Wuss poppin’: Subtle Asian Traits and its unsubtle controversy

A green box enclosing the surprised Pikachu meme, a bottle of tiger balm, a Poké ball, tea with boba, and an on-fire assignment that has an "A-" on it in red writing. Above the box, the words "Subtle Asian Traits" are written.
Graphic by Elaine Yang

Subtle Asian Traits is anything but subtle. 

Famous for memes and posts mostly based on the experiences of Asians from Western diasporas, the Facebook group was initially created by several Asian-Australian friends for their social circle in Melbourne, Australia. Now, it boasts over 1,600,000 members worldwide. 

Despite this staggering number, I’ve derived a key persona after scrolling through Subtle Asian Traits — posts tend to echo the same distinct cultural backgrounds, beliefs and behaviors. The Subtle Asian is typically of East Asian descent, coming from a middle or upper-middle class household. Supposed personality traits include a love of boba, academic excellence, having tiger parents and an interest in anime, K-pop and raves. 

Does this person sound familiar? Obviously, every post doesn’t reflect the heap of stereotypes I listed. They almost certainly do not reflect all the members of Subtle Asian Traits, who can come from any of 99 countries. But this portrayal of the “quintessential” Asian is bolstered by tons of Facebook reactions that move this particular Asian narrative to the forefront of discussion. 

I was born and raised in Indonesia. I do not come from a Western diaspora. As relatable and funny as these memes could be, I got sick of them pretty quickly.

I didn’t know why people would embrace these stereotypes and the unhealthy behaviors that came with them — posts that stuck to the model minority myth, that made light of abusive parenting. Any meme or video that went viral told the same narrative over and over again, a loud voice that can make those who don’t fit into the persona feel out of place.

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But to Asians from Western diasporas, these memes and stereotypes can represent a place of comfort. Outside of Facebook, where they’re made to feel different in their larger communities, they won’t be singled out in Subtle Asian Traits. 

They can resonate with over a million people who go through the same experiences, no matter how big or small. The group serves as an invaluable hub to reconnect with one’s culture and be accepted, allowing many to “become much less apprehensive in opening conversations about [their] own Asian upbringing[s].” This, however, mostly applies to the types of Subtle Asians that were mentioned above.

It’s hard to deny the overall positive impact that Subtle Asian Traits has brought to a great number of young Asians. The most powerful posts even work to subvert stereotypes with anecdotes of supportive parents or success stories in fields Asian cultures may find unconventional. 

But the group’s tendency to ignore un-Subtle Asian dialogue can’t be discounted either. It’s why the group has so many offshoots — prime examples being Subtle Curry Traits and Subtle Asian Mental Health. 

Dialogue can also be silenced. Moderators often resort to turning off comments for posts that promote anti-black, homophobic or other problematic behaviors rampant in Asian communities. As such, topics that diverge and threaten the collectivism of the shared experience in Subtle Asian Traits don’t last very long. 

Despite the controversy, Subtle Asian Traits continues to thrive, even in its status as a locked, private group on Facebook. But when someone finally gets an invite from a friend to join, they should brace themselves — they could either face open or closed arms, depending on their background.

Nadya Siringo Ringo SC ’21 is one of TSL’s pop culture columnists. She’s a dual cognitive science and media studies major from Jakarta, Indonesia. She’s very passionate about pop music, video games and the Enneagram.

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