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Cultural Clash Creates Rocker

The guitar riff is loud and piercing from the stage. Resembling angry kids in the childhood inflatable jumping bean, the crowd forcefully runs into each other, hitting with slightly less force than roller derby skaters.

Parents stay in the back of the room, escaping the dangerous all-ages rock crowd but still dancing, though not aggressively.

John Lee, a middle-aged Korean man stands to the right of the room, his smile beaming as he faces the stage.

His son, Duncan Lee, leader singer and current commander of the stage, is his focus. Duncan Lee plays guitar riffs and sings songs inspired by the artists with which he grew up, The Beach Boys, in his jazz-alternative band The Boxers. His smiling face wasn’t always present at his son’s shows: cultural clash drove Duncan to music. Duncan’s story isn’t new, but he is representative of the latest group of second generation Korean-Americans.

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Duncan said he has been playing music seriously for the last five years, beginning at age 13 after joining the School of Rock where he played shows covering Jimmy Hendrix and Pink Floyd.

However his mother Lauren Lee said it was his maternal grandmother, Teresa Lee, a Korean immigrant, that pushed her grandchildren towards music when Duncan was in preschool.

“I think that laid the groundwork for him to take off later,” Lauren Lee said. “Whenever we dropped the ball with the music, she definitely forced us to pick it up again. She really put our feet to the fire.”

“I wanted him to start in some kind of liberal arts,” said Teresa Lee, preferring that he go into conducting rather than playing.

Pyong Gap Min, a professor of Korean studies at The City University of New York, said [in Korean culture], music – specifically piano – is often used as a way to teach children the principles of the culture.

“Overall that’s helpful to making good students,” he said.

John Lee, Duncan’s father who immigrated to the United States at age 11, said for him, his mother’s insistence wasn’t rooted in cultural practices but getting exposure to the arts for his children.

“As a parent, that’s just what you do,” said John Lee, who added that the children were also exposed to sports as well.

Lauren Lee said during her marriage to John, they enrolled Duncan and his older sister in Korean schools and immersed themselves in the Korean culture.

“We had wedding ceremonies with both styles of clothing,” said Lauren Lee.

Lauren Lee said that it was an opportunity for John Lee to learn about the culture himself, since he moved at a young age.

Those who under the age of 18 who moved to the United States, like John, are considered to be a part of the 1.5 generation. People of this generation sometimes carry two identities, one of an American and one of their native country.

According to 2010 census data there are more than 30,000 Korean-born immigrants in the Illinois, with about 250,000 children under 18 residing with Korean-born immigrants.

Professor Min said for immigrants, maintaining Korean culture can be difficult, if not impossible, especially for those who come to America at a younger age.

“They cannot maintain that tradition,” he said. “American individualism doesn’t emphasize the same things.”

Duncan Lee said he noticed a change in his father’s relationship to Korean culture after his re-marriage to another Korean immigrant.

“He went from super-Americanized, regular Korean-American to ‘Let’s be Korean,’” he said.

Duncan said his father’s newly found cultural beliefs often lead them to clash.

“We went years without talking because of that,” he said.

When his relationship with his father became estranged, music was his escape.

“I just picked up the guitar that was locked in the closet and never started sports again,” said Duncan Lee.

“It’s all his fault that all this happened,” he said. “The exact opposite of what he wanted.”

Duncan Lee, who doubles as a guitarist and lead vocalist, formed the jazz-alternative band The Boxers two years ago, bringing together friends Charlie Sullivan, Eli Satter and Zach Bridgman from high school and college.

For Duncan Lee, the band gave him the opportunity to get better at songwriting, something he had wanted since joining his first band Magic Child during his sophomore year of high school at Jones College Preparatory.

“I kinda Yoko Ono’d the band,” he said of Magic Child. After learning that he was one of the two members who “knew anything about music,” Lee said he quickly convinced the singer to drop the other members.

Two years later, the band ended as the older members went to college in New York, leaving Lee without a band during his senior year of high school. He decided to start The Boxers to help fill that void.

The 18-year-old said he rarely sleeps. Instead he spends his time songwriting and composing for the band, drawing inspiration from the records sitting on his floor of the West Town neighborhood apartment.

“The whole goal since fifth grade is to buy my own island and never work a real job,” he said. “If I could just do this forever, I’d never work and that’d be awesome. I don’t care if I make money. I need to eat and I need to be warm and I need [music] and this is all I need.”

Though not specifying what ended the rift, Duncan seems happy to see his father at the show, walking over and hugging him after exiting the stage.

John Lee did not mention a rift between him and his son, and when asked about Korean culture, he simply stated, “I am an American of Korean descent.”

“I just want him to be happy, and he is happy with this,” said John Lee of Duncan’s involvement with The Boxers.

The Boxers are scheduled to play South By South West, a week-long music industry festival in Austin, Texas, in its 27th year. The festival provides bands an opportunity to showcase their talents for managers, labels, and booking agents. For many, it’s the first step to move from an independent venture to a music label.

The band got the gig through Jon Langford, a founding member of the first wave UK punk band The Mekons, with Duncan considering the gig, “the start of something.”

“If you go to South By and nothing comes out of it, it’s a good way to gauge how well it’s going to go,” said Duncan Lee.

Though Duncan Lee said that even if the band doesn’t get signed, he’d try again next year.

“I’d literally lock myself in my room for a year to work on music,” said Duncan Lee.

“He’s found his muse,” said Lauren Lee. “He’s found his passion. He’s possessed. He can’t not do music at this point.”

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