Traditionally, Koreans are known to enjoy singing and dancing tremendously. Perhaps singing and dancing was our ancestors’ daily ritual and thus runs in our blood.
Watching K-pop singers dazzle on the stage, it seems Koreans’ superb performance skills are part of our DNA. Indeed, when it comes to singing and dancing, Koreans seem invincible. It is no wonder that the K-pop vocal group BTS is enchanting the world with their charming voices and stunning choreography.
Foreigners say that drinking is the national pastime of Koreans. But we should definitely place “singing” at the top of the list too, because Koreans love singing so much. Look at the numerous karaoke rooms that are ubiquitous in cities and towns. You can also find a number of karaoke rooms in the Korea Town neighborhoods of Los Angles, New York or Washington. Wherever Koreans go, so do karaoke rooms. It seems that singing is something that Koreans cannot do without.
Recently, I came across an intriguing poem by Kim Seung-hee that compares Korea to a karaoke room. The poem, entitled “Korea is a Karaoke Room” starts: “Have you ever sat in a karaoke room / Not singing for half an hour? / Your companions will induce, implore, force, and order you / To join in the singing spree.” In Korea, you are not allowed to just sit back in a karaoke room without joining the singing group. Others will keep insisting until you get up, grab a microphone and sing a song or two. In Korean society, one’s preference or individuality is often mistaken as selfishness.
Therefore, the poem shows what will happen to you when you refuse to sing, “You would be condemned as if you opposed the unification of Korea/ Built the DMZ/ Poisoned the reservoir/ Collapsed the Songsu Bridge/ Or assassinated the national hero Kim Gu.”
The poem suggests that, in Korean society, if you do not join in on the activities of the masses, society will treat you as if you are a national traitor. You will be blamed for all the social and political problems and disasters.
If you refuse to sing and leave the room, what would happen? The poem says, “You shut the door of the karaoke room and leave the singing group/ Then you will become a social pariah/ If you refuse and sever the hands of those who grab you and force you to sing/ Then you will be condemned as a denouncer of the system.”
It is only when you join in and sing that “You will become a proud member of the group.” Finally, the poem presents an embarrassing, yet powerful moment of realization: “Alone, you escape the karaoke room/ The glittering red neon lights/ Have engulfed the night and stars/ Wiping tears, you come to realize/ That karaoke rooms are ubiquitous/ Nothing exists beyond the karaoke room/ And Korea is a karaoke room.”
Kim wrote another illuminating poem titled, “The Left, the Right, and the Two Lungs” that powerfully indict the contemporary Korean society. The poem depicts a nation divided by factions on the Left and Right that abhor each other and as a result cannot breathe properly, like a man with only one lung. The poem enlightens us, “The hands of a clock move to the right from 12 to 6 o’clock/ Then they move to the left from 6 to 12/ Except for the crazy/ No one calls a clock a left-wing or a right-wing.” Amazingly, the poet perceives what ordinary people cannot see. She continues, “When washing your face/ You use both left and right hands/ To clean your left and right cheeks/ The world is symmetrical/ Like clocks, shoes, face-washing, or stretching/ In order to walk, you need two shoes, left and right.” Then she reminds us that we have two lungs to breathe as well, left and right.
Indeed, what would happen if we destroyed one of our two eyes, nostrils, or ears? What if we severed the other hand, arm, leg, or foot? Needless to say, we will be hopelessly disabled. We need both left and right. In order to breathe easily and comfortably, we need two lungs, as well. The important thing is to know how to maintain balance between the two. Thus, if a leftist government abhors rightwing people and tries to eliminate them, it will ultimately cripple itself.
If we cannot tolerate differences and diversity, then we will soon find ourselves living in a totalitarian society. If we are divided into left and right and treat the other as abominations, we will find ourselves living in a crippled, black-and-white society, not a normal colorful one. We should realize this painful truth now and change. Only then can we live in a healthy democratic country that embraces variety and all the colors of the rainbow.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of California, Irvine. -- Ed.