Shi: Representing the In-Between

Looking at modern representations of transnational Asian cultures.

by Katie Shi | 1/29/19 2:15am

The premiere of “Crazy Rich Asians” and the inception of the Facebook group Subtle Asian Traits were only a month apart last fall, marking a turning point in how Asian identities are perceived in mainstream media. Despite their names, both the film and the online community cater more toward an audience of Asian descent than an Asian audience. “Crazy Rich Asians,” a Hollywood film, was made for American Asian viewers. The scope and reach of Subtle Asian Traits has become much greater. The group was started by a handful of Australian high schoolers in Melbourne to bond over what it meant to be the children of Chinese immigrants. Intending it to be a local Facebook community, the students had added all of their Asian friends and classmates, but then membership increased exponentially to a thousand people within a few weeks through the same process. Subtle Asian Traits currently has over 1.1 million members globally, many of whom live overseas in Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States and other Western countries. And while “Crazy Rich Asians” has experienced an unprecedented amount of mainstream success for a film of its genre, Subtle Asian Traits is ultimately more effective when it comes to representing and building the global Asian community. 

On Facebook, my feed is flooded with posts from Subtle Asian Traits (or “SAT,” as it’s affectionately referred to), and new content is shared every hour. Posts are highly specific yet universal: members remember working on math worksheets during childhood, memorizing Tang poetry at Chinese school on weekends or having their mothers call them down to the kitchen to eat sliced fruit. The group is a way for members to take back stereotypes associated with being Asian using humor and honesty, as well as to share and dissect the cultural identity of the Asian in-betweener, no matter where they are.

In an essay for The New Yorker, the author Yiyun Li describes how she traded her Chinese for English, choosing to write in the latter language only. It was a conscious decision, on her part, to erase one identity for another. I’ve experienced similar feelings of loss and erasure, though Mandarin Chinese was never my native language. Growing up, I spoke English and Mandarin, and I was orally fluent in both at 5 or 6 years old. With every passing year, however, my grasp on Mandarin grows weaker; while I don’t necessarily have an “American” accent when speaking Mandarin, I tend to unconsciously apply English grammar. Although I was born in the United States and consider English my mother language, a part of me still feels missing because of my lack of fluency in Chinese. This problem is a common one among people of Asian descent living overseas. I was fortunate that my parents spoke Chinese at home and insisted I do the same. Many of my American Asian friends have parents who chose, like Li, to abandon their native tongues for English. They hoped that their children could speak in an English unmarred by an accent, allowing them to adapt better to their English-speaking environments. Losing one identity — with no guarantee of gaining another — is a terrifying prospect. 

And if language is so intricately connected to one’s sense of self, what about the people who came to the United States and other Western countries as young children, forgetting their native languages as a result? What about multiracial people, who either grew up with more than one language or only with English? What about internationally adopted children who never learned how to speak those languages in the first place, and spoke English instead? Subtle Asian Traits is where navigation of that hazy existence in between cultures takes place, at least for people in my generation. Behind the humorous posts and an overwhelming love for bubble tea is the continuous discovery that our experiences are more universal than we’d thought. 

Additionally, online communities adapt to modern culture in ways that films, literature and other forms of traditional media cannot. “Crazy Rich Asians” was criticized for its representation of Singaporean ethnicities, with detractors citing colorism and tokenism in the film. Similarly, Subtle Asian Traits initially received criticism that the group was dominated by East Asian perspectives. The online community, however, was able to bridge the gap in representation where “Crazy Rich Asians” could not. The moderators of the group immediately sought to rectify the situation, reviewing each submitted post before approving it to ensure more Asian cultures were included. Dissatisfied members also created a multitude of other “Subtle” Facebook groups in response to the lack of diverse content — one example is the Subtle Curry Traits group for transnational South Asian culture, which currently has 275,000 members. “Crazy Rich Asians” definitely could have done better with its casting choices, but it is impossible for the film to reach the same level of representation as these online communities by itself. 

Ideally, the popularity of Subtle Asian Traits and similar groups would influence future Asian representation and lead to more nuanced and diverse depictions of Asian identities in more traditional forms of media. Even if it doesn’t, these online communities have accurately represented the modern culture of overseas Asians, and I look forward to seeing what the next step in this progression will be.