If you’re online and haven’t been living in a cave this year (though this one has plenty of room for you), it shouldn’t be hard to recognize the kid in the below picture – yes, that kid from the “Gangnam style” video who did the notorious horse-riding dance at the beginning of the YouTube megahit alongside Korean pop titan Psy. There’s been wide circulation of this picture among the Vietnamese Facebook community in recent weeks for the same reason that would make you yell out the name of your hometown in the middle of a concert – the kid is half-Vietnamese. The sentiment behind all the shouting, though, is not quite the same.

Hwang Min Woo (a.k.a. ‘Little Psy’)

Overachievers with Vietnamese heritage get featured in local media all the time. But so far nobody’s come close to the level of attention swirling around tiny Hwang Min Woo (a.k.a. ‘Little Psy’) within the Vietnamese online community. The reason for this attention is, unfortunately, because of the cyber-bullying he’s gotten from the Korean online community for being an “inferior half-breed”. Reportedly, the Gangnam police (Gangnam is an affluent neighborhood in Seoul, if you missed this last year) launched an investigation to track down the group of people that flooded Star Zone Entertainment’s website with racist comments and froze the page altogether (Star Zone Entertainment being Hwang’s agency).

Not surprisingly, team Vietnam is not happy about this incident.  A Vietnamese anti-Korean-music group on Facebook called “What the heck is K-Pop? Can we eat it?”, for example, was formed recently only for the purpose of expanding coverage for this piece of news. “Come here and have a look, K-Pop fanatics”, a post on that Facebook page read, before quoting the story from a local news source. And as with all Facebook stories, likes, shares and comments were involved. Discussion on other news forums such as Kenh14 and VNExpress also attracted lots of comments.

Comments on these platforms ranging from dismayed: “This is a complete shock to me – I didn’t know Koreans were racists,” to indignant: “What the **** is wrong with being Vietnamese? At least we stood up and fought against the Americans” to the belligerent: “First they spoil our kids with their crappy music, now they look down on us. This is why we should hate Koreans” and “If Korean women were beautiful and smart, Korean men wouldn’t have married Vietnamese women.”

There are also comments from the K-Pop fan base explaining how K-Pop the music has nothing to do with “stupid Korean netizens,” – that racists are everywhere, not just in Korea, and that they are a minority that doesn’t represent Korean people in general.

“Stop having this stupid argument”, one comment read, “the same thing happens in every country. Go to the US or the UK and you’ll get the same kind of racism. Northern and Southern people in our country don’t even like each other anyway – discrimination is everywhere.”

Other comments from locals, in the meantime, seem to be looking at the story from a totally different perspective. “What is up with this kind of racism?”, one comment read, “It’s not like they’re not all Asians. Vietnamese and Korean people look the same anyway.”

Fair enough.

For the record, Korea and Vietnam have a history that goes way back. Racial tensions between Korea and Vietnam started during the Vietnam War with Korean troops in Vietnam, and continued with a wave of Korean men seeking Vietnamese wives and Vietnamese women seeking Korean husbands during the 1990s and 2000s, alongside increasing business investment from Korea into Vietnam at that time. The Korean wave influences cultures across Asia, including Vietnam, and locally the phenomenon of hallyu has gotten some bad press as Korean popular culture’s impact on Vietnamese young people has become an issue of national concern. Last year saw an online melee flare up after the national university entry exam included a section requiring local applicants to write an essay on why celebrity worship is unhealthy. Many who took the exam protested the essay topic and accused the Ministry of Education and Training of antagonizing the VIetnamese K-Pop fan community. Local media brought academics to the table to discuss how the government needs to pay more attention to helping “disoriented” young people understand the importance of cultural preservation. The Communist Youth Union is also eager to get involved in a new campaign this year to “reorient” Vietnamese young people towards the “right” kind of idol admiration and the appropriate kinds of behaviours attached with it. “Inappropriate” behaviours, of course, include those such as sniffing and kissing a Korean singing sensation’s chair after he finished sitting on it during a recent tour.

Vietnamese fans slept overnight at the Hanoi airport last November in cold and rainy weather for the arrival of South Korean pop band T-ara

Welcoming one of Korean’s hottest heartthrobs last month by asking what he thinks about the Vietnamese fans’ “unhealthy” obsession with Korean celebrities, a local reporter local made it pretty clear what Vietnam’s official media’s stand on the issue is. In so doing, they’ve made it clear they’re manufacturing and constructing a form of mainstream discourse against what appears to be Korea’s cultural hegemony in Vietnam (pardon the Chomskyan interpretation). In a country where the media is centrally controlled and owned by the government, this seems to be politically more relevant than many other places on earth.

And the inflection point at which you can begin to measure — if that’s the right word — the outcome of this manufacturing process, is a moment such as this one. A cultural hate crime against a child celebrity who has one foot in Vietnamese soil and the other on the Korean peninsula is the ultimate occasion for all sorts of cultural and social tensions as well as ideological negotiations to play out. The event itself is not the cause of all these online arguments and discussions; rather, it is the symptom and the trigger for the expression and convergence of the multiple social issues that would stay latent, fragmented and incoherent otherwise. It’s interesting how the human mind draws on informal knowledge, makes connections and expands a narrative and still produces something meaningful out of it. Even more interesting, in this case, is how influential traditional media still sets the agenda and drives discussion by steering the dominant discourse.

– Nguyen Hong Hai Dang