When we shared criticism of the group’s low South Asian visibility with Gu, she said, “It’s a very big group, so it’s very hard to control what gets posted and what’s not. We try to be as inclusive as possible. At the end of the day, there are more East Asians in the group than Indians.” Gu and the 14 other administrators and moderators spend hours reviewing the more than 4,000 daily submitted posts as if working “a full-time job,” as Gu put it. When they come across offensive posts, they screenshot them and discuss what to do over a group chat. The teenagers have become gatekeepers of cultural production, holding the power to shape norms—including the sticky question of what is “Asian” enough to be posted in the group.
They’re also getting many requests about monetizing the group. Indeed, the administrators have started posting sponsored content for an Australian mattress company promising a bed so firm “your bubble tea won’t spill no matter how many you’re drinking.” According to Gu, the money will go toward covering expenses to “protect our online [identities].”
But the teens, who are currently on break for the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, are still trying to focus on their original goals for Subtle Asian Traits. “We labeled the group [Facebook category] as ‘family,’ so that’s what the group’s purpose is, to allow people to feel like they all belong to something,” she said, alluding, like nearly everyone we spoke with, to the loneliness of being a diasporic Asian, fitting in neither here nor there. Perhaps the explosion of this Facebook community was inevitable: People want to find their people.
Some enterprising group members have taken it upon themselves to move its conversations offline. Hella Chen, the co-founder of Subtle Asian Dating, told us, “There was a need for this in the community that would allow for a better way for people to connect with others. Dating was the thing in the sense that people wanted to get to know someone personally.” And at least based on some posts in the group, members have been able to find love with fellow Asians.
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Matt Law, a 27-year-old entrepreneur, organized a Subtle Asian Traits meet-up in New York City that attracted more than 400 people—and he plans to host more. “In the beginning it was like a joke, to see if people were interested or not, and in the end, people ended up being very receptive,” he says. “It’s a great way to bridge community and have people meet up in person and not just talk through the Facebook group.” Group members are organizing meet-ups in Vancouver; Toronto; Boston; Washington, D.C.; and other cities.
And Gu, for her part, bonded with her own family over the group. When she saw a post about a traditional Chinese dish made of scrambled eggs and tomatoes—a simple comfort food she’d forgotten about—she asked her parents to make it for dinner. “I was like, I haven’t had this in ages, and my parents were like, ‘Okay, we’ll make it for you.’” Her parents had forgotten about the dish, too. It was a moment of connection between generations, one made especially potent by the prevalence of the group’s themes of intergenerational alienation. “And then my dad made it again like the week after.”
* This article previously misstated the name of the message board Yellowworld.