For “Subtle Taiwanese Traits,” Seeing Taiwan Anew Starts Within the Community

For “Subtle Taiwanese Traits,” Seeing Taiwan Anew Starts Within the Community
Photo Credit: Eric Lai

What you need to know

Arising from disillusionment with the Subtle Asian Traits Facebook group, Subtle Taiwanese Traits has been a fertile and sometimes contentious ground for defining what it means to be Taiwanese today.

When Subtle Asian Traits (SAT) took Facebook by storm in 2018, Philip Chen, 20, was no exception, joining the now-1.9 million-member group. Founded by young, first-generation Asian Australians, the group has grown to include the Asian diaspora worldwide. Chen, born and raised in Taiwan, was attending Rice University in the United States at the time.

The memes, once funny and relatable, over time became less relevant to him. In its effort to appeal diversely and universally, SAT was perpetuating what Chen felt were “stereotypes,” like strict parents and drinking boba tea. As the Hong Kong protests and U.S.-China trade war escalated, comment sections blew up. Political divisions between pro-Chinese and anti-Chinese members made the community hostile. SAT censored comments on posts in what Chen considered a top-down and opaque manner.

In late 2019, during his sophomore year at college, Chen decided to fill the gap he felt in representing a specifically Taiwanese perspective on life overseas. Subtle Taiwanese Traits (STT) was born, as one of many other “Subtle...Traits” Facebook groups inspired by SAT, like Subtle Curry Traits and Subtle Korean Traits.

“I wanted to make this community where overseas Taiwanese can connect with each other and post memes and relatable content,” Chen said. Soon after, he recruited his friends, Merton Li and Audi Liu. “People just started inviting everyone over to the group, and it just started building up.” The team has since grown to nine admins and moderators. In its 14 months of existence, the group has gained over 15,000 members.

What exactly are the subtle traits of Taiwanese people that others may not understand in a pan-Asian community? One thing, for Li, is recognizing that boba was invented in Taiwan, even if it has come to be a pan-Asian symbol. Popular topics include returning to Taiwan, politics, and food. Memes were the original currency of the group, which has grown to a vibrant discussion forum, featuring shoutouts to Taiwanese American representation in popular culture, resources, and articles.

A recent meme about American-born Taiwanese learning to type Chinese in pinyin, the romanization system taught in China and most Mandarin language-learning curriculums internationally, rather than bopomofo, the transliteration system used in Taiwan, garnered almost 1,000 likes. A member’s reflections on the Golden Horse Award-winning “Little Big Women” drew over 300 likes. In the comments, members shared how the film brought them to tears, with one even tracking down the bakery featured in the film — Mingxing Cafe in Ximen, Taipei.

MemeOnly_-_Alex_Tsu
Photo Credit: Alex Tsu / Facebook

Articles on politics or international attention on Taiwan also generate a lot of engagement, such as an article on the U.S. withholding funding from WHO until Taiwan is granted membership, and news that the Democracy Index ranked Taiwan 11th globally. A Taiwanese Canadian’s at-home boba machine designs drew excited suggestions to prototype it through Taiwanese suppliers.

“In order for the world to know you, you need to know yourself first”

While STT started off circulating memes and sharing laughs, for many on the team, its existence is also inherently political.

“[I want to bridge] Taiwanese culture [with the] Taiwanese American community,” Li said of his reason for joining STT. He grew up in Kaohsiung before leaving for boarding schools in Texas and Pennsylvania, where he met Chen, before enrolling at the University of Rochester. As a self-proclaimed “straight[-up] Taiwanese kid,” he was often frustrated at Taiwanese identity being conflated with Chinese identity, challenged by Chinese international students, or simply invisible. After all, his university had, until late 2019, listed Taiwan as a “sub-national entity” of China.

Merton_Li
Photo Credit: Merton Li
Merton Li

For instance, he didn’t know his former girlfriend was Taiwanese American until three months into their relationship. He thought she was Chinese, as she never talked about her Taiwanese heritage. If teachers referred to Taiwan as a country, his Chinese international peers would insist that the teacher change their language. For Li, being able to assert “Taiwan exists in the world” is itself a bold declaration, and this group is one way to do so.

For Liu, the goal of STT is simple: to let the world learn about Taiwan. He grew up in Taiwan and graduated from Kaohsiung American School. But it wasn’t until he left Taiwan to attend UCLA that he started really to appreciate Taiwan. It is easy to idealize the U.S., he said, and wishes more overseas Taiwanese can appreciate life in Taiwan, with its convenience, food, and culture.

Audi_Li
Photo Credit: Audi Liu
Audi Liu

Living and traveling abroad, Liu has witnessed his share of the world’s ignorance of Taiwan, such as being met with “Thailand’s an awesome country!” after introducing himself. Taiwan is more than it is portrayed in international news, narrowly centered on geopolitics, tech manufacturing, and more recently, Covid-19 response.

The project of making the world more knowledgeable about Taiwan is about more than introducing the uninitiated. The first step is cultivating self-knowledge within a community. If more people are to understand Taiwan and sympathize with its causes, Li said, “[We] have to build our community first….know our identity first.” Why? “Before we try to ask for other people’s help, we need to help ourselves first.”

Liu echoes the sentiment, “In order for the world to know you, you need to know yourself first.”

Challenges in building an online community

Teresa Ye, 22, who wished to be identified by pseudonym to speak candidly about STT, expected the group to be more Taiwanese. Her parents were Taiwanese expats working for multinational companies in China, where she grew up attending both international and public schools, before attending college in China and the U.S. She finds the conversations on STT more American and Taiwanese American, often revolving around culture and language learning, returning to Taiwan, and Taiwanese politics from an international lens. Taiwan appears in a superficial, overly positive light, she said, disconnected from the struggles local Taiwanese or those committed to living in Taiwan for the long-term go through.

Indeed, the demographics of the group skews overseas, where 70% are based in the U.S., based on STT’s data. Chen admitted, “I don’t think people who live in Taiwan 100% would be that interested in our group.”

In the summer of 2020, the team began requiring all posts to go through approval before being made public to the whole community. This allowed them to better curate the content, proactively prevent rule-breaking posts, and reduce repetitive content, especially the dominance of political content.

“This is one thing we realized — there’s a lot of potential for Taiwanese memes that can be posted, but people want to post political stuff. I guess it’s more of the culture here. Taiwan’s very definition is political,” Chen said. As with any community, the question becomes, What kind of Taiwanese is this community for?

Another STT member who, for this article, asked to go by the pseudonym Christine Lin, 21, finds the community rife with “political antagonism [directed] across the strait.” She lived in China for 10 years before moving to the U.S. for college. She’s afraid the group promotes a shallow Taiwanese identity stereotyped by “boba love and anti-China” sentiment. If not combined with open discussion, this type of “political education,” she said, only promotes greater ignorance and narrow-mindedness among Taiwanese young adults.

Until January 2021, the first group rule read, “This group is mainly for positive (not exclusively) content including memes, experiences, and uplifting news about Taiwan. Refrain from posting things that damage the reputation and heritage of Taiwanese people.” The third group guideline, “No Hate or Bullying,” asked members to be civil and respectful, but that the “[r]ule does NOT apply to news posts that attack the CCP,” which would be moderated individually. The group rules have since removed these specific guidelines to instead emphasize their inclusive values.

“I know a lot of Taiwanese people in China who are really pro-China,” Ye said, though she does not share that view. STT is missing a more nuanced Taiwanese identity, she believes. The fact that the group is in English and hosted on Facebook, which is blocked in China, narrows the access to the kind of overseas Taiwanese represented in the group.

Looking ahead

The project of Taiwanese identity, in the making and discovery, is not new, or by any means exclusive to the diaspora. Settlement, imperialism, colonialism, authoritarianism, migration — all has led to a Taiwanese identity in flux, if not forcefully`` imposed at times. Even for Taiwanese who grew up in Taiwan, the struggle for identity remains. As STT has expanded, Chen has learned to weather the growing pains of managing an online community. They want to reach more diverse members, and balance their dreams for the community with what members organically make of the group.

PC_-_Merton_Li
Photo Credit: Merton Li
A Subtle Taiwanese Traits in-person meetup in Kaohsiung, 2020.

The STT community’s first year, seen broadly, has been successful and rewarding in the team’s book. One accomplishment the founders are proud of is when Li brought the virtual community to real-life by hosting an in-person meetup in Kaohsiung in 2020. Over the last Mid-Autumn Festival, STT partnered with pastry shop Jiu Zhen Nan to offer discounts on their mooncakes. “A lot of Taiwanese don’t celebrate Moon Festival,” Li said, and he wanted to encourage more people to connect with Taiwanese culture. It also planted the seed to forge future partnerships to showcase Taiwanese brands.

“[It] makes me really happy that I’m finally doing something kind of influential,” Li said, to see how active and engaged members are.

“Having the group even exist in the first place is such a great opportunity for people to just connect and feel like there’s something they can relate to, Chen said. “Before creating the group, I felt disconnected from my own culture.” Now, with a community, that’s starting to change.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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