000 comments.

“We don’t see a lot of mixing of races in South Africa,” Govender says, noting that people there are, in general, still very conscious of their race and worry about how others will see them. “There are a lot of Americans and first-generation Asians on this page. It was cool to see how many interracial relationships exist.”

Subtle Asian Traits emerged at a time when there was a wave of college meme groups on Facebook. Jokes about adulting and campus culture abound on the platform, says Takeo Rivera, a professor at Boston University who studies Asian American cultural production.

“This is a community of thousands of people online who can understand that very specific way that it feels to be Asian in white-dominated continents,” Rivera tells Mic. “It offers a community-building entry for Asian people in the diaspora to think through their identities and what’s meaningful or funny or absurd about being Asian.”

Interestingly, Rivera says, many common topics of discussion in the group — the frustrations of being seen as perpetual foreigners, the entrenched emasculation of Asian men, the complications of cross-racial love and coalition building — have their roots in the mid-20th-century Asian American movement.

“A lot of these conversations online are repeating the same conversations about Asian identity you would hear in the 1970s literary and activist circles,” he says. “What’s different now is that these conversations are transnational.” While memes, food photos, and cultural banter still dominate the page, a growing number of posts now delve into weightier — and often more polarizing — subjects like politics and social issues.

Xie says the past year and a half has been a tumultuous yet transformative time for the group. With the rise of Black Lives Matter protests and anti-Asian hate incidents, page administrators have established new content moderation guidelines and shifted from just facilitating discussion to actively advocating for social causes. A comprehensive list of anti-racism resources includes contact information for crisis reporting hotlines, social services organizations to support, and crowdfunding links for victims of hate crimes.

For the page’s founders, Xie says, managing a global forum with the U.S.-centric user base has been a laborious, humbling experience. “We’re not even in America, so it was hard to wrap our heads around it,” he says. “It was a shock hearing our moderators in America — people we’ve become friends with — say these crimes happened in their neighborhood.”

At its core, Subtle Asian Traits has always been a place for community members to share the experiences that have affected them. That means that it’s also been a resource, particularly for younger people, to overcome the mental health stigma that exists in many Asian cultures — the belief that having a psychological disorder is shameful or a sign of weakness. In May, which marks both Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and Mental Health Awareness Month, there’s been a deluge of posts on the subject, Xie says. Moderators have been personally messaging affected members and directing them to appropriate resources in response.

For a long time, Zheng tells Mic, she was afraid to tell her parents about her struggles with anxiety and depression. But confessionals from other Subtle Asian Traits members who had overcome language and cultural barriers to reach out to their family gave her the courage to do so — as well as a roadmap for how to eventually open up.

“Subtle Asian Traits has really shown me that I’m not alone when it comes to these frustrations,” she says. “Even though there are more than a million people here, I still feel like we’re a family.”