‘If You’re Ugly, It’s Hard to Live’: Appearance-Based Racism in Korea Explained
① Racism in South Korea as Revealed by a Vietnamese TikToker
A Vietnamese TikToker residing in South Korea has sparked a heated conversation with her remarks. Vivian Nguyen said on TikTok that Koreans want to be seen as “the most superior among Asians.” Nguyen discussed issues of appearance-based discrimination and racism.
She noted that when a Vietnamese individual debuts as a K-pop idol, they often receive compliments for “looking like a Korean,” implying, “You’re beautiful because you resemble us.” Nguyen further explained that this viewpoint stems from a belief held by some Koreans about their “superior appearance” compared to other Asians.
Nguyen specifically mentioned Lisa, a member of the girl group BLACKPINK, and Hanni, a member of NewJeans.
Hanni, a dual citizen of Vietnam and Australia, was born in Melbourne. Her Vietnamese name is Pham Ngoc Han. Nguyen added that many Koreans were surprised to learn Hanni was of Vietnamese descent when NewJeans debuted.
Nguyen also stated that Lisa is the least popular member in Korea. She said, “Other Thai-born K-pop idols are globally the most famous in their groups, but not in Korea. This is because she looks Thai. She doesn’t have popularity here because she looks Southeast Asian,” adding this caption to her video.
“In my two years living here, I’ve found that the level of racism is insane,” Nguyen said. Her remarks have gained so much attention that they have been featured in foreign media. Nguyen has since stated that she has received a lot of backlash for her comments on racism. She continued to post a rebuttal video.
② Severe Appearance-based Discrimination
In her response video, Nguyen addressed the issue of appearance-based discrimination, emphasizing, “Appearance-based discrimination is a significant problem here, as evidenced by the statistics on plastic surgery that highlight the importance placed on appearance.” She further explained, “Many Koreans, based on their beauty standards, find the physical characteristics of Southeast Asians, such as darker skin and flat noses, to be unattractive. People deemed unattractive by these standards face considerable challenges in this society.”
Nguyen mentioned that if you are a Southeast Asian who aligns with Korean beauty standards, you will receive better treatment. She went on to emphasize that being told, “You look like a Southeast Asian,” is considered an insult. Also, Nguyen highlighted that she consistently conveys to Koreans that they are exhibiting behaviors that can be regarded as racist. She noted that while Korea was once a homogeneous country, that is no longer valid. Many individuals now travel to and from the country, and tourism plays a significant role in the economy.
Nguyen emphasized again that we need to move away from racism and appearance-based discrimination. She asked, “Haven’t many K-pop groups experienced and overcome racism while promoting their culture and music?” and stated, “I know Koreans want to be respected and recognized as equals. There’s racism, and it exists in every country.”
Nguyen’s TikTok video has gained many views and sparked a major discussion. Numerous comments were left on Nguyen’s video. Some of them expressed similar experiences living in other East Asian countries.
One Vietnamese commented, “I lived in Seoul for about a year and received many backhanded compliments when they found out I was Vietnamese, not Korean.”
Nguyen clarified that she was not referring to all Koreans and stated, “Generally speaking, from my experiences with East Asians, everyone thinks they’re the best in Asia, and Southeast Asia is below them.”
③ Discrimination Experienced by Most Immigrants
According to a survey, seven out of ten immigrants living in South Korea have experienced racial discrimination. A significant proportion of immigrants have reported experiencing racism.
The number of foreign residents in Korea is 2.26 million, accounting for 4.4% of the total population. However, the societal perspective towards foreigners is still lacking.
Some Koreans have also expressed empathy with the foreigners’ experiences of racial discrimination. They suggested that education from a young age is necessary to eliminate the issue of racial prejudice. Many agreed with the opinion that while experiences of racism abroad become a hot topic, people may not realize they may be perpetuating racism.
By. Kim Min Jae