I joined Subtle Asian Traits after hearing about it from a high school friend about two years ago. Back then, SAT was still new and gaining traction among second-generation Asians in Western countries. He described the Facebook group as hilarious and relatable—but when I browsed through the posts, I found that most of the jokes seemed to lean on Asian stereotypes about strict parents, food, and being good at math, and decided it wasn’t for me. I stayed in the group, only looking at posts my friends would tag me on.
Today, Subtle Asian Traits has 1.8 million members and counting. As the Facebook group continues to grow with dozens of new posts a day, so too has SAT drawn more valid criticism for the way it presents and engages with “Asianness.” Since it’s gotten more popular, my ambivalence toward the group has evolved into outright resentment for its shallowness and lack of inclusion.
In the Facebook group’s description, SAT claims it aims to “connect Asian individuals globally” and celebrate the “subtle traits within Asian culture.” On its surface, Subtle Asian Traits seems harmless or even necessary for young, diasporic Asians that struggle with their cultural identity. But in actuality, the Facebook group offers very little community for Asians beyond consumerism; every other post is just some new variation of boba. Many of the “relatable” jokes cater to cis-het, middle-class East Asians with Ivy League aspirations.
I believe one of the main issues with Subtle Asian Traits is the way it attempts to perpetuate the idea of a singular Asian culture that doesn’t exist. Most people living in different Asian countries would be puzzled at the idea of any overarching “Asian culture.” Doing so would erase the complexities of cultures throughout the Asian continent. Plus, the idea of a monolithic Asian culture eclipses the way ethnic minorities throughout the continent are marginalized. To flatten the entirety of one continent into a single “Asian” identity comes at the erasure of historically oppressed groups in the region. As a result, SAT relies on stereotypes that stem from the experiences of a very specific class and heritage of Asians and labels it as culture. The group’s focus on the experience of cis-het, middle-class East Asians tells an implicit message of who gets to be Asian.
“Diversity in the Asian-American community is barely acknowledged,” says Elisa—a member of SAT who spoke to me about her issues with the group. Over Twitter, I chatted with a number of friends, mutuals, and complete strangers that echoed similar sentiments.
“I felt super ostracized,” writes Tracy, a former SAT member. “I didn’t grow up with expensive academic tutoring and piano lessons.” In line with stereotypes from the model minority myth, much of the group’s content centers on diasporic Asians from families with white collar jobs. However, Asian-Americans have a steep and rapidly increasing rate of income inequality in the U.S.—a reality that’s obscured by SAT’s stream of jokes about a middle-class experience.
“It kind of gave a lot of Asians a way to be ‘subtly’ racist under the guise of making jokes about politics or Asian identity,” says Deborah, another member of SAT. Similar to Deborah, many others recounted the way bigotry has been glossed over by moderators in the past. “I’ve encountered racism, homophobia, and fatphobia in SAT, and it’s just not all that inclusive.”
So while Subtle Asian Traits has brought a semblance of belonging to some Asians, it’s excluded many others that don’t relate to jokes about private piano lessons, tiger parents, and going to medical school. One answer to the centering of East Asians in SAT has been the creation of unaffiliated spin-off groups such as Subtle Curry Traits or Subtle Filipino Traits where underrepresented communities can find more relatable content. But my issue with SAT isn’t just the lack of “relatability” for Asians like me. It’s the way SAT and its various off-shoots perpetuate mainstream Asian-American liberalism—AKA boba liberalism.
Boba liberalism, as defined by Twitter user @diaspora_is_red, is all sugar, no substance. It’s viewing Asian-American identity in the exact way that SAT portrays it: merchandise to buy, content to consume, and food to eat. Boba liberalism is reliant on capitalism and fails to interrogate the way our homelands have been ravaged by the Western countries in which we grew up. It’s about being solely focused on representation in media and politics; it’s about viewing our collegiate Asian student organizations as the vanguard of progress for our communities. Boba liberalism gave us Andrew Yang, who used model minority jokes as a campaign strategy.
Subtle Asian Traits is bound to fizzle out at some point, but boba liberalism is likely to stick around. For many of us diasporic Asians, it’s important that we remember that while boba might taste good, it’s mostly just sugar and milk. Creating relatable memes about our upbringing can’t replace an actual understanding of the history, culture, and struggle of our homelands.
By Sarah Mae Dizon
Illustration by Julia Tabor
Agree when you say SAT is shallow consumerist trash and a laughable attempt to build a pan-Asian identity, the obnoxious SEA SJW resentment of East Asians aside.
Shhhhhhh. Let people enjoy things.
Yeah SAT is a very hate-filled group though lol
Hi Sarah, I’m speaking as an individual here. I think the difference between SAT and people like Andrew Yang is that SAT’s audience is Asian diaspora whereas Yang’s audience is America (including white folks). And while I agree that Asian diaspora folks are not a monolith and there isn’t great representation of SE Asian & S Asian identity, there is a sense of traumatic enjoyment in digesting memes that reflect your experience growing up. For me, personally, SAT has offered a platform where I feel less lonely. Particularly when Asian Americans often occupy a liminal space in America’s racial landscape. If SAT can offer that platform to a fraction of the folks who follow, that counts for something. SAT definitely has room for improvement, but there is steady progress. Their inclusion of political posts and moving out of Boba liberalism during the George Floyd protests earlier this summer is a good example. There’s room for improvement, always, and although the movement feels slow, I do believe SAT is on the right track.
Agreed with you on everything until you brought up Andrew Yang. He isn’t a boba liberal and many boba liberals dislike him. Andrew Yang is more of a political moderate who grew up in a white community and used self hating jokes to navigate white circles for white acceptance. He tells self hating jokes, but he’s in a completely different category than your model minority, extremely stereotypical, white worshipping enclave Asians who drink boba all day.
While I largely agree with your statements, I do not agree with the idea that SAT is a laughable attempt to create a pan-Asian identity. Further, attempting to turn back the clock by getting SAT members to have a higher understanding of their homelands largely erases and undecuts the fact that many 3rd and 4th generation, even 2nd generation, Asians Americans have more in common with Americans than with their ethnic brethren across the Pacific. The ethnic and cultural diversity which is papered over by SAT and boba liberalism allows for a feeling of community that otherwise could easily and quickly dissolve into ugly chauvinism and nationalism. As you may already know, the few political posts about Hong Kong and Xinjiang brought out the most vindictive arguments, not only between Mainlanders and Westernized Asians, but also Hong Kongers and Taiwanese. Let’s not also forget that many of the concepts of social justice in the West are greeted with utter bewilderment by Asian audiences, not mention the older or recent immigrants.
In that context, it makes sense that Asians Americans will congregate around a common set of experiences in order to foster common unity. It was anime in our childhoods, boba tea and KBBQ now, and it could be pad thai or pho next. More esoteric cultural differences would require individual effort and simply don’t fit into a common experience that makes it easy for Asians in this country to come together on.
I guess I can’t say much about this since I am not a second-generation Asian and the group is not really aimed at me, but I didn’t really like the vibe when I first joined either. I’m still in it for friends to tag me in an occasionally funny post, but that’s about it. I find the constant jokes about boba and incorrect Cantonese puns to be very annoying. It is feeding into the harmful stereotypes that white people view us as and it’s also spreading misinformation (on Cantonese, at least).
If you take a shot every time SCT posts something related to boba or a badly written bilingual pun, you’ll be dead within seconds. There’s nothing good on SCT because people aren’t even allowed to post what they want. There can never be an honest communication there because the mods just delete posts with any political view behind them.
I’m not trying to sound offensive nor targeting a specific asian BG but there is minimal diversity in handful of Admins. That is why I support this post. Out of the 48 Asian countries there is almost little to none the represents Thailand, India, Philippines, Brunei, Sri lanka and more. Lack of diversity equals lack of experience and lack of testimonies and lack of true knowledge.
‘Common experience’ to some how expected that 1.8 million to relate to. it should be called SUBTLE ASIAN AMERICAN TRAITS
SAT is not just East Asian centric – folks there doxx and bully South Asians and other dark skinned Asians. Racism is alive and well in this group and admins do nothing about it. They are not boba liberals – they are boba incels. It’s why I quit that turd pond.
I got so sick and tired of the racist posts that I kept putting BLM post across their page until they banned me. They approved posts like Asian can wear dreads! with a tone deafness during the George Floyd shooting. They refused to support other POC or acknowledge it until members forced their hands. They defended hate towards other POC. Enough was enough.
> fails to interrogate the way our homelands have been ravaged by the Western countries in which we grew up
Hanging on to a grievance mentality does no good. The Europeans don’t complain still about the Mongol invasion that killed a quarter of their population.
I left a comment when this article was shared on SAT on Facebook, so I guess I’ll copy and paste it here as well:
I think this article has a point, but my experience hasn’t made me feel as extremely as you do about disliking SAT. I’ve come across some sinophobia here that has made me feel alienated, and things can come across as somewhat shallow, but I think that’s the “general Internet experience” and even a lot of Facebook (although to be fair, I no longer go on Facebook a lot).
I joined SAT when it was still pretty new and novel and exciting, and it was so cool seeing Asian immigrants like me who could share similar stories/experiences to me. But that was also when I identified more with my western side than my Chinese side, and since I’ve gotten more into Chinese culture, history, and media (donghua, cdramas, cpop), my connection to SAT has changed a little as well. Sinophobia is more rampant than ever and that has also changed how I view my Chinese-ness, and the Chinese side of myself has mattered a lot more to me as I dedicate myself to learning more of the culture/history/language etc.
These posts often emphasize the westernness of Asian immigrants and their experiences, which is all fine and dandy—it will always be a relatable topic for many of us—but I suppose it could cover things in a rather broad stroke and ignore some of the nuances of our Asian identities.
I still think SAT is a good idea and has good things in it, but it’s not bad to take a step back and look at criticisms like this and consider how we structure our own Asian-ness and how we consume posts/media about that Asian-ness (both in terms of the immigrant experience and the culture/history/media of our family’s origin).
I agree with a fair amount of your points and I’ll put my two cents in here.
As a second-generation Asian American of both East and SEA descent, I appreciate the representation and Asian space that SAT has provided in the relative absence of Asian diasporic spaces across the Internet. Being born and raised in a very culturally Asian household yet in a very homogeneous town (90%+ white), there was little to no representation for people who remotely looked similar to me, with a few Asian kids attending primary school with me and very often being the sole token Asian kid in my classes. Teachers and students alike would often mistaken my ethnicity and I heard the first racist slur directed against me at the age of 6 (though I wasn’t aware what it was at the time). I also argued with one of my HS history teachers over the Eurocentric depiction of the Vietnam War in the textbooks. Only in my undergrad years I was able to connect with fellow Asian Americans and learn about how they lived and grew up. This was something I had long yearned for.
Then SAT came along a few years later and I was randomly added to the group by a college friend a month after its launch. I was surprised to see how many members of the Asian diaspora had lived so similarly to how I did, save for hailing from a white town. I enjoyed how many college friends would tag me in posts that were very relatable to my upbringing, things my white classmates from primary schooling did not understand such as growing up in a family devoid of affection, cabinets filled with expired sauces, intense SAT exam prep, etc. It gave me a larger sense of community with people who grew up like me, in a upper-middle class Asian family, since my initial exposure to more Asian youths in undergrad.
I am in no way defending the shortcomings of SAT. Too many times mods have mishandled posts of political nature and didn’t do enough to facilitate constructive dialogue between dissenting opinions (often nationalistic) such as those of the HK protests and BLM movement and instead opted to shut it down entirely. I’ve verbalized my disappointment with their choices in both instances in those comment sections. Despite relating to a great deal of content pertaining to them, I do agree that East Asians are grossly overrepresented within the group and harmfully project a monolithic public image of Asians, evident in the lack of diversity among the mods themselves. There’s an obvious bias that hurts SEA and South Asian members that could easily be alleviated by deliberately diversifying the mod team. With that being said, there has been slight progress with the mods making a statement condemning bigotry (still inadequate) after being long silent on police brutality following George Floyd’s murder as well as a statement allowing political posts to stay up; they should be noted for improvement. The racism, homophobia, and fatphobia in the comments definitely needs to be reprimanded, and in strict terms. On a finer detail, SAT was originally created by Asian Australians, not Asian Americans, and then expanded to the rest of the Asian diaspora, including Asian Americans. For the group to claim itself as having the mission of connecting Asian individuals globally that “celebrates the similarities and differences” is definitely pretentious and tone-deaf to the many voices in the group (which include good SEA and South Asian friends that have voiced your aforementioned grievances) that remain largely unheard excluded from its content.
At the end of the day, SAT is imperfect as anything else is, with much room for improvement. There’s still much mods can do to elevate SEA and South Asian voices, and I hope one day there will be sufficient pressure for them to do that, along with cracking down on bigotry in the comments. I couldn’t care less for the boba or ABG memes but I surely appreciate the virtual Asian diasporic space where we can congregate it provides us with, as they have been absent for too long on the Internet. After all, I don’t take the group nor its content very seriously as I’m mainly there for relatable memes and the occasional familial appreciation post, but to someone who spent 18 years disconnected with a broader community, it is a breath of fresh air.
I agree with some of your points, particularly how SAT seems to “perpetuate the idea of a singular Asian culture that doesn’t exist” as there are plenty of Asian Americans that do not relate to much of the SAT content. My understanding is that this group was targeted to Asians that were either born or grew up in Western countries. You yourself acknowledge that SAT “has brought a semblance of belonging to some Asians” and I agree that “it’s excluded many others that don’t relate to jokes about private piano lessons, tiger parents, and going to medical school” and as a result there have been creations of new or “unaffiliated spin-off groups such as Subtle Curry Traits or Subtle Filipino Traits where underrepresented communities can find more relatable content”. So you yourself have answered the criticism towards SAT’s attempt to help Asian American relate to one another.
In terms of SAT’s perpetuation of “Asian American liberalism”, or “boba liberalism”, Facebook, and all social media sites have unfortunately stemmed away from its original intent and become giant cogs in business, marketing, and advertising. There really is no way to move away from that, regardless of what group it is and what platform it is on, if it’s on social media you’ll be seeing the perpetuation of consumerism.
Lastly, considering SAT is a social media group, should there really be expectations of it to provide “actual understanding of the history, culture, and struggle of our homelands”? Facebook groups mostly consist of “creating relatable memes”, SAT create memes about our upbringing. I refer back to my understanding of the group’s targeted audience; Western born Asians or Asians who grew up in Western countries. We do not know the struggle of our homelands because we didn’t grow up there. Western politics and education have neglected to put any focus on Asian history and culture and quite frankly, it’s nobody’s job to educate you on your culture and heritage except yourself. I’ve made efforts to learn my language, talk to family back in China, take classes on my home country in school….I even consume entertainment produced by my homeland.
So perhaps, maybe people should stop relying on social media to bring them a sense of belonging and to educate them on their culture and home country, just as people shouldn’t be relying “Relationship Advice” on Reddit to fix their marriage.
What so it isn’t funny when joking about white people and cheese, mexicans and beans or black ppl and cocaine? Ha you thought I would say something else didn’t you ;}
Oh boo hoo laugh a little.
Everyone knows people break stereotypes; that doesn’t suggest stereotypes don’t have value. Especially comedic value.
A world where we can tease each other in good fun is one where we treat each other as equally human. You only play these political correctness games with those you feel are “other” and don’t feel safe enough around to relax. Chill. Race jokes should usually not offend anyone. They are not targeting you as a person. They are usually not even mean.
They are funny because humans are goofy beings and every way you can remix them is uniquely silly