KTV: A Chinese Cultural Experience

Three Canadians, two Brazilians, and a Chinese woman walk into a bar…

Nope, it’s not a joke. That’s just how I rolled into KTV last weekend.

In Canada, I wouldn’t be caught dead in a karaoke bar. Yes, I spent four years in an acting program and sure, some may say I have a flair for the dramatic. But this is also means that I’ve spent a lot of the last decade surrounded by people who are much more musically talented than I am, so I never really saw the point in singing a bad cover of ‘Ironic’ when my friends are delivering Grammy-worthy versions of Mariah Carey tunes.

But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, things are just different in China.

Let me set the stage. You go to dinner with a group of friends–probably Chinese BBQ, which is delicious by the way–and have a few beers. Around 10:00pm, you’ve eaten all the fried butterfly larva you can (more on that later) but you’re not quite ready to call it a night. What do you do? You go to the nearest karaoke bar, or KTV as they call it here, and sing (scream) your favourite songs into the wee hours of the morning. That’s where you could have found me the last two Saturday nights, and I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I. FLIPPING. LOVE IT.

There are some differences between the Western karaoke I’ve experienced and KTV, which may contribute to my new appreciation for the activity.

First of all, KTV takes place in a private room. While there may be a public space with performers (professional or otherwise), when you go to KTV with friends, it’s just that. You and your friends. In theory, this sounded like an awful idea. Where is the appeal in serenading three of your new buddies as they watched? It’s akin to being that guy at a party who wants to play you the new song he wrote that morning on his uke. Awkward.

Rose singing with a microphone in a KTV room.
I’m not a great singer but don’t tell me that at KTV.

But I actually loved the more intimate vibe. On both occasions I’ve been to KTV, the rooms have been equipped with mood-lighting, disco balls, a couple screens so lyrics can be seen no matter where in the room you are, and at least three microphones–one set up on a stage and two other wireless mics that can be used to sing sitting down in the booth or wherever the heck you want. And the vibe is much less a single-person singing while others watch, and much more like a living room house party with almost everyone singing and dancing on the furniture, except you’re not worried about the neighbours complaining about the noise.

It seems like the rooms have a small charge for a given length of time, or are even free with the purchase of a round or two of drinks and snacks – beer, fruit, sweet burnt popcorn. After choosing a song on the touchscreen built into the wall, a music video with lyrics will play on both screens. The music is loud, but if you still need to drown out your own voice, grabbing one of the tambourines scattered around the room will do the trick.

Now, I can’t tell if it was the excessive reverb on the mics or the excessive baijyou (Chinese liquor) in my system, but I swore I sounded almost Adele-esque while belting “Rolling in the Deep.”

But I think there’s another reason I’ve loved our KTV experiences so much.

We’ve done it with friends.

To be honest, our first couple months in China were relatively lonely. Yes, we had each other (thank God) but we still missed having a community of people around us. Back in Hamilton, we both had strong friend groups both as a couple and also as individuals. So coming to China and being alone most days–especially when we started working at different schools–was a little sad.

We did have a couple of coworkers who spoke English but as an introvert, I find polite small talk tiring and unfulfilling.  And our interactions with our Chinese-speaking colleagues wasn’t much better, being limited to Hellos and gesturing about how hot the weather is.

But you know what they say. Music is the universal language.

Both times we’ve been to KTV, we’ve rocked out to songs in English, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, and even Korean. Camilla Cavallho’s Havana was popular with our new Chinese friends, I put together enough Spanish to sing the chorus of Despacito (sans Justin Bieber), and at the end of one night, our Brazilian friend started playing Nickelback hits. “They are very famous in Brazil,” he tells us. Who knew?

Long table selfie with Chinese teacher friends at dinner.
Eating barbecue with our Chinese colleagues and fellow English teacher

Without getting too hippy-dippy about the whole thing, those KTV experiences have been kind of beautiful. These friend groups have been a mash-up of cultures and languages, with all of us coming from different experiences and backgrounds, but despite all of that, we can spend a few hours singing and dancing together late at night.

So that’s how I discovered KTV, a Chinese cultural experience, and how I made new friends living abroad. Will you find me at the local karaoke bar in Hamilton when we get back? I don’t know. But something tells me that there will be a couple more KTV nights before our time here is up.

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