For some Asian communities, a meme can mean a million-member community

The viral "four generations" meme and groups like Subtle Asian Traits have provided cultural touchstones for some Asians, but it isn't always smooth meme-ing.
Illustration showing the four generation meme.
Viral videos like the "four generations" meme, which shows four generations of a family calling for one another, are part of an online culture that have helped some members of the Asian diaspora find global community.Joan Wong for NBC News / Getty Images

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By Charles Lam

People have already called it one of the “cutest” memes of 2019.

In videos believed to have been first posted on Douyin, the Chinese version of the social media video platform TikTok, a child calls for their mom or dad, who then calls for their own mom or dad, who again calls for their own mom or dad.

By the end of the video, four generations of the same family have appeared on screen, hence the trend’s name.

“This Chinese four generations meme is so wholesome,” Kassy Cho, a journalist for Buzzfeed News who frequently reports on Chinese social media, wrote on Twitter in a post sharing an example of the meme. The video embedded in the tweet, which was retweeted more than 300,000, has been viewed upwards of 18.9 million times.

“I had no idea that my tweets would blow up the way that they did or be retweeted by so many people including celebrities like Chrissy Teigen,” Cho, who said she became aware of the meme last Friday and shared it because she thought it was cute, wrote in an email to NBC News.

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“I think that part of the appeal of the four generations meme is its simplicity,” she added. “It doesn’t require an explanation nor does it rely on understanding another language or culture. Family is a universal concept that is understood by everyone around the world, and watching other people’s families can make you think about your own connection to your family, which may be why the meme has proven to be so popular. It’s also just really pure when you see the great grandparent waddle out at the end with a huge grin on their face.”

"Four generations" is the latest example of a meme originating in Asia or Asian diaspora communities resonating on the Western internet. Among other examples are the “Karma” meme (also native to Douyin and spotlit by Cho), this video compilation of a Filipino-American girl being picked up from school by her older sister, and the numerous memes from the popular Subtle Asian Traits Facebook group.

The memes have provided a cultural touchstone for both members of the Asian diaspora as well as internet users. Phil Yu, a longtime blogger on Asian-American issues at “Angry Asian Man,” shared the four generations meme, writing, “This delights me and makes me miss my grandmother.”

Subtle Asian Traits — founded by a group of young Asian Australians and focusing on the Asian diaspora experience — has found particular success, attracting more than one million members and being called a “diaspora phenomenon” and a “global hit.”

Brendan Wang, Anny Xie, Darren Qiang, Kathleen Xiao, Angela Kang, Tony Xie, six of the nine founders of the Facebook group "Subtle Asian Traits," in Melbourne, Australia, on Dec. 3, 2018. The Asian-Australian students started a Facebook group to share jokes and memes about their experiences. Now, it has nearly a million followers all over the world.Christina Simons / The New York Times via Redux

But it hasn’t been all smooth meme-ing. The Facebook group has been criticized for a variety of reasons, including catering to the lowest common denominator, focusing mostly on East Asian cultures at the expense of South and Southeast Asian cultures, and avoiding more serious topics such as social justice. (The group has rules in place against bullying, colorism and racism and encourages posters to be inclusive. Submissions are moderated and approved by a team of about 20 administrators and moderators.)

“We have noticed that, we’re not going to deny that,” Angela Kang, one of the group’s co-founders, told the New York Times in December, referencing criticism that the group focuses on Chinese and Vietnamese communities.

The memes’ apparent shortcomings have inspired some to take the initiative in starting their own groups.

Several specifically riff on Subtle Asian Traits, including Subtle Asian Dating (more than 300,000 members and focused on dating), Decolonized Subtle Asian Traits (about 1,600 members focused on social issues) and Subtle Curry Traits (approximately 246,000 members and targeted at the South Asian diaspora community).

But despite the fracturing, the main Subtle Asian Traits community remains active.

One recent post, for instance, featured an Asian-Canadian member looking for a childhood friend he said he had met more than a decade ago in “MapleStory,” an online video game popular among some groups of the Asian diaspora. Within two hours, the user had updated his post, saying that she had been found. As of Jan. 7, the post had more than 1,600 comments and more than 2,800 reactions.

"We've had inboxes from people being like: 'Hey, I've had a crap day ... there've been cultural differences between my parents and me,” Anne Gu, one of the group’s other co-founders, told BBC Australia for a Dec. 19, 2018, story. “‘Just going on this group has made me realise the experience has been shared among another half a million people and I'm not the only one going through this.'"

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