As of November 2020, the Facebook group Subtle Asian Traits has amassed almost two million members. Articles in The Atlantic, The New Yorker and The New York Times have hailed it as a “safe space — where Asian Americans can express (their) authentic selves.” The group shares memes, tweets, funny screenshots, cute art and Tiktoks meant to be relatable to the Asian diasporic experience.
In August 2020, Sarah Mae Dizon wrote a piece called “Why I Hate Subtle Asian Traits” which criticized S.A.T. for its elitism — the group’s memes and tweets largely assume you’ve grown up in an affluent home with “expensive academic tutoring and piano lessons” — as well as “boba liberalism,” a term first defined by Twitter user @diaspora_is_red as politically shallow, consumerist, surface-level, mainstream Asian American liberalism, which is complacenct with the bare minimum. It’s “all sugar, no substance.”
But before I’d ever heard the term “boba liberalism,” Subtle Asian Traits was just annoying to me. So many of the memes are, predictably, about addictions to bubble tea, which I don’t drink; K-Dramas and anime, which I don’t watch; STEM fields, which, frankly, I could never; and unreasonably strict parents, whom I didn’t grow up with. It pushes largely East and Southeast Asian diasporic cultures, and there is no representation for specifically South Asian voices. S.A.T. presents a heavily monolithic lifestyle for people of Asian descent, one which ascribes to the harmful model minority myth and pushes capitalist consumerism. I have to pause and think, “This can’t possibly be every person in every Asian diasporic community.” If so, then that makes me really sad.
Additionally, over six hundred thousand people have joined the Subtle Asian Traits offshoot, Subtle Asian Dating. According to Facebook, I myself have been a member since November 28, 2018. We’re coming up on our two-year anniversary.
As the name would suggest, S.A.D. shares insights and funny tweets on romantic statuses of every kind: swimming in the dating pool, remaining (frustratingly) single and getting happily cuffed. Many of the memes strike me as sexist; they tease women for being absurdly needy and moody — at least, way more so than all the women I know — or poke fun at men simply for being shorter than 5’10”.
On Subtle Asian Dating, people post “auctions” — they’ll upload pictures of their single friends and include their personal information, like pros and cons lists. Some people have gotten creative and made PowerPoint videos for their pitch. The whole reason S.A.D. became an Internet hit in the first place was because of how insane (and insanely addicting) this concept is. Entreaties for “rave baes” or “ABGs/ABBs” (or, Asian Baby Girls/Asian Baby Boys) are stupid fun to read, but they’re also some of S.A.D.’s most problematic content.
In the standard auction post, names, ages and locations are typically followed by an ethnicity category which begs the question, “Who gets to count as Asian American?” Not only that, but who gets to feel attractive as an Asian American? Auctions for those of South Asian descent are scant, and rarely do they receive the same amount of attention as posts for individuals with East Asian backgrounds. This exclusion buys into the myth that only lighter skinned people qualify as “Asian,” at least in the way we initially think of the word. S.A.D.’s name would imply an inclusive, safe space for all Asians, but we leave so many behind because of the colorist attitudes which pollute East and Southeast Asian culture. (People of South Asian descent have their own Facebook group tragically christened, "Subtle Curry Traits.") Conversely, posts fetishize ethnically mixed people, especially those who are half white; openers that read “ATTENTION!! HOT DREAM HALFIE [heart eye emoji]” make me roll my eyes, because it’s ludicrous that the Asian diaspora esteems Western beauty standards so grossly that the dehumanizing term “halfie” is now a compliment used to pull singles in. It’s disturbing, but unsurprising.
Another category expected from S.A.D. auctions is the individual’s educational background. Some of the posts that blow up include gag-inducing, “HARVARD MAN !! [brain emoji, heart emoji]” lines, or the classic “CS major so you know he’ll get that bread [several dollar sign emojis, two sly face emojis]” which triggers my fight or flight instincts. While I applaud anyone who works their butt off to get into the school of their dreams, this prioritization of a top education reflects the intellectual snobbery (and insecurity) which so many Asians struggle with, internalize and then project onto others. It also implies that where one goes to college is a good indicator of their intelligence, but this one-dimensional view fails to take into account factors that may limit academic performance — such as poor mental health or the fiscal need for a part-time job — and ignores the obvious: that “daddy’s money” is inextricably linked to wide disparities in educational opportunity.
Additionally, auctions are inherently classist. People who mention they’re going to make or currently make six figures push the superficial and ethically dangerous view that relationships are monetarily transactional. Those that can will flex fancy cars and designer clothes. One 2019 auction put in its pros category, “Drives a Mercedes, wears a Gucci belt, rocks a Burberry bucket hat, has NOT ONE BUT TWO Louis Vuitton wallets [dollar emoji, money bag emoji].” I don’t even have anything analytical to say about that one; it’s just an aggressively crappy move.
The authors of these problematic posts shouldn’t be “canceled.” We should instead try to fix the Facebook group, and by extension society’s attitudes as a whole; after all, individual posters are only trying to get their friends or themselves more likes by whatever means necessary. People have to use their affluence, elite universities or Eurocentric looks to get more clout because they know these are what sells with their audience.
While posts themselves display surface-level composure, their comment sections are often fraught with objectification and cyberbullying. Fatphobia and homophobia are issues which have long plagued the Asian community and they run rampant in the rare S.A.D. auction featuring a non-heterosexual person or a woman whose ribs don’t poke out of her stomach. Straight men tag each other in gay men’s posts saying “all u bro,” or tell their friends to shoot their shot with plus-size women as a joke, as if LGBTQ+ people or heavier people are any less deserving of love. Hilarious.
I could go on and on about all the reasons I hate S.A.D. auctions, but if I’m being perfectly honest with myself, I love reading them. They’re just a fun and stupid way to pass the time. I am a straight woman, but I prefer reading auctions featuring other straight women to those which advertise men. And, good God.
These women are Stanford students, K-Pop trainees turned Google interns who’ve done “a little modeling work on the side.” They sport Gucci and Louis Vuitton with indifferent nonchalance, like they’re free tote bags from The New Yorker. They do humanitarian work in Haiti. They have the discipline to work out religiously, and, as a result, their bodies make me want to walk into the ocean.
These women are, in short, accomplished and hot. They have brains and beauty and resolve. They are sexy Amazonian warrior princess goddesses.
I, on the other hand, love eating carbs just as much as I hate working out, which is saying a lot. I have turned twenty-percent-of-my-final-grade assignments in one minute before the deadline and I get ghosted by most of the internships I apply to. I don’t have many friends and even before the pandemic, I’d spend my weekends indoors watching “30 Rock” alone and wolfing down spicy Cheez-Its so ceaselessly you would think a kidnapper had threatened to shoot me if I didn’t down a bag in under thirty minutes. I am not pining for compliments or begging to be “picked” because I’m “not like other girls.” I’m not trying to be some quirky main character played by Zooey Deschanel in a movie when I say that, truly, from the bottom of my heart — I do not have my **** together.
It’s not endearing. It’s not cute. I have spent my entire young adult life reprimanding myself for not doing or being enough; I never joined enough student organizations, I never picked up enough skills, I never lost enough weight. The amazing women who get auctioned off on S.A.D. and amass thousands of likes make me feel terrible about myself. I need the constant reminder that, in reality, and especially now during a pandemic, it is perfectly okay to simply make it through a few months without losing my sanity. I don’t need to be doing the most in 2020.
I used to pore over S.A.D. auctions with obsessive intrigue and scrutiny, like I was staring at a messy pile-up on I-94. I did it to hurt myself, to berate myself for not being as successful or as rich or as skinny or as pretty or as smart as others. If they could do it, then why couldn’t I? I put the internalized male gaze society has ingrained in me for nineteen years to good work by speculating how many likes I would get if I were to put myself out there. The answer made me hate myself even more.
Even as members of the globally widespread Asian diaspora, many of us second generation Asians have subconsciously gleaned cultural expectations for relationships from our parents’ generation. Consequently, we want light-skinned, financially stable partners with banging bodies and doe-eyed, Western looks. But Subtle Asian Dating, as I’m often prone to forget, is nothing serious. Despite the occasional “S.A.D. success story,” you are not going to meet your soulmate at an online auction. (Hopefully) everyone can acknowledge that S.A.D. is a vain and superficial endeavor; in other words, it’s just not that deep, bro.
Subtle Asian Dating is a somewhat problematic — yet very entertaining — online community which I actively participate in. The few times I’ve thought about leaving the group, I ultimately decided to stay and continue consuming S.A.D. content. It’s such a guilty pleasure, but when my friend tags me in a depressing meme about being single or an auction for a particularly fine beefcake of a man, I want to interact with it. I “sad” or “heart” react and reply to my friends, because, though it’s not completely harmless, the unabashedly shallow spectacle and the sense of community are fun. Maybe that’s why I probably won’t be leaving this toxic relationship any time soon.