We Need To Talk About “Asian” Spaces Online & In Media – And Their Inclusivity

By Steffi Cao
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I no longer see pictures of my friends and family on my Facebook feed — it’s been taken over by memes about bubble tea. I joined “subtle asian traits,” a closed Facebook group that focuses on humor and discussion surrounding the diasporic Asian experience, around October of last year. Now, with over 1.2 million members, the page has even prompted spin-off groups like “subtle asian dating,” “subtle asian makeup,” and “Subtle Asian Networking.”

I’ll admit, I love being in a space where people post puns using the two languages I grew up with, Mandarin and English. I love that there’s a space where everyone can laugh about our parents diluting soap with water to make it last longer, or how we feel when white people walk into our apartments with their shoes on. It’s incredible to know that across the globe, there are such strong commonalities of experience that can make me feel so much less alone.

But at the same time, most of the content on “subtle asian traits” caters only to a handful of Asian ethnicities, as The New York Times catalogued in December 2018; most posts I see address the experiences of being of Chinese or Korean descent. In fact, there is so little South or Southeast Asian representation, some members have splintered off to form “Subtle Curry Traits” or other spin-off groups, which focus specifically on South Asian-centric content.

So it feels almost wrong to call “subtle asian traits” an “Asian” space, when the content unevenly represents Asian identity. And this isn’t the first time I’ve seen this happen.

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"I see a lot of hope for APA digital content to evolve to be inclusive of the multitude that is our community," Chelsea Racelis, 22, a student who identifies as multi-ethnic Southeast Asian, tells Bustle. "When people didn’t see themselves represented in ‘subtle asian traits’, they did many different things. They called it out, they shared content that did represent them, and they created other groups like ‘subtle curry traits’ and ‘subtle halfie traits.’ I’d love for digital media to be an opportunity for our community to become more aware of each other, and I’d like to think it’s going that way.”

Noel Aruliah, 20, the founder and administrator of Subtle Curry Traits, agrees. "We felt there was a gap in the market, saw the opportunity and created the meme to help south Asians relate to memes globally,” he tells Bustle. He hopes that other digital spaces that focus on the experiences of Asian people in the diaspora can "use Asian-centered media to help promote unity, rather than argue on differences, and also help solve social issues."

The recent boom of pop cultural moments that are reflective of the "Asian" experience seem to imitate what's happening online, too. Crazy Rich Asians, while lauded as a groundbreaking film for Asian Americans, drew criticism for washing out the diverse Singaporean population, instead prioritizing the stories of light-skinned people of Chinese descent. In Ali Wong’s 2017 special Baby Cobra, the comedian’s comments about being half “fancy Asian” and half “jungle Asian” —half Chinese, half Vietnamese — point to the widespread idea that being East Asian equates to class and development. In its own way, “subtle asian traits” is symptomatic of a larger issue in the pan-Asian experience: East Asians dominate pan-Asian narratives. And that has a real impact on the perception of Asian identity as a whole.

I constantly feel conflicted about these moments in pop culture. On one hand, I want to celebrate the representation of Asian Americans in media, but on the other, I know these moments only grant visibility to a very select group of Asians that look like me: light-skinned, with East Asian heritage. They certainly don’t represent my friends, or some of my family. Many Asian Americans do not even identify with the term “Asian,” as it can feel like shorthand for “East Asian,” opting instead for more specific terms (think "Filipino American” or “Desi”). But how do we acknowledge the commonalities of our experiences while also fighting against stereotypes — like the “model minority" myth — that negatively impact the community as a whole?

One thing that’s really hard about this is that some stories continue to be more amplified than others.

Melissa Borja, assistant professor at the University of Michigan and expert in Asian American migration and religion, tells Bustle that “we are seeing more complexity in the portrait of an Asian American” with films like To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, where the protagonist is a biracial Korean American girl raised in a single-parent household. Or Marie Kondo’s Netflix show, where the non-English speaking host has received both praise and criticism for her tidying up guidance in American homes. “But one thing that’s really hard about this is that some stories continue to be more amplified than others. How we define ‘Asian American’ and how we imagine the category, and belonging to this category, continues to be powerfully shaped by East Asian Americans.”

Even so, this “complexity” leads to more questions around the idea of representation. “I think ‘subtle asian traits’ is trying to establish that there is a youth culture around Asian identity, which isn’t about computing or achievement or the model minority,” Lisa Nakamura, a professor in the study of race in digital media at the University of Michigan, tells Bustle. But even as these depictions have begun to shift “model minority” preconceptions, spaces like "subtle asian traits" also shed light on negative experiences that may feel familiar to many first gen kids. “There are posts saying things like, ‘What are some things your mother has hit you with?’ and that’s kind of funny, but also kind of not. There’s a lot of trauma behind that,” Nakamura says. These shared experiences are “a part of Asian culture that non-Asian identifying people might not always get to see.”

Borja explains that East Asian narratives are typically centered in American pop culture thanks, in part, to historical immigration patterns. “Chinese Americans have been in the United States much longer than, say, Vietnamese Americans," Borja says. "Numerically, they are also a very large community here. Class also has something to do with it. Generally, in media, we tend to pay attention to middle-class and upper-class stories. And East Asians are more likely than Southeast Asians to be economically privileged.”

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Michelle Chan, a community organizer with New Virginia Majority, a non-profit advocating for Asian/Pacific Islander American civic engagement, has also noticed the inconsistencies in multiple Asian-focused digital spaces. “I remember the early days of Wong Fu Productions, an Asian American filmmaking group that got its start on YouTube around 2003," Chan tells Bustle. "While it started out as a small, independent media company, it served as a platform that propelled major Asian American figures in popular media, such as Randall Park (Fresh off the Boat) and Kina Grannis (Crazy Rich Asians). As a Chinese Malaysian American, I am thrilled by this representation. But, I also understand the dismay that must have crossed the faces of my South Asian friends. This Asian American representation is deeply limited.”

But there might be something valuable in having these first representations in media, even with their limitations.

“I think it’s a part of what happens when you have pan-Asian media, is that naturally people will want to refine a little bit,” Nakamura says. When Asian media is successfully introduced in a Western market — something like Crazy Rich Asians or ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat — it is easy to trace other content that builds on different facets of representation. Take Kim’s Convenience, the Canadian drama about a Korean family that talks about class struggle as part of the “Asian” experience, or Hasan Minhaj’s Homecoming King comedy special, which touches on Muslim identity at the intersection of being South Asian American.

There might be something valuable in having these first representations in media, even with their limitations.

I want to believe that a truly pan-Asian space is possible — a platform where we can learn from each other through sharing our individual experiences. It is important to acknowledge that the focus on East Asian experiences in these spaces has flattened not just Southeast and South Asian voices, but the diversity of the “Asian” experience as a whole. There is an opportunity to really push for more inclusivity within the Asian identity, especially in spaces like “subtle asian traits,” where that inclusion is completely within our own community’s control.

Deep down, I really love what Crazy Rich Asians, “subtle asian traits,” and Ali Wong’s comedy specials stand for. They are a glimpse of the change that is possible. And I hope to see that glimpse shift into a gaping window for all Asian-identifying communities to be heard.