In October, a University of Washington student who goes by the pseudonym “Hella Chen” joined the megaviral Facebook group Subtle Asian Traits. The group, which has garnered more than 1 million members and received a flurry of mainstream media coverage, is essentially an image board for memes that illustrate the subtle tics that come with living as an Asian in a Western society.
Hella decided that she wanted to form a group focused on dating after seeing that the topic was generating a lot of comments on Subtle Asian Traits, to the point of overpowering other conversations. She also thought that, unlike Subtle Asian Traits, this dating page could be a way for people to actually meet in real life.
Hella recruited some friends and formed an unofficial offshoot called Subtle Asian Dating, or SAD, in November. It began as a 10-person group but started attracting thousands of followers within the first few weeks, mostly due to the newfound demand for groups that have “Subtle Asian” in the title. When a meme promoting the group gained traction in Subtle Asian Traits, users flocked to it in droves. By Wednesday, it had more than 310,000 members, primarily from the U.S., Canada, and Australia, according to an informal public poll. SAD is now one of the largest offshoots of Subtle Asian Traits, elucidating the absurdities and anxieties that come with dating as an Asian in a Western society.
SAD is a hub where people can “auction” off their single friends by posting dating profiles. Most posts consist of basic physical and education stats, a list of pros and cons, and a reel of candid photos. “I’ll call it the resume format: they have to go to a prestigious school, have a nice job, etc. But then we also added our own modern spice to it,” says Jonny Kounnavong, a student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro who has a profile in the group. He notes that many of the selling points on profiles seem geared toward what “our parents would want in a significant other.”
A number of people on the page have likened Subtle Asian Dating to marriage markets, which are matchmaking events popular on weekends in Beijing and Shanghai. Parents of singles in China convene in public parks with the hopes of arranging dates for their children by displaying placards that list information like height, salary, education, and requirements for suitors. While less commitment-focused and decidedly raunchier, SAD is perhaps best described as a virtual marriage market for millennials of the Asian diaspora.
But despite the apparent purpose of SAD to facilitate IRL courtship, the page more often seems to serve as an outlet for people to lightly roast their single friends. Much like Subtle Asian Traits, the tenor of SAD is tongue-in-cheek, with a satirical self-awareness of Asian stereotypes. Inside jokes, harvested from the collective experience of growing up Asian in a white society, abound. Dating profiles boast about GPAs, elite colleges, challenging STEM degrees, dual citizenship, mastery of instruments, endorsements from tiger parents, and fluency in Asian languages. Common cons include Asian glow (the phenomenon in which some Asians turn red while drinking due to an enzyme mutation), lactose intolerance (common among Asians), preoccupation with school or work, and failure to qualify for math olympiads.
“No one really takes the pros and cons seriously. They’re meant as an inside joke,” says Austin Jia, a Duke student who has a profile on the page. “It’s funny to laugh at how [things like banking and pre-med] are valued by society more so than by individuals, and to acknowledge the stereotypes without making them toxic.”
Subtle Asian Dating largely does away with the subtlety that is at the core of Subtle Asian Traits. Users are fond of all caps and hyperbole, and posts brim with emoji. Particularly popular are the eggplant and droplet emoji, usually for punctuation just in case you don’t catch the innuendo of a phrase like “Is a Master of the Harp and Piano, those fingers can get you going.” The attributes of prospective partners are often described in terms of boba (aka bubble tea): This wealthy bae can afford boba for you and your friends; this down to earth bae is content with a chill boba date; this bae works at a boba shop and can hook you up with freebies.
There’s also a certain lingo that comes with the territory. Much of this stems from the fact that a sizeable contingent of the users also seems to be a part of the booming Asian EDM festival scene, with numerous posts advertising “ravebaes.” Singles are also identified as ABG’s (an amorphous term, most succinctly put as Asian women who exude a Kardashian-esque presence) or “wholesome” (a term attesting to an individual’s quaintness and moral repute). Users often warn of “cuffing season”—the time of year between October and March when people look to be “cuffed” in a relationship to ward off the chilly isolation that winter begets.
The users who spoke to Slate about their interactions with the page overwhelmingly described it as a positive experience. “I feel like everyone should be their friends’ hypeman and persuade them to get auctioned,” said Kounnavong, whose post received nearly 2,000 reactions. He said that 52 people sent him direct messages but that he’s “not actually trying to date, just doing it for fun.”
Paula Hsu, a pastry chef in Taiwan, woke up on Thursday to find dozens of direct messages on Facebook and Instagram from suitors she’d never met. Initially bewildered, she soon found out that her best friend, Christina Lo, had secretly created a post advertising her on SAD. “I was actually a little bit pissed at her because some of the pictures she posted I wasn’t super keen on,” Hsu said.
Yet, the post was fairly popular, and she received more than 80 DMs. She says that she’s been casually chatting with four or five people as a result. One of her suitors is even coming to Taiwan next week, and they might meet up “if our schedules work out.” She now plans to return the favor, though she’s waiting to catch Lo off guard.
Alan Chen, an MIT student who also has a profile on the page, says SAD appeals to him as a space to date and discuss relationships unencumbered by the expectations set upon Asians in Western countries. “A significant number of posts on Subtle Asian Traits were aimed at the difficulties that Asian people face when trying to date in Western societies and I think that Subtle Asian Dating is a direct response to that frustration,” he said. Chen observed that Asian women have often spoken out about fetishization, while Asian men complain about being seen as undesirable.
Hella Chen says she is now, ironically, unable to pursue a relationship because she’s been so busy moderating Subtle Asian Dating. She was spending 50 to 60 hours per week on the page when it started to take off. “I was getting around two hours of sleep, and then I would go to class the next day,” she said. “But even in class, I was still reviewing the group.”
Admins have begun running ads on the page to cover the cost of spending their time moderating and to subsidize meetups in cities like Tel Aviv, Honolulu, and Antwerp.
Hella has noticed some troubling trends as the group continues to grow. For example, a vast majority of the dating profiles feature über-accomplished young Asian professionals and students with centerfold physiques. She worries that the high concentration of conventional beauty and professional success in the dating profiles might scare off “potatoes,” a term for normal people. “Similar to a potato, we kind of just exist,” said Hella, who says she identifies with the term. “While we’ve been sleeping and eating, someone else has been getting into Harvard, MIT, all these fancy schools and getting that six-figure salary.” She’s also seen that a lot of Instagram models try to use SAD to increase their exposure, which is permitted but does tend to promote unrealistic expectations of beauty. Hella admitted that, at one point, even she would have been uncomfortable interacting with the group were she not an admin. “It’s unfortunately how normal people feel amongst these gods and goddesses.”
Even more perturbing is the harassment and ad hominem attacks that bubble up at times in comment sections. Hella is concerned that this toxicity has contributed to the lack of representation among South Asian, Southeast Asian, and LGBTQ people. Users who don’t normally get a lot of visibility on SAD have branched off to form groups like Subtle Curry Dating and Subtle Queer Asian Dating. “You can’t get someone who hasn’t been posting to post if the group is toxic, if they don’t feel like they belong,” she said.
These issues, though, are less severe than they used to be. The admins have instituted strict guidelines around harassment and hate speech, and they now approve every post before it goes up. They’ve also been trying to promote more potato positivity with pride days for people who don’t fit the general aesthetic of the page.
“I’ve seen a lot more people who are like me, and they aren’t getting torn apart in the comments,” Hella said. “It’s been great to see that positive culture take hold.”