Self-perpetuation of Asian stereotypes

Photo by Casey Gomez

Earlier this year, I wrote about my experience as a third-culture Asian immigrant to the United States; neither label felt like they fit. What I didn’t know was that there had already existed a group of people who shared a similar experience. Here, I found millennials and Gen Z’s who were too westernized for their ethnically Asian family, but too ethnically Asian to relate to their Caucasian peers.

The group was titled “Subtle Asian Traits,” founded on Facebook by several Asian-Australians who had met each other while attending Chinese school on the weekend. What began as a small community quickly became an aggregation of memes depicting life as a young, westernized individual growing up in an Asian household. Now with over 1.1 million members from across the globe, it is a melting pot of self-stereotyping memes, jokes and fleeting internet trends.

A social group like Subtle Asian Traits made me feel like I wasn’t alone, and meme-sharing became an act of solidarity within the group. I wasn’t the only kid who had to endure the unpleasant taste of dinner prepared with bitter melon, and thousands of other kids also spent their weekends at Kumon. I’m also not the only person who faces the internal struggle of wanting to drink bubble milk tea but having to deal with the consequences of being lactose intolerant.

With careful moderation by the admins, the posts encompass mostly light-hearted jokes but also occasionally bring up serious issues that exist as stereotypes among the Asian community.

Some posts make light of characteristics of Asian parenting that are emotionally degrading, and other posts make honest pleas for acceptance and validation within the group when the original poster is unable to receive that validation offline. Although these posts are few and far between, they garner an immense amount of support and empathy from the rest of the group.

This issue with Subtle Asian Traits is the endless push and pull of stereotyping within the group, and many of the self-stereotyping posts are stale and outdated Westernized generalizations of Asian culture. The administrators instruct members to post content that is inclusive of all Asian races but refrains from being too exclusive. Asia encompasses forty-eight countries, with different governments and geographical locations and diverse histories. To post inclusive content, advancing generalizations of the “Asian” lifestyle seems to negate the very fact that these different cultures exist. The group is largely dominated by those of East Asian ethnicity — who are likely the group most frequently targeted by Westernized stereotypes — and this raises questions about the integrity and inclusivity of the group, considering that many of the members are of South and Southeast Asian ethnicity.

The relevance of the group is also in question. My cousins who still live in the Philippines are not part of this group. Even my Filipino cousins who live in Australia are not part of this group. I’m sure that they could relate to many of the posts, but what makes the group functional is the fact that first and second generation immigrants have been taught that by their Caucasian counterparts that their Asian upbringing was not the norm. When differences are introduced into society, stereotyping is inevitable. It is a necessary cognitive function, reducing the cognitive load on individuals and giving them a point of reference for how to perceive the “outgroup.” In the case of Subtle Asian Traits, it is the Australian, North American and European ingroups that have created these stereotypes that ultimately fuel all of the content that exists in the Facebook group. Perhaps a better name would have been “Subtle Asian Traits as Perceived in Westernized Culture.”

Are we ultimately degrading what is true of our Asian heritage by perpetuating Westernized stereotypes? The subject of subtle asian traits has become the new age cultural narrative of the Asian diaspora: making fun of ourselves because internet culture told us to do so.