In my mid-twenties, I taught English in China and fell in love with karaoke, something I would never in a million years have ever done back home. The karaoke I would occasionally get invited to by friends in California was the very extroverted kind: standing up on stage in the middle of a bar and singing as a performance. This introvert would never intentionally do that to himself.
My first few months in China, I was in Sichuan Province on the border with Tibet teaching children, and any adults I interacted with were mainly other travelers or expats. I would join them for drinks and spicy shirtless hot pot (actually shirtless—men would take their shirts off because they were sweating so hard from the spice) but politely opt out when they wanted to go out for what I envisioned would be super loud, stage performance-level karaoke. These relationships are very short-lived, sometimes hours, so it’s very easy to say no without any drama.
I started teaching in another bordertown in 2004—Dandong in Liaoning Province. Lonely Planet had one paragraph to talk about the place, and it mainly suggested getting out quickly for more exciting places: Harbin’s ice-sculptures, Dalian’s beaches, North Korea, the Trans-Siberian railroad. But I liked that Dandong was quiet, had great food, and didn’t have a loud obnoxious expat community. After teaching my first few classes in conversational English, I was invited out for Korean barbecue. It was an intimate group of eight lovely people… and karaoke is what they did. It was then that I discovered that none of the adult Chinese students I taught understood the concept of, “I don’t do karaoke.” It was an entire way of life.
My father has a gorgeous voice and sings Punjabi poetry, but the singing gene unfortunately didn’t make it to me or my sister (even though she seems to think differently). Growing up in various countries, the one constant regardless of where we were was that my father would often have other singers come to our house for informal singing sessions, where they would effortlessly sing gorgeously lyrical poems in Punjabi. The way I was raised, it always felt like singing required natural talent. And then karaoke in Dandong happened.
We walked up a narrow set of stairs and were ushered into one of many small rooms, where one of my students confidently walked up to the stage and started singing a popular Mandarin song totally out of key, as the rest of us took shots of throat-burning baijiu and morphed into the most fabulous singers ever. They wanted to hear Achy Breaky Heart, which I assured them I really didn’t know. I proceeded to sing it anyway, loudly, in what I thought was super on-key pitch, but probably wasn’t. Most of the time I went to karaoke totally sober, and enjoyed it mainly because it was private, with people I knew, and it was therefore fun.
Fast forward several years and my six-year-old daughter and two-year-old son love singing at the top of their lungs. Whether or not talent exists in them remains to be seen. My daughter is an ambivert, while my son is a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants sort of kid at the moment. She loves singing, but not really in front of crowds. At home, they will sing songs that exist and songs they completely made up, insisting I join them, especially for songs in Hindi or Punjabi. Sometimes we sing the four Mandarin Chinese songs I know, where they can sing some of the lyrics, but rely on me to start with the boring lead in.
One day my daughter had a half-day from school, so I picked her up at noon, and out of the blue she asks if I know what karaoke is.
“Yes,” I tell her, not sure where this is headed. Ever since she turned six, her leading questions are diabolical and involve complex logic that constantly undermine the little authority I have. I’m often left with no other choice than to say, “Because I said so, that’s why. Now go to your room.” Even though she doesn’t have a room (we live in a one bedroom).
“Can you take me there one day? I want to sing a Chinese song with you.”
“I don’t think they let kids do karaoke,” I find myself saying out of instinct. It’s not like I’ve actually researched this. I think about it and my reaction immediately strikes me as a very strange one. Karaoke is totally something kids should actively do. They sing to themselves all the time anyway. And what could be a more fun and I would argue, educational, way to spend the afternoon? We live minutes from New York so I get on my phone and look up karaoke for kids in NYC and find quite a few places, all with private rooms. We decide on the place in Koreatown that has a weekday karaoke happy hour for $4, perfect for a little adventure. As we’re approaching the place, my son, Shaiyar is totally fine, but Kavya suddenly gets nervous.
“Will there be a lot of people watching us?”
“No,” I say.
“Will it just be me and you on the stage?”
“Yes. There’s not really a stage though.”
She’s still not entirely convinced, but tightens her grip on my hand and we get to a narrow staircase that I lug Mr. Shaiyar Singh’s stroller up like he’s the Maharaja of Patiala. And in we go to a tiny room with a fat book filled with songs, including a whole section of Chinese songs written in Mandarin. Shaiyar enjoys simply hearing his echo in the mic as he loudly shouts out names of people and words and occasionally a song lyric, while my daughter enjoyed the thrill of singing on a super intimate stage with her Papa and her little brother.
I don’t know if they will continue their love of karaoke, but I’m okay with that. One of the things I loved about karaoke in China is how incredibly relaxed it is. We were able to engage in something considered the very epitome of extroversion, singing and performing, but we made it our own. Perhaps it won’t make my kiddos better readers, or improve their chances of getting into a fancy college, but it is undeniable that getting out of your introvert comfort zone in an introvert-friendly way and singing at the top of your lungs can be loads of fun!