It’s been said a million times in a million different ways: breaking up is hard to do. The Social Media Era has made what was already difficult even more so, compounding it with a minefield of agonizing decisions over whether and how to make the split public and, once it’s done, how and under what public conditions to be “friends,” if that’s even possible. In the age of ubiquitous transparency, however, sometimes those decisions are made for us, and in ways we might not have chosen had we had a say in the matter.
Last month, one young Vietnamese couple made headlines with a very public breakup that was so spectacularly awkward that it had almost every person with an Internet connection weighing in on the split. The debate spawned several parody clips — one of which itself was the inspiration for a whole separate viral phenomenon of remixes and copycats of the original parody. In the midst of all this, and perhaps inspired by it, another young couple acted out a separate spat over money on Facebook that galvanized additional millions of single young Vietnamese and was the genesis of a second, overlapping series of memes.
Keeping all of this straight — the original media posts, the spiraling and interweaving themes, the layers-within-layers of meaning that successive images, clips, and remixes contained, and the huge diversity of social media sites and platforms across which it has all played out, might confuse even the savviest of Vietnamese observers. For those non-natives on the outside looking in, it’s probably a lot like the old adage about the duck: seemingly placid on the surface, but paddling furiously underneath the level of easy observation.
“The entire series of recursive and self-referential meta-commentary is like a fun-house mirror reflecting the fragmented, overlapping, and wildly anarchic state of Vietnam’s online social media culture at the moment.”
Each of these incidents, and the online reactions that followed, says something about the changing nature of romance in this rapidly developing society, and especially about the role money should play in it. But taken together as a single, massively hybrid phenomenon going through a lightening-fast series of mutations, the entire series of recursive and self-referential meta-commentary is like a fun-house mirror reflecting the fragmented, overlapping, and wildly anarchic state of Vietnam’s online social media culture at the moment. Which, in our view, is a wonderful thing.
Let’s start at the beginning: In mid-November, a young, upper-middle class Hanoi woman posted to YouTube a clip taken with her phone camera of her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend paying her family a visit. The purpose of his visit was not merely to announce the end of their relationship but to collect all of the gifts he had given her during their time together. As if that weren’t awkward enough, the girl’s parents are present as well, offering a scathing play-by-play on the encounter. After being made to turn over the jewels and rings his daughter had been given by the boy, the girl’s father insists on also returning 2 million VND (about $50) the boy had once spent on a fruit basket for the family. “I’ve lived all my life without dirty money,” the father can be heard saying. “I don’t need yours.”
Within a day the clip had achieved epic viral status across Vietnamese web, and it quickly inspired a deluge of remixes, template memes, parody clips, and parodies of the parodies. A common theme of the many discussions the clip generated was, as many saw it, the shocking lack of respect the young man displayed in severing an established relationship. There was also plenty of shame for the girl who stooped to recording and posting the incident. But at least as common were comments bemoaning the unwelcome role that money and material wealth played in making a distasteful incident even more crass and unpleasant.
The original clip also proved inspiration for dozens of videoblog rants for Vietnamese bloggers and for parody and sketch artists, who took the age-old dichotomy at the root of the incident — love or money — and gave it a contemporary Vietnamese updating. One Vietnamese musician wrote a song he named “Anh Khong Doi Qua” (i.e. I Don’t Take Gifts Back) and posted it to Zing.me, a leading music social media site in Vietnam. The song marked an entirely new life, and a new trajectory, for the narrative up to that point. A creative team took the song and built a titillating video around it featuring two mid-level celebrities in Vietnam. Also called “Anh Khong Doi Qua” and set to the music of that song, the video features an attractive woman, who’s just been dumped by her boyfriend, walking along a street and shedding articles of clothing, as if returning them to the boy who bought them for her. Meanwhile, an impoverished paramour walks beside her singing, “Love me babe! If we break up, I won’t ask for gifts back. I love you. I won’t take gifts back.”
Almost instantly, remixes and reimaginings of the video parody began sprouting like mushrooms after a summer rain. One, for example, from a Vietnamese online sketch comedy troupe, ends with the ‘woman’ revealing she’s already married.
Another popular version reversed the gender roles:
A Chinese version saw the phenomenon leap national and linguistic borders:
The viral sensation even jumped the online rails into real world media outlets, such as this one, shown on broadcast TV channel VTV3:
Currently, a search for “Anh Khong Doi Qua” on YouTube alone yields 19,500 results of one kind or another. Granted, a significant part of this meme’s popularity as a video clip surely has to do with the fact that its female stars take off most of their clothes while walking down a public thoroughfare — something that in Vietnam is still considered scandalous to the point of taboo. But there’s also something about the increasing intersection of romance and wealth that seems to touch a nerve, especially among Vietnamese youth.
“A significant part of this meme’s popularity as a video clip surely has to do with the fact that its female stars take off most of their clothes while walking down a public thoroughfare.”
In the midst of the online furor over this ugly breakup and the video phenomenon that mirrored it, another young Vietnamese couple started a separate but related melee over the role of money in modern love. One evening in late November, a young Vietnamese girl posted the following status to her Facebook profile: “A guy should never ask out a girl with only 100,000 VND.” The boy in question responded in his own page status by claiming that the girl and her friends had taken advantage of him and were merely money-hungry hags. Converted to U.S. dollars, 100,000 VND is equivalent to about $5. But among the great majority of ordinary Vietnamese, $5 is a considerable sum — easily enough to feed a low-income working family for a couple of days. Internet commenters jumped to the defense of both the boy or the girl. The conflict raged across all manner of social media platforms, again turning on the role of money among Vietnam’s increasingly affluent middle-class youth.
Coming as it did in the middle of the excitement over the breakup meme, local parodists couldn’t resist such low-hanging fruit (as it were), often conflating the two themes (or even more) into a single meme.
Neither strain of these two interrelated meme lines seems likely to die out soon, and the underlying point of friction — one that has been playing out in China for several years now — will only continue to become more prevalent as the many imperatives of wealth and status in Vietnam butt up against traditional notions of Confucian behavior and gender roles here.