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'Subtle Asian Traits' Holds Up a Mirror to Asian Australians Like Me

A Facebook page doesn't get 1.4 million followers in 10 months for nothing.

by Naeun Kim
20 June 2019, 7:00am

Screenshots via Facebook

I was at a friend’s wedding in October and we were laughing about how I used to clip clothes pegs to my nose in an effort to straighten it out—which was one of those Asian myths like “don’t sleep with wet hair or you’ll get a headache” or “don’t cut your nails before an exam or you’ll fail”—when my friend suddenly brought up Subtle Asian Traits.

Pretty much everything my Asian friends and I have experienced as Asians growing up in Australia appears in memes posted by the Facebook group Subtle Asian Traits. Patiently explaining TV scenes to your parents? Writing formal letters on behalf of your parents? Using an Anglo name at coffee shops? There’s a meme for every moment.

Back in October, when I was reminiscing about my nose-pegging, the page had around 150,000 members. Now, there’s 1,398,259 and counting. But it’s really no surprise this Aussie Facebook invite-only page has ballooned. For so long, us pale and athletically-disadvantaged Asians have had to suffer in silence—living with our intolerance to lactose, getting mistaken as fellow Asians by people who come from Asia, and being victims to tiger parenting. But now, this group makes you feel like you’re part of an inside joke with a million other people who grew up with the same struggles as you. A million other people, from all around the world.

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With at least 500 post requests daily, the page posts a combination of memes, videos, articles, anecdotes and even appeals from people trying to find long-lost friends and relatives. While the bulk of the posts are memes, people are also now posting photos of their parents doing Asian things like eating fries with chopsticks and using the oven to store pots and pans. You’ll also find personal posts—some ranting about racist encounters, others sharing heartwarming stories of their hard-working parents.

The other day I was having yum cha with friends, next to another table of Chinese people arguing.

“They’re fighting over the bill,” my friend translated.

“That’s so subtle Asian traits,” I replied.

That’s when you know something’s huge—when it’s a part of your daily lingo. And the other way you know something is huge is when it becomes immortalised on Wikipedia and UrbanDictionary.

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As an Australian-born Korean, I’ve sometimes struggled with issues of identity and belonging, particularly as I work in commercial news where the only other Asian is the IT guy. And that’s why sharing the experience of occasionally feeling like a foreigner in my own country feels so comforting.

Everyone at work laughed when Scott Morrison gave the Chinese greeting “Ni hao” to a woman who replied with “I’m Korean.” The even funnier thing is that I’m so used to that happening that I have a whole arsenal of automated responses for such scenarios: “No, I’m Korean.” “No, I’m not from the North.” “I was born here, but my parents are from Korea.” “Yes, Kim is my last name.” “No, I’m not related to Kim Jong Un.”

Choosing a non-Asian parent approved degree like journalism was made even harder when the head of my course offered some advice for my job hunting.

“Make sure you write clearly at the top of your CV that you can write and speak English fluently.”

Apparently studying the highest level of English in high school and then journalism still doesn’t legitimise you as a real Aussie when your face and name is still Asian. It’s a comment that’s haunted me since. From over-enunciating my vowels to laughing along at Asian stereotypes and desperately wanting to change my name when I was younger, I’ve often put down my culture to fit in with another. I don’t bring in food from home to work, don’t try to haggle all the time and I don’t speak Korean loudly in public—all just to not seem too “Asian.”

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As my mum always said, “You may be Australian, but your face is Asian.” That awkward feeling of being in between comes out even more on Australia Day and Anzac Day each year. Back in 2000 when the Olympic Games were held in Sydney, I went to a baseball game to see South Korea play Australia. For an eight-year-old, I’d never been more stressed. For hours I deliberated about who to cheer for, when my mum finally bought both flag tattoos and stuck each one on my cheeks.

As an only child, I thought these were things I just had to live with. But with so many relatable posts on Subtle Asian Traits, I’ve always wanted to speak to the founders responsible for creating a community that’s become something of an unofficial family to me.

Lydia is 20 years old and is one of the nine founders of Subtle Asian Traits. They created the group in September 2018 just to fill a gap in the Facebook meme group categories. Inspired by a similar group named “Subtle Private School Traits,” it started out as just as innocent meme page.

“We wanted to replicate the idea of a group that shared content based around the demographic of Asians. By turning our ‘otherness’ into light-hearted memes, SAT has really emphasised that there is no shame in being who we are,” Lydia explained.

Despite the group being created in Australia, half their members now come from the United States, with only a quarter based in Australia. Despite this, it turns out we’re all caught in the same plight.

“One of the biggest issues in this population is the one of identity—we’re ‘too Asian to be white and too white to be Asian,” Lydia told me.

She too has suffered the “trauma from failed piano lessons, dreading going to Chinese school every Sunday afternoon, and being chased by my parents with a plastic slipper.”

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Tapping into these shared experiences fueled the popularity of Subtle Asian Traits, which for Lydia has taken up more and more of her time. The groups’ founders are now introducing meet-ups at local businesses, and are in the process of bringing out a line of official merchandise.

But on the question of how they’ll truly cash in on their success, their plans are still in discussion.

“We’re brainstorming ideas that will really propel us as a group so that we’re recognised as not just a meme page, but something that’s really made a difference,” she said.

The popularity of Subtle Asian Traits has even inspired spin-off pages that cater to each and every kind—Subtle Asian Dating, Subtle Asian Ravers, Subtle Asian Snaccs just to name a few. If you can’t keep up, just go to Subtle Asians Yellow Pages.

“I think the page has really brought to light the fact that we first/second generation Asians are not alone in the way that we have grown up in a white society,” Lydia explains.

So if a Facebook page can provide some amount of free therapy, I’m all for it. Asians do love a bargain after all.

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