On Friday evening my team went out for dinner and noraebang (Korean karaoke). My friend and his wife from Beijing also joined us. We had a great time. We traveled to Gangnam south of the Han River and dined on fried pork, banchan (side dishes), and spicy tofu soup. I don’t recall the name of the dish, but it consists of slabs of fatty pork bacon fried on a grill. It’s a heavy meal that would make Dr. Atkins proud. Unfortunately, my friend’s wife is vegetarian, a fact that escaped me when my Korean colleagues were deciding where to dine. Fortunately, she was a good sport, and she was able to patch together a vegetarian meal from the banchan and tofu soup. It is tough being vegetarian in East Asia—even dishes that appear to be vegetarian such as kimchi often include hints of meat or are fried using animal (e.g. kimchi is often made using sardine or oyster bits). Vegetarians usually can find solace in Seoul at Buddhist restaurants, although it limits their dining options. The carnivores among us softened the heaviness of the pork by wrapping it romaine lettuce with spicy green onion slices and red pepper paste. Lettuce is an interesting alternative to bread, pitas, or wraps. Koreans also wrap food in sesame leaves, which have a sharp, acquired taste. I’m not too fond of vegetable wraps because they can be really messy when the meat is too juicy. We also polished off a few bottles of soju, Korean rice alcohol. Soju helps lower one’s inhibitions when it comes to singing noraebang in front of a group of people.
After dinner we walked a few steps to the noraebang. The Korean word “noraebang” (노레방) literally means “song room.” The word “bang (방),” or room, is a suffix that describes many different entertainment/service establishments, including PC방, or Internet Café, and chimjilbang (침질방), or Korean bathhouse. The word “karaoke” is a Japanese term widely used in many foreign languages, including Chinese and English. However, independent-minded Koreans choose to refer to “karaoke” by a uniquely Korean name. This may be due to Korea’s traditional relationship with Japan. Koreans adopt many foreign words and phrases and Koreanize them. For example, the Korean word for “auto show” is “mo-tuh shyo (모터쇼).” Native English speakers are thankful Koreans have adopted so many words from the English language. In fact, whenever common words such as “mountain” (nam, 남) are used in foreign names, Koreans transliterate them. Hence, the Rocky Mountains are the 로기 마운틴“, or Ro-gi ma-oon-tin”, not “Ro-gi-nam.” The Japanese term “karaoke” is a glaring exception. The word can easily be transliterated into Korean. Thus, it’s interesting to me that Koreans call “karaoke,” a global phenomenon that began at a snack bar in Kobe, Japan, by a uniquely Korean name. If “karaoke” had been imported from the U.S. and was widely known by an English name such as “American Idol wannabe,” I have a hunch that the Koreans would have Koreanized the English term. After all, an Internet Café is typically referred to as a PC방. It’s just a hunch.
Anyway, I digress. After dinner we went to the noraebang to sing our hearts out. The room was very small, a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare. Padded seats lined each side of the room. The door was at one end of the room, and an LCD screen featuring music videos hung on the other. The sound system was good, and I thought the strobe light for disco effect was a nice touch. We thumbed through a thick book of songs and chose Korean and Western songs to program into the song system. I was surprised to see how current many of the songs were. The noraebang we visited was very up to date in its music selection and featured songs that topped the U.S. music charts earlier this year. I sang a few solos and a couple duets. I have a pretty good voice, so I’m not too embarrassed to get up in front of people and sing. I can’t hit the high notes, so I learned very quickly not to imitate Steve Perry from the rock group Journey when singing “Open Arms.” Korean songs featured video footage of the Korean artists performing their songs, whereas Western songs featured random video footage from around the world. The funniest moment was when I chose to sing the song “Africa,” a classic by the group Toto, and the accompanying video featured scenic shots of Prague, Czech Republic. Prague is a long way from Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti! My rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Roy Orbison’s “Oh Pretty Woman” were crowd pleasers. All of my Korean teammates are good singers, veterans of noraebang. One in particular has an angelic voice. She is well known among colleagues as an excellent noraebang singer, and I daresay she could launch a music career with her voice. We sang for about an hour and wrapped up the night fairly early after our time ran out (noraebang rooms are rented by the hour). I enjoyed my first noraebang encounter in Korea so much that I’m planning to do it again next week.
Note to BJJ: Thanks for your kind words. You’re absolutely right. I feel better now. I try to strike a Zen pose when it comes to missed opportunities, although every once in awhile it feels good to blow off some steam. The latest on the assignment saga is that the hotly contested job has been posted and is open to those who have been in Seoul longer than four months. I’ve been here about two months. Applicants are now jockeying for position. I think I know who will be chosen and have an idea where I will be headed (when they get the job I will get their assignment). The rumor mill is going full bore right now. You have to love the old rumor mill. I’ll keep you posted.