Alex Wright

Karaoke night

May 28, 2006

I knew I had penetrated the zone of High Weirdness when the Koreans started country line-dancing to "The Age of Aquarius."

This was well into a night of heavy drinking (for everyone but still-medicated me), Korean barbecue and karaoke at Sue's house. Sue is a local Korean bodega impresario who has done well enough for herself that she now finances local restaurants. She's currently backing a friend's restaurant venture, and had invited everyone over for a night of traditional Korean merrymaking.

Sue lives deep in southside Richmond, somewhere off Hull Street, in the kind of crossover neighborhood where people drive pickup trucks with duct-tape crucifixes plastered on the back window, past the billboard for the Mt Gilead Full Gospel International Ministry, the half-empty Food Lion, and a string of fast food places, Hispanic iglesias and auto parts dealers. On the dirt-and-gravel driveway of Sue's nondescript-looking house sits a gleaming new black Mercedes. Inside, the house is nicely appointed, the walls adorned with traditional Korean calligraphy, a painting of a Virginia fox hunt (can you say, mixing our interior design metaphors?), and an enormous Samsung flatscreen TV hooked up to a professional-grade Karaoke system.

Seven years ago, I spent a few nights in Seoul, where I had the pleasure of attending a traditional business dinner. That night, the Koreans sat on one side of the room, the Westerners on the other. There was barbecue, ample booze, and Karaoke. Everyone got good and rowdy. At the end of the dinner, our Korean hosts stood up to serenade us with a lushy Korean love song (this, we were told, boded well for doing business the next day). We felt obliged to serenade them back, with the only song anyone could come up with that a besotted bunch of Yanks and Brits could halfway manage to fake their way through: "Love Love Me Do."

There were no serenades this night, but there was plenty of Karaoke love in the air. The most prolific singer was a fellow named Mr. Lee, a natural cut-up who punctuated his performances with one of the most perfect dance moves I have ever seen: a kind of flailing-elbow double-time Chicken Dance maneuver (you really had to see it). He spoke almost no English except for his favorite catchphrase, repeated at the end of each performance - "That's what we're talkin' bout!" - exclaimed with a high-five to whoever happened to be sitting nearby. For the Westerners, my friend Woody proved our most reliable warbler, hamming his way through Karaoke-synthesizer-fied versions of "American Pie," "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme," and "One Is the Loneliest Number." The closest anyone came to a love song was when Woody teamed up with Mr. Lee for a heartfelt duet on John Denver's "Country Roads."

That's what we're talkin' bout.

File under: Personal

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