IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The chronically online third culture is redefining Asian America

How sheer exposure to a mass online community has created an undaunted, self-sufficient generation of Asian American young people.
Photo illustration: Retro computer browser windows with images of Asian American TikTok influencers and viral TikTok foods.
Lauren Schatzman / NBC News

It’s a new era in Asian America, and the TikTok generation is running it. 

Scroll a few times on your For You page and you’ll easily come across several Asian “It Girls” bringing in millions of views showing off ancient beauty rituals. A few more swipes up and you might find home cooks packing bento boxes or musicians mixing ’70s Bollywood songs with viral pop hits.

The panic of opening an ethnic lunchbox in a crowded cafeteria is dead to them. It has been traded in for videos of their moms’ recipes narrated by artificial intelligence. The teasing endured for expressive classical dances is in the rearview mirror. They’re now making money doing the same dances on the internet. 

What was once a burning thirst for representation has been satiated, even drowned, on the internet, young people said. And for a generation of Asian Americans raised on social media, whose culture has always been ill-defined, stereotyped, asterisked, relegated to the sidelines and viewed in the shadow of whiteness, coming into their own means putting a heritage they once tried to bury on full display. 

“They’re moving through the world in a way where they don’t feel like they have to explain themselves,” said Christine Bacareza Balance, the director of the Asian American studies department at Cornell University. “There’s an enjoyment of being Asian American.”

They’re moving through the world in a way where they don’t feel like they have to explain themselves."

— Christine Bacareza Balance, Cornell University Professor

Existing in two worlds, often in conflict with each other, isn’t a new concept, experts said. But there’s something different about the way those in the internet generation are navigating life. Social media in many ways has set them free from the rigidity of white society’s standards; they’ve created their own spaces, their own stars and their own expectations for how their lives might look. 

It isn’t what their parents came from; nor does it resemble the lives of their white peers. What felt like a childhood of collective identity crisis has finally settled into a quiet confidence, and many in Gen Z say they’re now comfortable, even thriving, with what they’ve found in the middle. 

Exposure changes everything

Ten years ago, flipping the channels or even scrolling on YouTube’s homepage, Asian American kids would be hard-pressed to find one or two famous faces from the community. Now on TikTok, they can easily scroll past a dozen in a few minutes. 

In contrast to the pre-2000s media that had few Asian American voices, the internet generation offered an instant-engagement, free-of-charge alternative. 

Digital communities began to form, giving birth to new kinds of stars. Facebook pages like Subtle Asian Traits made space for mutual recognition; middle schoolers who were the only Asians in their towns could now log on and talk to thousands of others. Filmmakers like Wong Fu Productions, which made Asian-centric short films, took their work to YouTube.

Suddenly, the bar for achieving representation was much lower.

“There were no longer gatekeepers. You no longer had to wait for Hollywood to greenlight you,” Balance said. 

So the chronically online third culture kid was born. And YouTube ushered in an era of Asian American celebrities who were speaking directly to them, in real time. They based their content on the experience of dealing with foreign parents, the disconnect they had with their white peers, the unique challenges of dating as first-gens. 

“They really captured how they were feeling and the things that they were experiencing in a way that mainstream media was not,” Balance said. 

Twitter in its early days lent itself to community-building, too, said Aaron Yin, 28, a comedian and content creator who co-hosts the podcast “Politically Asian!” 

“There were group chats, not just for Asian people, but also just anyone nonwhite on Twitter, because sometimes Twitter felt very white,” he said. “That kind of helped develop my consciousness a little bit more around race.”

Younger Gen Zers who became adults long after that era probably can’t remember a time when Asian social media figures weren’t around, Balance said. So when TikTok exploded, they were unflinching about stepping into that role. 

“When TikTok came around, it completely changed everything,” said Malvika Sheth, a 24-year-old Gujarati American influencer who has gained over 100,000 followers on Instagram for her fashion content. Her TikTok outfit-of-the-day videos, often featuring traditional Indian jewelry or fabrics, have collectively been viewed by millions.

Without as much as a search, relatable and fantastical people of color can appear on your For You page by the dozen — Asian people across communities and ethnicities living out every lifestyle imaginable and getting famous doing it.

Storytellers, comedians and musicians weave culture into their content in ways that feel implicit and natural, young people said. There are Asian people who show off their daily routines in Los Angeles and New York and others who live woodland fantasies. 

“It’s about the range,” Balance said. “Stories being told, emotions being expressed. What’s different for Gen Z is that there’s a kind of diversity and a heterogeneity in the stories being told.”

Yin said we’re past the point of representation for its own sake, especially if that representation is achieved by bending to a white system.

He uses his platforms to poke fun at what he sees as the wrong kind of representation; he created a list of “8 Asian American Trailblazers Who Made Things Worse,” which included designer Alexander Wang and Ajit Pai, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

“Especially with younger people I talk to, there’s not really that issue of ‘Oh, I want to see someone that looks like me,’” he said. “To be honest, when I hear that sentence, I think the person might be 35-plus.”

Asian American young people know how to create the kind of representation they want, on their own terms, and they know their culture can be a tool to get them there, not a hindrance. 

“I think just the format of short-form videos helped me express myself a lot more,” Sheth said. “Seeing other brown people doing amazing things really helped me tell myself, ‘Yeah, you’re worthy of trying for these big things.’”

And seeing TikTok’s Asian cool kids embracing their roots in public has ushered in a homecoming for many Gen Zers on the app. 

Cultural panic to acceptance

A passerby walking down Naomi Namboodiripad’s dorm hallway might hear the familiar sound of the latest in hip-hop thumping from behind her door. But inside, Namboodiripad, 21, a TikTok celebrity, is preparing for an all-out Bharatanatyam dance performance. 

Clad head to toe in an ornate South Indian blouse and skirt, she films herself doing ancient traditional steps to the beats of Beyoncé and Apollo Fresh. The video she’s recording will drop to an audience of 350,000. Views and likes often hit the millions. 

“Younger me would be shocked,” said Namboodiripad, a junior at Columbia University.

Growing up in her white suburb, she never really felt the need to hide her culture. But she remembers being teased by her white peers once when she performed Bharatanatyam for them. She never felt like there was a real forum to show off what she learned in the dance style, characterized by dramatic facial expressions, widened eyes and hand movements. 

“I just felt like I was a little bit trapped,” she said. “I did want to embrace my Indian culture, but I had no one to do it with outside of my family.”

Balance said Asian culture in Western art too often comes with an asterisk. Foods, communities, cultures and practices are spelled out for a white consumer base in painful detail. Gen Z is over it.  

“TikTok is really bringing all these cultures together that don’t know about each other, and we’re learning without having to be baby-spoon-fed,” Namboodiripad said. “Like, ‘Oh, this means this, that means that.’ None of that needs to be said.”

TikTok is really bringing all these cultures together that don’t know about each other, and we’re learning without having to be baby-spoon-fed."

— Naomi Namboodiripad, 21, Influencer

For Sheth, that means not forcing herself in either direction. In her fashion content, she often wrestles with whether she should be leaning into her Indian identity more. But ultimately, she wants her work to feel authentic to her. 

“Because of college, because of dance, because of all of these experiences, when I started creating content online, I always knew that I wanted to mix my culture in the most natural way,” she said. “Like, I don’t wear Indian clothes every day. But if I’m going somewhere casual and I feel like throwing on a jhumki, I can.”

Some say they have felt a similar transition — the cultural panic of childhood has turned into a gentle drift. Existing in the middle is becoming easier. 

Sheth sees the third culture not as just a set of practices or traits but as an unpacking and rebuilding of both the cultures she comes from. 

As her parents’ eldest daughter, for example, she sees the burden that often falls on the shoulders of Indian women in their family units. In the third culture, there’s a balance that can be achieved between that lifestyle and American individualism, she said. She pursues her own life, but she still helps her family and calls her mom multiple times every day. 

“Sometimes it’s really asking myself and telling myself not to feel guilty when I do want to do things for myself,” she said. 

Yin has turned his focus to Chinatown communities in New York City, making TikTok videos satirizing exploitation by powerful landlords and city officials. He sees comedy as an avenue for reaching young people, hopefully moving them to take real-world action. 

He takes his word to the street, picketing, organizing and protesting the issues he’s vocal about on TikTok and on his podcast. 

Young Asian creators don’t care if what they’re making is niche, they said. If they care about it, they’ll put it out into the world, and if others want to be a part of it, they’ll get on board, too. 

“I feel, like, 60% rage everyday and then 20% hope and 20% sadness,” he said. “But I don’t feel angry in, like, a hopeless way. More in a ‘I don’t want to give up’ kind of way.”