I’ve never been a big Norebang guy. When it comes to singing, I like to keep it private, much like using the bathroom or watching 90210. Norebang – for those who don’t know – is basically the Korean equivalent to Karaoke. The main difference between Norebang and Western Karaoke is that, in a Norebang, you don’t sing in front of a big group of strangers in a bar. Instead you and your friends get your own little room and a machine that scores your singing. You also get two tambourines, as the tambourine is the official instrument of Norebang. And since the English selection is rather limited you better drink up on Cass, because that will help prepare you for the inevitable “Bohemian Rhapsody” at the end of the night.
On a Thursday in Bupyeong, two of my homeboys (yes, I use the term ‘homeboys’…shut up) and I decided to check out a place called BMW. We had heard that the place was a little shady and, as our year together was winding down, we were in the mood for that kind of vibe. Korea has lots of slightly shady – or maybe just odd – establishments. For instance, Korea has “talk bars.” At these places, men pay double what they normally would for drinks in order to converse with a pretty Korean bartender. Just imagine having your own bartender who will stand there and chat with you all night, and who also happens to be a tad sexy. That’s what a talk bar is. But nothing more happens. The bartender doesn’t offer you a lap dance or sex in the kitchen or anything like that. Paying the higher prices gets a person some small talk and a little dish of seaweed pretzels.
It cost 150,000 Korean Won (about $130 USD) to get a room at Club BMW for an hour. The “madam,” if you will, brought us into a plush space with a Norebang screen and told us to be seated on the long sofas in the back. Soon after, a guy came in with ten beers and six cups. We knew that girls would be coming sooner or later and we joked around nervously. Really, we were paying for female company – and when I say that, I really mean “company” in a literal, platonic way. Although we weren’t quite sure about that. There were stories that sometimes at BMW, things get a little R-rated.
“I’m not letting any girl touch my crotch,” my friend who has a girlfriend said. “Do you think I’m allowed to say ‘no’?”
“Well,” I said, “they can’t, like, molest you. That’s against the law.”
“You’re right. I must be firm.”
The door opened and three girls walked in. They were all really attractive, nicely dressed and done up and in their early 20s. Two of them had long hair and one had a cute bob. One girl sat down next to each of us. I felt the girl that sat next to me was the best looking, and that was intimidating. I mean, really, she only had a split second to choose. What if, after sitting down, she wished she’d sat next to one of my friends? I secretly wished the least attractive one sat next to me, although any of them were arguably the “most attractive.” Really, it didn’t matter which one of the three sat with me – pretty girls make me nervous; beautiful ones give me ulcers.
I’ve often told friends, “Yeah, I know I really like her because my stomach is f**king burning.”
But I digress. The six of us drank. The girls barely spoke any English and none of us spoke Korean. We asked them if many foreigners come in and they said, “No, you are first.” They seemed a bit uncomfortable, possibly bored. The girls lead us through the standard Korean small talk – where are you from, what is your job, do you like Korean food, why do you have a small head, etc – and then, since we were all looking to have a good time, the Norebang began. Trading in my beer for a microphone, I found myself singing a four-way duet (quaret?) of “You Raise Me Up” by Westlife.
With shame in my voice, I tried to belt out the lyrics: “You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains/You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas/I am strong, when I am on your shoulder/You raise me up, to more than I can be.”
You ever hit a moment where you say to yourself, “What the hell am I doing with my life?” This was clearly one of those moments. At the end of the song we all clapped and sighed in relief, knowing that as long as I didn’t come back to BMW, I would never have to hear Westlife ever again.
In the minutes that followed, much beer was drunk, many a stilted conversation was had, and several horrible songs were a sung. The girls were really sweet and seemed like good people. They didn’t try to molest any of us and, when our hour was over, the madam opened the door and said “times up” and the three girls waved ‘bye’ and left.
Walking back out onto the streets of Bupyeong, it dawned on us that we had just paid over a hundred bucks to sing bad pop songs with Korean girls. Was it fun? Not really. Did it have any meaning or lesson? Absolutely not.
As the stupid saying goes, “Living on Earth is damn expensive, but it does include a free trip around the sun.”