When your significant other's cell phone begins ringing at 11:30pm, certain things may cross your mind. The first being, "Who the hell is calling?"
Is there a crisis at work? Some kind of family emergency? Or worse, a call from a distraught secret lover?
Where I come from, unspoken phone call etiquette exists. If you think there is a possibility that the person has gone to sleep for the night, or still hasn't woken up in the morning, than don't call. Of course there are exceptions to this-for example, all that 4am drunk dialing you did Freshman year of college was probably acceptable at the time. But now that we are adults, there are certain codes of phone call conduct we must adhere to. In America.
In China, things are, as always, different. For example, it is perfectly acceptable for one of my husband's coworkers to call at 1am asking for advice. I realize he is the head manager at the hotel he is working at, but I don't think I'll ever find it reasonable for someone to call in the wee hours of the morning to ask, "Can Mr. Wang be given a 20% discount?" When Ming answers with a furious no, it is not uncommon for a follow up call to occur two minutes later. "Can we give Mr. Wang a 15% discount?" To this Ming replies with a long string of Chinese curse words which I usually find highly amusing. Though it's not so amusing after midnight.
While these calls are a little troubling, they are not as bad as the ones the require Ming to leave in the middle of the night. Sometimes there's a problem at work that must be attended to, other times there is KTV.
"What is KTV?" you ask. I'll tell you. It's a phenomenon that has been sweeping Asia since it started in Japan in the 1970s. It hit the American scene in the 1990s. You and I know of it as karaoke. To us, it's a fun and annoying past time that includes singing while intoxicated to songs like Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back" in a cheesy corner bar full of strangers. To the Chinese, it is something entirely different.
First, the Chinese don't sing in front of a bar of strangers. KTV is found in what looks like a hotel. A huge building filled with rooms of various sizes. When you enter the lobby, you go to the front desk and request a room. You can get a larger room if you have a big party or if you are a monied Chinese hoping to show off to friends or business associates. Larger rooms are more expensive. Rooms are rented by the hour and rates are usually more expensive on the weekends and at night.
Once in your room you will find a TV, a computer for selecting songs, two microphones, a couch or two, a table, and (if it's a nice room) a bar. A waitress will come to take drink and snack orders. Drinking beer is essential to KTVing. So is chain smoking.
You might be wondering if I can even participate in such an activity. I'm not much for chain smoking and certainly singing in Chinese is not easy. Are English songs even available? I'll have you know, they most certainly are. The selection, however, leaves much to be desired. What's on the menu? A little Madonna circa 1985, classic Britney and MJ. Oh, and The Carpenters. Who are they? Yeah, I don't really know. I usually stick to "Baby, Hit Me One More Time" and "Smooth Criminal."
What's most different from American karaoke is not the venue, but rather the nature of karaoking itself. While it can be enjoyed during a drunken night with friends, it is most often used as a way to form business relationships. Meeting new people and establishing a relationship is key to survival in China, especially for men. With such fierce competition in the job market, who you know is everything. And what better way to introduce and meet new people than through a night at KTV?
Last week, I found myself without my husband late into the night after an 11pm phone call requesting him to go karaoke. This happened twice. I think most American women would find this somewhat infuriating, especially considering that Ming did not return home until 5am on Thursday morning and then went out again the following night. But I just try to grin and bare it. This KTV culture is a part of China that's unavoidable. Often time I do get invited along, but I rather miss the endless hours of painful Chinese singing and ongoing requests for me to sing Mariah Carey's "Hero" or Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On." My time is better spend at home in the comfort of my bed.