Stories from China: Karaoke

Catching up with an old friend last week got me thinking about the culture here in China, specifically the role of karaoke, known here as KTV.

Now everyone who’s ever met me knows that singing isn’t my strong suit, and as much as I wanted to be a good singer when I was little, I now fully accept that being the next greatest pop sensation just isn’t in my future. However, when my friends and I are in the KTV room, there is absolutely nothing stopping me from going for it! Although alcohol is playing a factor in that, KTV here is different from any karaoke I’ve ever experienced before. My karaoke past isn’t a great one, yelling down the microphone at discos and birthday parties when I was in primary school, becoming the new Spice Girls at a bar in Melbourne, and doing my best not to kill those who bring karaoke to the club at home. In China though, karaoke is a private affair. You rent a room with microphones, maracas and other percussion instruments, beer, fruit, and light settings you can adjust. The staff then leave, they’re close by in case something goes wrong, but they don’t witness the abomination of us singing. Then we’re let loose, and from Robbie Williams to Akon, every English language song they have is probably sung!

I’ve spent hours in a KTV room with my friends, stumbling home when the free beer became too much for me, going to the next door Mcdonalds at 2AM on the way in for fuel, and at 6AM for breakfast when we got kicked out. I’ve played games with Chinese people including probable prostitutes, sung more songs than I can count, and thankfully taken very few pictures! But KTV in China is more than the singing. I can think of very few children back home who would happily come with their father to karaoke and watch him butcher a classic song. That happens here though. In January we took our boss, Mayor Gao and their daughters for dinner and wanted to go to KTV afterwards. The children couldn’t stay late so John only stayed for one song which he sang. He sang it terribly, but the passion was undeniable, and his young daughter was happy as anything playing the maracas. It seems that if you try, even if you don’t succeed as long as you’ve tried hard that’s fine. KTV is a fun thing to do in China, and one of very few entertainment opportunities in Shijiazhuang, but its place in Chinese culture has no British comparison.

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Cultural Exchanges

In December the foreign teachers and I were lucky enough to be invited to 2 separate parties celebrating the festive season. At the first, the foreign students had prepared several small performances and the foreign teachers had prepared nothing, so hastily assembled and wowed everyone with a rendition of ‘Jingle Bells’. The Christmas party was much less formal that what I expected, and once the performances were over we were able to just chat and mess about (mainly with the wig we’d bought for the New Years party).

As part of the New Years celebrations at the school, we sacrificed one of our lunchtimes to attend a party with the foreign students, the senior special classes, everyone in the foreign affairs office and small children and their parents. I’m still not entirely sure who the small children and parents were but they seemed to enjoy themselves. Now, like the party I attended in class 4 last year (新年快乐!) this was less of a social affair and more of a talent show. After much complaining, we were informed that we had to put on some form of performance for everyone, and after a quick accidental brainstorming session on the staircase one evening, we decided to stage a traditional English pantomime, complete with a panto dame, audience participation and free sweets.

Putting my A-level in drama to good use, I became a minor character (although I received good feedback from the students!). The basic story was that after skipping school, naughty students opened up a rift in space-time and fell into a strange world where an evil cat witch was turning everyone into cats. Poor Sean was tasked with narrating in Chinese, and everyone else got to prance about on stage. Although we were worried they wouldn’t understand what was happening, the students laughed at the jokes as well as at the panto dame and the physical comedy and it was a right laugh.

After our spectacular performance, it was the turn of the foreign affairs office who had also been forced to do something on stage and then the special students and the foreign students. I was genuinely impressed by what the students were doing, including playing traditional instruments, painting, rapping and dancing. One class performed an extract from Merchant of Venice (which included a spectacular mustachioed student) and as well as remembering their lines, they actually added emotion into the dialogue too. I had to leave early to teach (even though I begged Sarah to move my class) and was gutted to miss the students performance of King Lear.

However, as luck would have it, I taught both special classes that afternoon. I’d quickly realised that my lesson plan on animal synonyms would kill the adrenaline and happiness from the party so decided to play games with them instead. It also meant that I got to see an encore of King Lear after asking nicely.

I was really apprehensive about the performance and the party in general but it ended up being a great lunch and I enjoyed myself.