[Seoul Lounge] In praise of the Korean noraebang“Saranghae dangsineul, jeongmallo saranghae. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah” will remain in my mind for the rest of my life as it was my first real cultural experience in Korea. After my first week in Korea on a cold December night in 1996, my colleagues and I headed out for dinner and a bit of entertainment.
To my surprise, entertainment meant going to sing some songs at a noraebang (singing room). Being 23 years old and from a small community in Michigan, this was extremely embarrassing, since few people enjoy singing and dancing in front of complete strangers where I come from. You guessed it; I can’t sing or dance. In fact, my family name says it all: Dysinger, pronounced “die singer,” clearly expresses that when I sing, you die. I therefore avoided every opportunity to sing in front of anyone.
I remember back in high school when the neighborhood bowling alley bought a karaoke machine. I recall saying to myself, “What is this thing, and who is going to use it?” It took months to get people interested in singing in front of the patrons in the bar area of the bowling alley. At that time, I was not old enough to enter that part of the alley, but I could hear the songs being sung. To be honest, I wasn’t interested in that at all. In the beginning, only women were singing, but, as time passed, men started singing as well. Of course, the men would drink heavily before performing in front of others.
After months had passed, karaoke became a Thursday night hit and brought in visitors from neighboring cities. Not only did it draw many guests, but it also got the local police interested.
They would go around with chalk and mark the tires of the “stars of the evening” and then pull them over on their way home to check if they were above the legal limit for alcohol consumption. Unfortunately, “Thursday Night Idol” ended due to the number of citations issued for drunk driving. People simply did not want to risk a night out for a night in jail, a heavy fine and an increase in their monthly insurance premiums.
In Korea, the singing room is a place to go to relieve one’s stress. Here, it’s a favorite pastime where friends, business associates or couples can do whatever they like in the privacy of their own room. No matter how badly I sing, both the machine and my friends will tell me that I sing well. My friends will also join in at times to cover my flaws or to play the tambourine to keep the beat. As a foreigner, it is always a good idea to perform a song with an upbeat tempo in order to get your friends or colleagues in the spirit.
Additionally, most establishments serve alcohol and food to help keep the good times going and to make your visit a memorable one. And here in Korea, public transportation is always available to ensure you make it home safely after guzzling your drink of choice for the evening. On the other hand, in the States, you sing in a bar in front of total strangers.
I never attempted it back home and have no intention of doing so in the future. It takes a lot of nerve or alcohol to get up and perform, especially when you’re concerned about how those strangers will regard your performance.
After all, you are their entertainment. For many, a few drinks help ease the tension of performing in front of strangers.
Korea has made singing karaoke fun for people of all ages, whereas in the States, it is seen as an adult pastime due to age restrictions on entering bars. Young Americans rarely have the opportunity to try singing on a karaoke machine.
By the time they turn 21 and can drink legally, the desire to do karaoke is far from the top of their to-do lists. On the other hand, Korean parents introduce their children to the singing room early in their lives as a way of enjoying an evening of family entertainment. This tradition continues well into their adult lives, and the singing room is one place where business relationships are maintained and nurtured.
My life in Korea has certainly made me fonder of noraebang for both the good times and how it has helped me overcome my stage fright, which, in turn, has certainly made me a better public speaker.
*The writer is a former senior consultant at ING Life Insurance in Seoul.
By Rick Dysinger