When I think of karaoke, I picture half-drunk people having a brief moment in the spotlight in a bar, singing their favorite rock band’s songs. So when I opened Real Karaoke People, I was expecting light and humorous poetry. I was mistaken. Instead, the poems transported me into Ed Bok Lee’s life as a Korean-American, and that experience was not a barrel of laughs.
In “a fable of fruit”, Lee describes cultural and political divisions: “but where does America end and the story of barbed wire begin?” In his poems, we see his internal struggle with the Korean War and how it affected his family. We read about this struggle feeling like an outsider alienated by the new country he lives in. Lee’s poem “the secret to life in america” reveals this psychological turmoil and how his family perpetuates these impressions and feelings:
My brother sits me down and tells me the secret to life in America. I’m twelve years old when this happens. He grabs my shoulders and says: No one likes an immigrant. It reminds them of when they fell down and no one was around to help them. When they couldn’t talk. As children when they got lost in public. Cold and wet, everyone hates an immigrant.
“kimchi” is about how the media illustrates Asian history. Lee talks about an episode of M*A*S*H in the poem where Klinger and Hawkeye open up a pot of kimchi:
as they undid the mysterious clay pot I knew to them would smell like garbage. The laugh track poised… Then my father entered and switched the television off.
Lee’s narration forces the reader to become acquainted with the ugly beauty of his stories. I feel presumptuous in saying that somehow I can relate to Lee’s experience as an outsider; his writing taps into a peculiar empathy in the reader. I think this is how the karaoke concept fits in—the idea of imitating or pretending to experience a piece of work or music briefly brings us close to someone else’s mind. We take it as our own experience, though in the end we know that we may be only minutely closer than we were before to that borrowed memory.
I was amazed by Lee’s book in its magnificent lyricism and transference of emotion. It is a wonderful first book of poetry.
- Jesmia Avery