Lilica Hasegawa admits she harboured feelings of “embarrassment and shame” and even “internalised racism” while growing up in Hornsby on the upper North Shore of Sydney, Australia. But it was only after the death of her father that she realised she wasn’t alone.
The daughter of a Chinese father and Japanese mother, her dad’s death from brain cancer in April 2018 brought on waves of guilt, but the 23-year-old found herself unable to express her grief to even her closest friends.
It wasn’t until more than a year later that Hasegawa bared her soul — to 1.5 million strangers who she knew would understand.
“I’ve been debating whether or not to share this but I’ve needed to talk about it for a while, and with predominantly white friends and community I just don’t have a lot of people in my life that would understand,” she wrote in Subtle Asian Traits (SAT) Facebook group in August 2019.
SAT has not only helped her grapple with grief and cultural identity in one of the most painful moments of her life, but it has been life-changing to its other members as it explores intercultural relationships, mental health and racism.
Founded by nine Australian students in September 2018, SAT has become the platform for Asians to share their cultural experiences. From bubble tea memes to personal accounts of intercultural relationships, it has become particularly popular with Asian Australians and Asian Americans, and even counts celebrities amongst its members.
For Hasegawa, speaking about her late father in a forum like SAT has not only been a part of her grieving process, but helped her “better understand and appreciate my culture”.
Hasegawa told the group she had “resented” her dad for being a “stereotypical strict Asian parent”, but as she grew up she “realised like many other Asian parents, mine were hard workers and sacrificed a lot for their kids”.
She also shared a final audio message from her father, that he’d recorded for her in Japanese and Cantonese. The next 48 hours after sharing were emotional for Hasegawa, who received 50 messages of support from complete strangers who had read her post.
Internalised racism is often sparked when one begins questioning their cultural identity and worth after buying into society’s criticism and stereotypes about their culture. This is something Hasegawa says she has experienced over the years.
“Growing up in Australia with predominantly Caucasian friends, I definitely harboured some internalised racism which to me was embarrassment and shame,” Hasegawa told HuffPost Australia. “I think that came from a lack of understanding and appreciation and trying to fit in. What I like about Subtle Asian Traits is that it’s really helped me overcome that.
Hasegawa said the community has made her proud of things she used to be ashamed about and help her better understand her culture. “Especially because now my dad is gone, I feel like I’m slowing losing touch with my Chinese side and I miss out on a lot of things such as Chinese New Year. Having SAT post things continuously and celebrate things even with humour that I identify with and can relate to, reminds me that I still have that part of me.”
Angela Kang, 23, one of Subtle Asian Trait’s founders, remembers Hasegawa’s moving post. SAT “just feels like something that was missing for so long, and we didn’t realise we needed it until it was here,” she said.
Anne Gu, another co-founder of the group, which celebrates its first birthday this month, still remembers when she and her friends from school started SAT out of “procrastination”.
“There’s a Facebook group called Subtle Private School traits and we thought, what if we made an Asian one just for fun, because we were sending each other fun, little Asian traits on in a group chat,” the 19-year-old said.
“So we made the group and added all our Asian friends to it. It was more like procrastination at that time because we were all in year 12.”
Fast forward 12 months and the group’s almost 1.5 million members include more than 600,000 from the US, and more than 300,000 from Australia, plus others from Canada, Europe and of course, Asia. That’s more than five times the number of members Subtle Private School Traits currently has.
“I think why Subtle Asian Traits has become so successful is because there’s never really been a platform [before] for people to share these stories, jokes and struggles,” said Gu. “All of a sudden there’s a safe and non-judgmental space for people to say what they want and people will be like, ‘we’ve never really talked about it, but finally someone’s talking about it’. Sometimes we all struggle figuring out our own Asian identity within our daily lives.”
Of all the posts shared over the past year, Gu says there’s one that has resonated with members far more than others. Clarence Tan posted in the group earlier this month, opening up about the struggles he faced when he introduced his parents to his partner, Edna, who was born in Uganda but moved to Ghana at a young age, before relocating to the US 10 years ago.
“As you can imagine, dating a black/African woman isn’t always welcomed with open arms in Chinese/Asian culture. And sure enough, when I started dating my then-gf [now wife], I had kick back from my parents— especially from my dad,” Tan wrote in the group.
He explained that despite the hurdles, he chose to stay with his partner and push through, and “after three years of dating, we finally tied the knot with my family’s full support— especially my dad’s”.
“It was difficult but 100% worth— since she’s the one,” he wrote.
In less than a month the post has attracted over 100,000 likes and 11,000 comments. Co-founder Gu says she’s been “really excited” by how well the post was received in the group.
“I remember reading it and I was like, ‘Oh my god’! The amount of support and comments he got in reply to that, I’ve never seen anything blow up like that.”
Tan says he decided to share his and Edna’s story after seeing other posts about “interracial Asian couples”.
“While sharing Edna and I’s tea ceremony picture, I was looking at all the other couples and wondered what their story was, so I decided to share ours,” he said.
“I think that it [SAT] helps us Asians keep in touch through the sharing and tagging of each other in posts with material that are relatable to personal experiences or brought up in recent conversations.”
The group has also captured the attention of celebrities around the world, including Kim’s Convenience actor Simu Liu, comedian Hasan Minhaj and Crazy Rich Asians star Chris Pang.
“Go on there and have a good time. I think it’s an opportunity for different cultures to find their identity and connect with other people. There is a sense of community,” Pang told HuffPost Australia.
“It’s kind of the same idea as why Crazy Rich Asians had such a great impact, because there was this longing for unity that was never fulfilled. Crazy Rich Asians came out and there was an opportunity for everybody to experience that together and then to be talking about it and seeing themselves represented. Anything that can help ethnic minorities gain insight into their identity, I think that’s a positive thing.”
However, along with SAT’s immense success over the past 12 months have come its challenges. The volume of submissions to the group page continues to increase, and its young, Australian founders have had to be strategic about how they moderate and approve posts.
“Last month our whole team approved around 30,000 posts,” said Kang.
“We have eight admins but we have a massive team of moderators who help out because it’s impossible to have just eight of us focusing on a post on top of everything else,” Gu also said, explaining between 1,000 and 2,000 posts get approved each day.
“We’ve set rules and done mini crash courses on what to accept and what not to. We have a massive group chat with 40 people in it who we are constantly communicating with. If there’s anything we’re not sure about, we just ask in the group chat.”
While SAT’s popularity has led to celebrity shout-outs, an invite to speak at California’s Facebook HQ and in-person member meet-ups, maintaining authenticity has been somewhat of a challenge at times.
“People have reached out and want to slap the SAT logo on things,” said Kang, who believes it’s important for members to know what’s authentic SAT merchandise and other products that are capitalising on the name.
Commercialising SAT could be tempting. The group has been offered large sums by potential buyers, but Gu says that’s not an option at this stage.
“Every now and then we’ll do giveaways, that’s the extent we’ll go to because at the end of the day, we still just want it to be what it is right now,” she said. “We never take a deal or offer that doesn’t benefit our audience. Every single time we do stuff, it’s like K-pop giveaways so it’s giving back to our members, or a bubble tea voucher. It’s always something Asian related and something they can enjoy themselves.”
So where to from here?
“Anything can happen in another year,” said Gu. “Right now, we still want to keep this going. We want to make sure it’s a safe and non-judgmental space where everyone can just be themselves and share personal stories.
“We receive so many touching, funny, relatable submissions. It just means a lot to all of us and without everyone’s openness and willingness to share, this group would not have been as successful as it is today.”