Monday, May 13, 2013

How the other half karaoke

It should go without saying that one of the greatest things about living in Asia is the plentiful, unabashed karaoke. As many of you know, this usually takes place in karaoke room establishments. Unlike in the U.S. where, if you're lucky, you have one or two bars within stumbling/cheap cab distance that have karaoke once a week, and it's packed, and you can probably do your song, maybe, three hours after you put in your request, and if it's in any way problematic (bizarre, tinny accompaniment/weird key/you realize you don't know it after all) then your night is shot, the karaoke places in Asia are a different animal. You go into a room for which you pay by the hour. The room has couches, a screen, a song book, etc. You and your friends have it to yourselves. You can sing whatever you want, as much as you want. You can press a button to skip ahead when a song turns out to be a bad idea. You don't have to worry about anyone who is annoyed that you're making a fool of yourself. You can order beer, and often some salty snacks show up. The places don't ever close, it seems. This is a wonderful industry, and I find it delightful that in certain cities in the U.S. (New York, Boston, where else?) enterprising Asians have started these same businesses there (although they are sadly more expensive in the U.S.A.)

Now, I have been to multiple noraebang ("singing rooms") in Korea, but I must say the softest spot in my heart is for the one we frequented in Andong, there in lovable Ok-dong with the woman who I developed quite a rapport with throughout our year of late night arrivals. The place is tiny, cheap, and a little dingy, with a convenience store cooler-like fridge of beer in the lobby. It's like home. If home had squat toilets and a few disco balls.

Here in China the karaoke magic happens in KTV establishments. Due to our whirlwind of activity these first few months as well as the general (and annoying) tendency of most people I know to not want to go singing every week (I mean, why not people? Really, why not?) I had not even been to KTV yet (I know! the horror!) until last night.

But about last night:

Wow! This was our company party for the center where I work, a reward for hitting all of our sales and numbers targets for the quarter. The place we went, apparently a favorite of our staff, is quite the posh karaoke joint. First, you walk down a wide, marble-like hallway lined with aquarium walls -- fish on one side and sharks on the other. I mean, they're little but geez! And no, I do not approve whatsoever of imprisoning little sharklets but I'm just trying to convey the sort of "glamorous" approach this place takes. Then you check in at a desk that looks more like a hotel reception. I happen to know that our center director made a reservation for our group, although I don't think you have to do that. Then, we go into our absolutely palatial suite. Did I say suite? Why yes, there was more than just the room with couches and tables -- there was also a wet bar and a private bathroom. (With a western toilet!)  The biggest screen was HUGE, and there were two smaller screens on each of the side walls. Then we got a printed menu (Chinese and English) and proceeded to order beer, and bottles of wine, which were brought to us along with wine glasses (!) by uniformed service staff. Our snacks included things like M&Ms, popcorn, noodle dishes, and god knows what else we ordered up, plus fruit baskets -- really beautifully arranged with the fruit of many colors all carved in spirals and whatnot.

Meanwhile, rather than punching numbers into a grubby keypad, you have a touch-plasma screen to scroll through and search by artist or title (with Roman alphabet options) as well as a one-touch button to move your song to the top of the queue, which by the way you can see on the side of the screen the whole time, or minimize if you prefer. Note: I do not approve of skip-your-song-to-the-top features any more than I approve of the sharks, as they are constantly abused despite a noble effort to keep the Chinese-English-Chinese-English rotation balanced.

Needless to say, I won't be spending all of my hard-earned yuan at this place, but when the boss is paying? Yeah, fill up that wine glass and let's sing!

For those interested in the set list, I believe I was involved with Taylor Swift, Avril Lavigne, "The Loco-Motion," "American Pie," "Single Ladies," and "Waka Waka," among others. But I may have been at my best most drunk when we did "Gangnam Style" and the words were actually in hangeul and out of the 40 or so Chinese, Canadian, Scottish, New Zealand, and me employees, but one of us knew how to read the language of Psy, and so the microphone was passed to me and I handled vocals while the others galloped around gloriously.

I would not really like to discuss the hangover with which the KTV gods saw fit to punish me this morning. Didn't someone once say that there's no such thing as a free night of luxurious karaoke? I have certainly paid the price.

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