Karaoke Night in Shanghai

by Lynda Majarian

Karaoke may have originated in Japan, but it is alive and well in China, and is an activity best enjoyed when drunk. So when a rare invitation comes from Bobby, the only English faculty member with any interest in arranging social functions, to go to a KTV place for a karaoke night, I know I am making a big mistake. I’d promised myself that, after living in Shenyang, China, I wouldn’t get into heavy drinking again. But I have a terrible, off-key voice, and everyone will be required to sing. Obviously, I will drink. The attendees are Bobby; Yolanda, Bobby’s tiny, childlike Chinese girlfriend; Jonathan, the blonde, bearded professor from Tucson; Erik, the German professor; our Chinese building manager; and some of Yolanda’s Chinese friends. I always wanted to try KTV in Shenyang, where I was comfortable with my friends, but here in Shanghai I don’t know anyone well and am a little nervous.

We get to the venue, and there is a lot of wrangling over the price previously agreed upon for the room Bobby reserved. The room is windowless and claustrophobically small, but adequate, and soon equipped with a bottle of Jack Daniels, twenty-four beers, ice, sugared popcorn, and peanuts, along with microphones and a kind of jukebox apparatus that lets us scroll through songs and artists.

Stocky, fortyish Bobby is twice the size of Yolanda, who makes no attempts to talk to anyone but her Chinese comrades. As I learned in Shenyang, almost every white man who comes to China is looking for a young Asian girl. My theory is that these men are insecure, and Chinese women are reputed to be docile—though my friend Doug, who was engaged to a Chinese woman, says that’s just a stereotype. To me, the whole paradigm is a joke, like middle-aged American men driving expensive convertibles with bottle blondes in the passenger seat, or rock stars marrying Victoria’s Secret fashion models. Anyway, the white men spend money on their little Chinese dolls, and because of that the girls stick around. As Yolanda sucks on a Marlboro, I surmise that she must give a hell of a blow job, because I can’t imagine her thin, fragile body accommodating big old Bobby for regular sex.

Jonathan launches our KTV concert with “Devil Woman.” Interesting choice, I think. I leaf through the jukebox selections with Erik, and settle on Sheryl Crow’s cover of “The First Cut is the Deepest,” because I don’t think I sound so bad when I sing along with it on my ipod. “But wait until I’ve had a few drinks,” I tell Erik. “I’m not ready yet.”

When Jonathan finishes singing, he sits next to me. For at least an hour, we talk about Tucson, about China, about students, a little bit of everything. I’ve consumed three beers (Budweiser, unfortunately, and not the Tsingtao I really like) and don’t feel a hint of a buzz.

“I’m going to need some of that Jack if I’m going to sing,” I tell Jonathan. “Just wait until you hear me. I’m terrible.”

“That’s the beauty of karaoke.” He fills a glass with ice and two fingers of liquor. “Once everybody is loaded enough, we all sound good.”

“Easy for you to say,” I reply. He sang in his high school choir and has a good voice. He pulls the bottle away from my glass.

“Keep pouring,” I tell him.

The videos that match the American songs aren’t the originals, except for one very old Bon Jovi number. Instead, as the music plays and lyrics scroll, Chinese men and women cavort on ski slopes, sip from brandy snifters, and gaze meaningfully at each other. The cinematography and acting quality are the equivalent of a very bad B movie.

Jonathan and Bobby keep singing, and then Yolanda and her friends take turns performing awful Chinese pop tunes that are high-pitched, screechy assaults on my ears. The ballads are slightly easier to bear.

“Okay,” I tell Erik, who still mans the video controls. “I’m ready.”

My voice is even worse than I had imagined. I relax into the song about half way through, and think I get a little better, but nobody asks me to sing again.

I need a little more Jack Daniels. I bring my glass with fresh ice to our building manager, whose complicated Chinese name I can’t recall, and she pours the glass three-quarters full.

“Oh my God,” I say. “Stop.”

Still, I sip it slowly. Jonathan sits very close to me, our shoulders overlapping, and we talk and talk. Usually beards are a deal-breaker for me. I think a beard makes a man’s lips look like a vagina planted in the middle of his face, but I like Jonathan, and I can tell, at least at the moment, that he likes me.

I’m drunk, I realize at one point, when Jonathan is singing again. I stop sipping. It is very late when the building manager, Jonathan, and I decide to take a cab home. She sits in front, as she is getting out last. I don’t think I said more than a sentence to her the whole night, but she seems nicer than she does when staffing the reception desk.

Jonathan and I get off at our building, the foreign faculty apartments, and head up the stairs. He walks me to my room. I think we’re both staggering.

“How about a hug?” I suggest, but not to initiate anything sexual. I am just desperate for a little human contact. He readily obliges, we say goodnight, and I collapse into bed.

I’m up at six the next morning, and send an email to Chloe, my best female friend from Shenyang (who is now back in the States) and tell her all about the evening.

“Don’t beat yourself up too much about the drinking,” she responds. “It was bound to happen eventually. At least you finally got to go out with some people.”

Around 10 a.m., Bobby sends everybody from karaoke night a text with the amount we owe for the room rental and the booze. I walk down the hall to his room to settle up. He opens the door and is friendly enough, but doesn’t invite me in. His little dog wriggles out into the hallway and starts humping my leg. At a loss for what to do or say, I reach down, pet the dog, and say, “Oh, he must smell my perfume.”

“He does that to everyone,” Bobby explains. “I tried to have him neutered, but they won’t fix dogs here. Jonathan stopped by the other day, and his girlfriend had visited earlier, so the dog was all over him. It’s all about pheromones.”

Jonathan’s girlfriend. I wonder if that just slipped out or, more likely, if Bobby intentionally found a way to work that into the conversation since Jonathan had been all over me the night before. No doubt, his girlfriend is also Chinese.

On Sunday, I run into Jonathan leaving the apartment building as I am coming back from church.

“How are you?” I say. He smiles nervously and holds his hand to his throat, as if it hurts to talk, and keeps walking. So much for establishing a friendship. I gloomily climb the stairs to my lonely apartment, wondering how I will spend the rest of the day.

That afternoon, I email my friend Edward in Vermont and tell him the whole story. Edward responds the next day and tells me all about “rice queens”, gay men who favor young Asian boys. “I can’t see the attraction, myself, on all kinds of levels,” he adds. “Not that I’m prejudiced—I just like my men hairy.”

“I guess we could call white men in China ‘rice kings,’” I write back, “but somehow that seems too good a term.”

I know this makes me sound jealous. I don’t want a man who is intimidated by an accomplished woman whose mind and body he cannot mold to fit his fantasy, but I’ve lowered my standards before because of loneliness. And I would probably do it again if only I had the chance.

Editor’s note on Karaoke Night in Shanghai:

Karaoke Night in Shanghai is not Lynda Majarian’s first piece of work in Eastlit. Broken China was published in the January issue of Eastlit.

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