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'I was in it for the memes': How Subtle Asian Dating sparked unexpected lasting relationships

“I would always see other people posting their friends," one group member said. "And I’d be like, ‘Wow, I wonder if anything happens.’"
Jenny Ly and Michael Dulay
Jenny Ly and Michael Dulay met through Subtle Asian Dating in 2020.Courtesy Jenny Ly and Michael Dulay

Like most casual Facebook users, 26-year-old Jenny Ly had joined Subtle Asian Dating hoping to have fun and potentially meet new friends. Little did she know the online community would lead her to her boyfriend.

Three years after it was launched and more than 650,000 members later, the Facebook group Subtle Asian Dating, a matchmaking platform for Asians around the world, has become a birthplace of marriages, engagements and a slew of long-term relationships.

It emerged as a spinoff of a group founded in 2018 by a group of Australian teenagers, Subtle Asian Traits, which shot to popularity — with more than 2 million members as of this year — as a hub for memes and discourse about the Asian diaspora experience.

Subtle Asian Dating is one of numerous spinoff groups adopting the “Subtle Asian” banner for interests ranging from dating to fashion to cooking.

A friend of Ly’s had posted her in the group as an “auction”: the group's equivalent of a dating profile, often composed by a friend and offering a facetious list of pros and cons about the person being 'auctioned,' along with a set of photos.

When 27-year-old Michael Dulay, who lived an hour away, found the post and messaged Ly on Instagram, the two started chatting platonically. But after a series of virtual Netflix hangouts and, eventually, Covid-cautious outdoor dates, an unexpected romance blossomed. The Southern California couple moved in together within six months of meeting online. Now, they’ve adopted a puppy.

“We never expected anything to come from it. I was in it for the memes,” Ly said. “But with the right person, things just feel right … Michael proved to me that if someone really loved you, they would show it. I’ve never felt more myself in a relationship before than with Michael.”

To Dulay, who said their love story had practically fallen into their laps, Ly serves as the "North Star” inspiring him to become the best version of himself. A real relationship can burgeon from the group, he said, if users are genuine about their intentions from the start.

Jenny Ly and Michael Dulay.
Jenny Ly and Michael Dulay.Jenny Ly and Michael Dulay

Pathik Gandhi, 30, was living in Chicago when he reached out to Iowa City-based Destinee Soubannarath Gwee, 28, after seeing her auctioned in the group. The two were hesitant to meet up during 2020, before Covid vaccines became available, but hourslong FaceTime dates convinced them it was worth preparing for a visit.

The relationship moved quicker than either had expected: both met each other’s families within their first few in-person dates and, by last June, they were engaged.

Living in a predominantly white area, Soubannarath Gwee said dating apps didn’t present a wide selection of Asian matches. But the global reach of Subtle Asian Dating enabled her to find Gandhi.

“I just figured it’d be a good idea to just try it out and see what would happen,” she said. “I don’t know if I was expecting to literally find the person I was going to marry off of a Facebook group.”

Destinee Soubannarath Gwee and Pathik Gandhi
Destinee Soubannarath Gwee and Pathik Gandhi.Giulia Vasta

Yet because the platform — and its related spinoff groups — includes hundreds of thousands of users from anywhere in the world, distance can also make it more difficult to form connections. That was a hurdle for 29-year-old Vy Ly and 27-year-old Patricia Poon, who lived 1,200 miles apart when they met on Subtle Queer Asian Dating+, a spinoff group of SAD.

Ly was living in Las Vegas when she met Vancouver-based Poon at the end of 2018, and the two — who married in April last year — now live together in Los Angeles, a city both had long dreamed of moving to.

Less than two months after they began talking online, the pair’s first disagreement forced them to confront how they felt about each other. When Poon worried Ly might be questioning the viability of a long-distance relationship, she “panicked” and booked the next available flight to Vegas to see Ly.

“I took a day off work so I could extend the weekend, and I think I was probably there within 24 hours,” Poon said.

The couple said they were fortunate to have been able to afford international flights every month, and then to both work remotely once the pandemic hit, which enabled them to move in together in Vegas.

Both said the Facebook group served initially as respite for those who don’t live in a large queer community. Neither was expecting to find dates, let alone love. But Ly caught Poon’s attention when she introduced herself in the group in hopes of making friends.

“I just found her post very endearing, a little dorky, very funny,” Poon said. “I was like, okay, let’s just send this pretty girl some memes and see what happens.”

Patricia Poon and Vy Ly.
Patricia Poon and Vy Ly.Emily Lau

Some couples, like 21-year-old Winnie Chen and 26-year-old Oliver Cee, are still making long distance work. When they first met through SAD at the start of 2020, she was in Chicago while he was in Toronto. Still, they began talking — and within a month, Cee told Chen he wanted to take her on a date.

“I thought he was joking because he lived all the way in Toronto. I was like, no way this is going to happen,” Chen said. “He said that he was serious, and I said, ‘OK, if you’re serious, then come over.’”

So, come over he did: Cee took a couple of days off work and made the 12-hour drive. Despite her uncertainty about the distance, Chen said all her feelings and rationale convinced her to take a leap of faith.

The pandemic’s initial international travel restrictions kept them apart for nearly a year, but now the two see each other during Chen’s school breaks. They have a plan, she said, for moving in together after her graduation and alternating between life in the United States and Canada.

“[The distance] was hard, but I think the thing that kept us going was just being able to talk to each other, showing that we care about each other and being able to call every day,” Chen said. “I got really lucky. I know that’s not the case for a lot of people: I’m the only one out of all my Asian friends that was actually successful in finding a partner [through the group]."

Oliver Cee and Winnie Chen
Oliver Cee and Winnie Chen.Oliver Cee and Winnie Chen

Despite the drawbacks of such a large network, couples said one perk of Subtle Asian Dating is the ability to scope out others' views and values before deciding whether to start a conversation. Particularly active users are more likely to draw attention, whether through posting or commenting in the group, from potentially suitable matches.

But like Subtle Asian Traits, Subtle Asian Dating and its spinoffs have received criticism for their emphasis on the East Asian experience. Groups like Subtle Curry Dating, self-titled by and targeted more specifically at South Asians, aim to help close the representation gap.

Fatimah Sarwar, 22, had always imagined herself with a tall, curly-haired man with a “nice beard.” So when Arman Mridha, 23, slid into her Instagram DMs, Sarwar was floored: “I was just like, ‘Oh, my God!’ It felt like my Prince Charming.”

She had auctioned off her friend on Subtle Curry Dating, but Mridha found himself wondering about the woman who made the post instead. “Not to be like Joe from ‘You,’” he said, but he knew he wanted to meet her.

“I was just thinking, ‘Should I message her?’ And I kept thinking about it, but I ended up not doing it,” Mridha said. “And then one day I was at work and I was like, ‘You know what, I just can’t keep putting it off. I just got to do it.' So then I sent her this really long DM.”

As Mridha tossed his phone aside and waited in anticipation, Sarwar was immediately struck by the sincerity of the message that had just popped up on her screen. That was January 2019. Last July, the two New York City residents became husband and wife.

“First joining, I had no expectations. I just thought it would be a funny Facebook group that would eventually turn into just meme posting,” Mridha said. “I would always see other people posting their friends and I’d be like, ‘Wow, I wonder if anything happens.’ And then I saw her and I was like, ‘OK, let me try.’”

Fatimah Sarwar and Arman Mridha
Fatimah Sarwar and Arman Mridha.Jayma Orin

On the other side of the world in Australia, 27-year-old Bradley Prasad and 24-year-old Ranika Nath might have never run into each other despite living 15 minutes apart in Sydney. But Subtle Curry Dating brought them together one day in early 2020 as Prasad scrolled through Facebook on his way to work.

He said Nath, who had just been auctioned on the group by a friend, stood out in the sea of posts. After reading her "pros and cons" list and realizing she was exactly who he was looking for, Prasad conjured up a witty opening and scored a dumpling date.

The couple is now slated to wed in April.

Ranika Madhuri Nath and Bradley Prasad.
Ranika Nath and Bradley Prasad.Stuck in a Moment Photography

Though putting oneself out there on a platform as public as Facebook can be intimidating, Prasad said, the rewards can be just as intense. With users scattered all around the globe, members never know when a conversation — whether with someone a continent away or right next door — might unfold into a happily-ever-after. 

“People will think, ‘Oh, is that a real relationship [if they met online]? They’re not going to last.’ But it works,” Prasad said. “We’re not the only couple that’s gone through this. It’s worked for lots of people, and it will keep working because we show that it works and people want what we have, which is good.”