Entertainment

'Kevin Nguyen' Is the Party Boy of the Asian Meme Internet

We asked real people named Kevin Nguyen how they feel about the rise of 'Kevin Nguyen' memes.

by Bettina Makalintal
Sep 19 2019, 11:00am

Illustration by Hunter French

The "Kevin Nguyen starter kit" includes the following: one wristband to the Hard Summer Music Festival, an assortment of JUUL pods, a TikTok logo, and a cup of boba milk tea, according to a popular recent tweet. It wasn't far off in spirit from a tweet from a few weeks earlier: a shot of shirtless men posing at a festival that went viral with the caption "u yell out kevin nguyen and half of them turn around."

Across Twitter, Kevin Nguyen is the butt of so many jokes. "If ur dating a viet dude ur single to me like wtf is kevin nguyen gonna do?" said one tweet, "take u out to get boba in his lexus while listening to rave music, then talk about his supreme collection and his diamond rank on league of legends?" In a thread that reimagines the Netflix rom-com To All the Boys I've Loved Before, a character named Kevin Nguyen attends Electric Daisy Carnival, where he's identified by his six-pack abs and cocaine habit. It all has the same punchline: Kevin Nguyen is a rich, Asian raver.

But Kevin Nguyen isn't a celebrity or a social media star, or even anyone in particular. Instead, like the basic "Becky" or the bro-ey "Chad," Kevin Nguyen is a stereotype, based on nobody specific but also an amalgamation of many, some of whom might in fact be named Kevin Nguyen. Chad is a common reference, and even Beyoncé has given Becky her due, but Kevin Nguyen remains an in-joke, by and for the Asian meme internet. Circulated via Asian Twitter and Facebook groups like Subtle Asian Traits, the name has become a retort, a punchline, and a jab.

Since it was started just about one year ago, the Facebook group Subtle Asian Traits has become the locus of culturally-specific meme culture for over 1.5 million moderately online young Asians. Known as "SAT," which is clearly part of the joke, the group is where memes cross paths with commentary on diasporic tensions, first- and second-gen feelings, and parental pressures. Jokes and memes—about school and bubble tea and boys named Kevin Nguyen and never wearing one's outside shoes inside—cycle between Twitter and the Facebook SAT-sphere.

The group's popularity has no doubt fanned the flames of Kevin Nguyen's online notoriety. Per one member's own, voluntarily-done name frequency analysis, Subtle Asian Traits boasts over 12,500 members named Kevin; near 39,000 members with the last name Nguyen; and at least 307 members with the full name Kevin Nguyen, the highest frequency of any single name. That analysis seems almost entirely dedicated to validating the group's memeification of "Kevin Nguyen."

In online spaces for diasporic Asians, the name became shorthand for stereotypes of a specific subset of Asian men: young Vietnamese dudes who party, slurp boba, and show off their expensive things, while probably having a thing for vapes and EDM festivals. One might say Kevin Nguyen is the Asian party boy; others might use other terminology. "The Kevin Nguyen memes are all about being a stereotypical fuckboy," one Twitter user named Kevin Nguyen told VICE. "IDK how to word that politely hahaha."

Kevin has long been acknowledged as a common name in the Asian community, but not just that: since June 18, 2011, an Urban Dictionary entry for "Kevin Nguyen" has stated, "Most common name in the Asian world for males." Interest in that entry skyrocketed in September 2019, per a graph on Urban Dictionary's site, which seems to line up with the popularity of Kevin Nguyen memes across Twitter and Facebook.

The name's commonality prompted writer and editor Kevin Nguyen, currently at the Verge, to put forth in a 2014 piece: "We need to talk about Kevin Nguyen," the name that he quipped was shared by approximately "1,234 other guys." Undoubtedly, it's far more than that. Nguyen is the most common last name in Vietnam where it originates, and also in Australia; in the United States, it's the 38th most common, while Kevin is the 72nd most popular American male first name. "John Smith" might seem ubiquitous, but its 24,800,000 Google results pale in comparison to the 32,700,000 associated with "Kevin Nguyen." Plenty of names are common but that doesn't make them memes. Yet, "Kevin Nguyen" gained a new life online.

"The way I see it, the 'Kevin Nguyen' memes have always been a parody of how common our first and last name is," Kevin Nguyen, a recent biology graduate, told VICE in an email. "Since we usually come from the same cultural background, that means we also have similar traits (shout out to my 5’9 short kings)."

Meme culture would be lost without stereotypes. That's the entire axis on which the "starter kit" memes turn, for example: letting people infer identities or subcultures from 5-7 images. Astrology memes, meanwhile, imply shared traits based on shared birth criteria. Memes about being Vietnamese, Filipino, or even just Asian, presume shared experiences by virtue of shreds of shared cultural background. Meant to be shareable and easily digestible, memes distill things down to their lowest common denominators. In doing so, meme culture can make things that are actually quite generic feel really, really specific.

Experiences, personality types, outfits, and choices exist across the spectrum. If you choose a behavior or a quality, you can probably find someone to which it applies, from any group you can possibly name. But by finding small points of connection, the result is feeling like you're in on the joke, and in the parlance of 2019, feeling "attacked" is a good thing. Kevin Nguyen, a current student, told VICE over Twitter that while memes about his name can make him feel called out, they aren't inaccurate. "My favorite Kevin Nguyen meme is the 'Kevin Nguyen starter pack' because it honestly describes most of what I do haha," he said.

Sure, plenty of people, Asian and non-Asian, are ravers and fuckboys but aren't named Kevin Nguyen, just as plenty of people named Kevin Nguyen aren't rich or into EDM or drive a Lexus or even drink boba. But having one big inside joke that's shared in a group of 1.5 million people who are kinda like you creates a feeling of belonging that can be hard to find.

"I think the Kevin Nguyen name is symbolic for the flexing, Supreme-wearing, raving, and partying Asian boy that you see all too often," Daniel Chong, who made the "Kevin Nguyen starter kit" meme, told VICE. The meme represents the "whole Kevin Nguyen lifestyle," he said, inspired by people at a local boba shop late at night. "It’s also really funny to make jokes about [this kind of lifestyle] because you see it so often that you just HAVE to comment."

For people who share the name, the memes are unavoidable. Kev Nguyen, a fourth-year college student, goes by the shortened moniker due to "there usually being multiple Kevin's in [his] immediate setting." Kev has seen jokes about his name on Facebook's Subtle Asian Traits and Subtle Asian Ravers since last year. "I get, on average, seven people tagging me on any Kevin/Kevin Nguyen post," Kev said. "I actually got tagged by a random person once, and they didn’t realize that they tagged the wrong Kevin Nguyen."

It's similar for Kevin Nguyen, a recent Master's graduate, who recalls jokes about his name, the last name Nguyen, and "Asian people named Kevin" on Facebook and Tumblr since middle school; he gets tagged in a meme post on Subtle Asian Traits at least once a week. Kevin Nguyen, a medical student, started noticing memes about his name this year; now, he's tagged in SAT posts about once a month. Kevin Nguyen, an artist and graphic designer, receives "about 10+ tags from friends" in every viral Kevin Nguyen meme.

The responses to Kevin Nguyen memes from people named Kevin Nguyen were overwhelmingly positive. To Kev Nguyen, adding a specific name can make memes sound "more personally attacking," which "makes [them] funnier because we all know a Kevin Nguyen, or at least a Kevin." For Kevin Nguyen, the Master's graduate, it's not just funny, but flattering. "The fact that my name is basically a trademark, community, whatever you want to describe it, that in itself is pretty cool to me," he said.

The silly stereotypes might poke fun at some people's realities, but according to others, the stereotype can be a way of also highlighting something more problematic. One Twitter user associated the generic Kevin Nguyen with Asian American men who "do hard drugs, say the n-word." Used like that, "Kevin Nguyen" can be a jab, used to differentiate one's self from others, a dynamic that isn't surprising in a place like SAT, where individual identities can be compressed by virtue of group affiliation.

Memes like that one, which is underscored by the reality of anti-Blackness in Asian communities, can be a way of calling out one's community in a way that's easier to parse. Referring to a tweet that read, "asian boys with fake hood accents make me laugh like okay kevin nguyen," Kevin Nguyen, the artist and graphic designer, said, "It calls out Asians that use the N-word. Memes that make you laugh but also call upon the deeper issues within the Asian diaspora are the best."

Kev Nguyen likened the case of "Kevin Nguyen" to Grace Lee's The Grace Lee Project, a 2005 documentary that focused on the director's common name and the many Asian Americans who share it. "In the end, we gotta remind ourselves that everyone [is an] individual complex being who can’t be boxed," he said, "but I’m sure all Kevin Nguyen’s would share a similar weight of not feeling special sometimes with knowing that we have one of the most common first names and last names."

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Bettina Makalintal is a staff writer at VICE. Follow her on Twitter.