We left a restaurant called The Love Room at 10 and walked under a pulsating LED screen, a teeming river of light in the murky night sky. Karaoke was calling our names.
In Korea, regular visits to the noraebang were a consistent part of my life. I knew their rhythm, knew their menus, knew their song books. I always knew where to look for a tambourine, knew exactly how to work the controller, even as it was swathed in Korean words I never quite learned. I had the 5-digit number for Bad Moon Rising memorized permanently, its consistent coding across all karaoke rooms bringing to mind some deep uniting truth underlying the whole of our universe. I knew exactly how many songs it would take before I could no longer belt out a high note, and how many more songs before I could no longer sing at all. Liquor was beneficial, not necessary: I could scream and sing dry, if the situation called for it.
That I had been back in Asia for two months with no songs to sing felt like a weight on my back, a badge of dishonour on my travelling feet. Was it not my mission in life to walk all the roads, eat all the things, see all there is to see, and sing like a madman the whole way through? Some part of my soul ached, like a piece had torn loose somewhere high above the Pacific and got carried away in a strong wind. I wasn’t really alive if I wasn’t periodically screaming Bohemian Rhapsody into a tinny microphone at midnight.
A mountain of neon exploded into view, shimmering and jittering and terrifying. As we entered, four separate workers bowed simultaneous and shouted a greeting, prompting one of my friends to attempt several runs at the door to trigger the synchronized greeting once more. We approached the busy check-in counter and set to negotiation, wheedling over how many hours for how many kuai.
Accustomed as I was to the shabby, worn-down charm of a Korean noraebang, I was ultimately unprepared for the quivering, bewildering environment I had just entered. Strips of blue and green light vibrated across surfaces everywhere, their glow bouncing off of strange post-modern furniture and an enormous plush dog. Every wall was sheathed in glass, and behind each was an enormous, horrifying collection of porcelain dolls and stark white teddy bears. We were in a seven year-old’s tea party, as imagined by Escher and H.R. Giger after an ecstasy and wormwood bender.
Once the haggling had ceased we were brought to the bar, which was actually a mini-mart. A teenaged cashier was dressed up like a waitress from one of those ancient 1950s diners where people zip food around on roller skates, with orange stripes everywhere. She shuffled aimlessly at a popcorn maker, working at the butter contraption with the vigour and passion of a depressed and emotionally stunted sea tortoise. As we entered a karaoke staffmember in a tuxedo rushed to our side, wielding a shopping cart. As we browsed the selection of beer and coolers, groping for the coldest bottles, he collected all of our selected purchases and arranged them neatly, carefully, gently into his cart. Whenever we ceased interacting with him he would slip into a beatific stupor, bored and tired and blissfully elsewhere.
Our room was small and rectangular and also filled with bears. The screen program was Korean, and featured low-frame-rate cartoon dancers jiving to Sting and Debbie Harry. Smeared across the screen were Chinese characters, which none of us could fully decipher. The owner attempted to explain the command system for the remote control, but after every brief attempt he would slip towards the door, towards the night, and towards escape. Our confusion lingered.
With time we mastered the controller as best we could, let loose a torrent of western standards. At one point the strains of Wuthering Heights began to sear into our eardrums, and we all felt confident that no one in the room could possibly approach a serviceable Kate Bush. (We were later happily proven wrong when one of our coworkers stood tall and caterwauled a convincing Bush, including delirious, dreamy dance moves.) Our song books proved to be misleading mistresses, making promises they could not keep: despite claims at Total Eclipse of the Heart, its search number produced nothing, and we were left, bereft and cold and bright eye-less, in our lonely karaoke room.
The bathroom was its own series of wonders. Once when I entered, three men were holding hands and smoking cigarettes by the sinks, while another sink was occupied by a man appearing to bathe himself thoroughly. I walked to the urinals, closed my eyes and thought of England, and was regaled by the hurricane thunder of a drunkard’s projectile vomit in a stall inches behind me. The force of the emetic expulsion was staggering: it sounds as though he was chipping the tile and boring a hole into the floorboards; it sounded as though a Dragonball Z character was charging up a kameha-meha. I considered staying in the bathroom for an extended time to observe if the gentleman survived or, at least, to see if he was ten to twenty pounds lighter by the end of his ordeal.
The room eventually emptied, after the tambourines had been slammed in great vigour, after the ground became thick with crushed popcorn, after the glass bottles formed an impromptu village across the table. The lobby was slammed with people, dozens of strangers crowded before the neon walls with the scary dolls, waiting patiently for the room we had just vacated. They waited to sing in the valley of the shadow of weird, to bask in the glow of bizarre Korean TV sprites, to go to the personal shopper mini-mart, to relax astride the enormous stuffed dog under the gaze of several thousand terrifying porcelain dolls. They came to sing, but received so much more.