Lillyanne Pham with Kim Dürbeck
I’ve focused on offline place-based cultural practices in my past interviews; nevertheless, a large part of my art practice interweaves online and offline neighborhoods. For my last interview this school year, I wanted to highlight the power of digital cultural work, specifically an online neighborhood special to my heart; @vietnamemes__, created by Kim Dürbeck in 2017 on Instagram. Kim is a Norwegian-Vietnamese creative who has brought worldwide Vietnamese communities together through music and memes. The following interview expands on the impact of, the values behind, and possibilities of his memes.
Lillyanne Pham: How did @vietnamemes__ start and how does it function or where does the content come from?
Kim Dürbeck: I started doing memes because I used to work the night shift. It was very boring and I guess I had to be creative. I was chatting with my friend and I decided to make a meme to send to her. It was this meme; my very first meme.
It combines a trend “Netflix and Chill” with a Vietnamese legacy “Paris by Night.” I guess we all have “Paris by Night and Chill.” We all, as Vietnamese diaspora, grew up with the show and we know, “Netflix and Chill.” It kind of makes you feel like home in trending humor. I was very strict about not making fun of us as Southeast Asians, as most memes used to be back then. Humor like… “Only straight A students are Asian” or “All Southeast Asians are doctors and lawyers.” I wanted to focus on nước mắm, all the beautiful culture we have, and then present and combine all the richness of our culture in a Western world.
Lillyanne: Here is a photo of my mom’s reaction to one of the memes you posted. I regularly send them to her but she doesn’t always get it. As you can see, she “disliked” it. What have been the various relationships you’ve made through the memes? What kind of conversations are created around the memes?
Kim: I connected with many Viets who grew up around Europe. We connected because most of us were children from refugees. We all were in the same situation – parents coming to a new country having to start their life over again. Kids being bullied for being different. Everything on a budget. The struggle with growing up with trauma, PTSD, parents yelling at you, social control, different levels of assimilation, violence, saving money, and of course, combining our food habits with everything. Nước mắm all everything.
These topics were the beginning. I started only to get followers from Europe. A lot of people texted me and wrote that they could see themselves in the memes. This encouraged me to go forward and keep making memes. A lot of people texted me like, “Hello, I grew up in a small city outside (a capital city) and I was bullied,” or “My parents never understood me. Thank you for sharing memes. It makes me feel less lonely and understand my culture,” or “It makes me understand,” or “Cherish my culture even more.”
I guess I could find the similar pattern in our second generation by just referring to my own third culture or upbringing. I started to reach an even bigger audience when people started sharing. I reached Paris, Berlin, Canada, America and so on. I even chatted with the Vietnamese diaspora in Latin America and Iceland. Then jokes were, “OMG do you have nước mắm on tacos over there?” or “Iceland is so cold the nước mắm is always frozen around here!”
Then I hit another audience–Vietnamese students studying abroad; a whole new generation of lonely Vietnamese students texting me, “I miss Việt Nam so much and I am here all alone and I can’t go home,” because of Covid or economic reasons. Vietnamese students developing their identity abroad.
Many of these Việts also discover musical or art culture abroad. And I was combining music and memes where I often reach creative Vietnamese people. I try not to use too much of a commercial approach because I want to support the Vietnamese people who don’t get a lot of support from home because their parents never understand what they want to accomplish. For me, it’s very important to be yourself no matter what kind of culture you grew up with. Like, if you are Vietnamese, you could get pushed into studies you really don’t want to go for. Or these unwritten norms about how a Vietnamese person should be. I think it is important to support people to break out of the stereotype and go for alternative art, music or business. I think the humor and memes make this clear subconsciously or obviously, and maybe people can find themselves in the humor that also motivates them to go their own way for personal development.
I used my platform (@vietnamemes__) to discover and promote these individuals. This inspires and motivates more people in either fashion, modeling, music, art or food. I think it is a duty we all should have to support each other and our Vietnamese worldwide community.
Lillyanne: As a traveling artist actively researching different Vietnamese diasporas, what has impacted you most on your ancestral journey?
Kim: As a traveling artist pushing modern Vietnamese culture, I met a lot of people supporting the memepage and community. I was recognized in the streets and in the stores for my meme page and they often mention my music as well. I’m sure my music got more attention because of the meme community. I also developed some kind of aesthetics around the memes. And the way I post combined with my music– I started to get connections and invitations all over the world.
I also push Vietnamese electronic music in my stories and in my videos. So, other Vietnamese people can discover that, if you are Vietnamese, growing up like we all did, going for your dreams, you are not alone. People found each other, started working together, or even building each other. For me, it was so nice to see that there are so many like me all over the world. We understand each other. I think we have been longing to be understood; therefore, we support each other and end up working together somehow. For me, the art of music and DJing has been my platform. So many talented Vietnamese artists that I never would have found if it wasn’t for the community.
Lillyanne: How do technologies (digital or not) fit in your ancestral journey?
Kim: Social media has been everything. I know most Vietnamese people in Việt Nam use Facebook. But, if you are a little more curious, or from the newer generation, they choose Instagram and the next generation, TikTok. Digital has been the ultimate tool to build this community. I don’t think I would reach this level without digital tools. I think I was right on time to make @vietnamemes__ on Instagram when I think about how our second generation grew up and dived into Instagram. There will probably be different platforms where they need a community in the future. Maybe, there will be a metaverse Vietnamese community in 3D in the future where we sit on the floor eating dried squid and listening to Cải lương techno. Who knows?
And humans can’t live on Earth because of nuclear war. So humans travel to different planets. And the Vietnamese human diaspora choose Venus because it’s cheaper and you can grow herbs and fish much easier because of the weather or something. And Venus always has grocery sales in the supermarkets. Maybe Venus becomes the next Vietnamese planet just because Việts adapt so well.
But, without having to joke about this galactic Việt diaspora, I can say that digitally I have connected. Physically, I have traveled to various countries and met people just like me with the same upbringing. We ate together and talked about the same challenges we all had as the Vietnamese diaspora: how hard it can be to understand our parents’ mental health and our mental health and then try to make it work for everybody, how food is our love language and sometimes money but not talking about feelings, how people were bullied in elementary school or at work for being different, or topics about how hard it can be to be gay, or just talking or learning about sex in the Vietnamese community.
After a while, I combined my memes with pictures from google and then people started sending me memes to make it grow bigger. I have a combination of people sending me and creating memes from pictures I find online. Sometimes, I add a funny text or just the picture speaks for itself.
Lillyanne: When I see your memes, I know the references. They are on the tip of my tongue. I often think about how I never would’ve been able to make these connections in one meme. I grew up for eighteen years in a small town without knowing much about Vietnamese people outside of my family. Now, I live in the largest Vietnamese population in the US. But how I experience my culture is always hard for me to explain. What/Who/Where are your influences in shifting Vietnamese humor and music before you started making? And also your influences in your practice?
Kim: The influences came from my own upbringing and what I experienced myself. Vietnamese people are so strong in “doing it our own way.” I guess it brings a lot for us to see and laugh about that. Maybe we think it’s funny because we have both of our feet in the Western and Vietnamese culture. For us, we see a washing machine on a motorbike and we’re shocked, but for them it’s just moving a washing machine. I also follow a lot of Vietnamese accounts because in the beginning when I started the meme account I followed all Vietnamese people I could see on Instagram.
Lillyanne: I love how you talk about being basically a digital cultural worker, shifting how memes are produced about us and how humor can expand conversations on so many levels of our lives. Was this always your intention or did you discover this part of your practice during the process? Do you have plans to grow or change your meme and music practice in the future? Are you experimenting with other mediums or ideas?
Kim: I would say it changes all the time with the trends. My music also changes through time, it has happened before. Yes, I would say that I discovered this part during the process.
Kim Thanh Ngo aka Kim Dürbeck, Born 5 of October 1986. Norwegian-Vietnamese producer, composer and practitioner based in Sandefjord, Norway. Co-runs independent record label LEK REC based in Oslo. Play and produce electronic music like Ambient, urban club music, Experimental club music and scoring commercials or theater.
Lillyanne Phạm (b. 1997; LP/they/bạn/she/em/chị) is a cultural organizer and artist living and working in so-called East Portland. Their personal work centers on ancestral wayfinding, nesting, and communicating. Her current collaborative projects are a queer teen artist residency program at Parkrose High School, a canopy design for Midland Library, and a youth program at Portland’5 Centers for the Arts. LP’s work has been supported by Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, Mural Arts Institute, the Regional Arts and Culture Council, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, the City Arts Program – Portland, and the Dorothy Piacentini Endowed Art Scholarship. For more work visit: https://linktr.ee/lillyannepham
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