How Korea taught me to love singing

노래방 (noraebang) translates literally to ‘song room’ and is Korea’s very popular version of Karaoke. People go in small groups, and are given a private room, bookable by the hour. The usual set-up includes 2 microphones, 2 tambourines, a couple of song books, a giant remote control, a big couch around a table, and 1-3 TVs that show the song lyrics along with a totally irrelevant video of Korean couples breaking up or scenic beaches. Most places charge by the hour, but will add quite a bit more time for free if you start to run out. Some of the fancier establishments require that you buy some alcohol and food, but at most purchasing alcohol is optional (although that may actually be illegal) or you can bring your own. Some places have a pole in the middle of the room (for dancing?) and some have girls you can “order” to come and sing and dance with you! Some are very fancy, and some are in dingy basements.

noraebang with the fatherMost noraebangs seem to be open all night, from early evening til morning, although I can’t be sure because I’ve never found one closed when I wanted to go. I’ve never been one for karaoke, and was quite terrified by noraebangs at first. But visiting noraebangs quickly became one of my favorite evening activities in Korea. I’ve been more times than I can count, and have more than exhausted all of the songs I know in their song books (for myself as well as the friends that usually accompany me, I’m sure).

After-festival noraebang-ing
Picture taken by my friend Ellen.

Noraebangs are much more a part of Korean culture than karaoke is in America. I was pretty surprised when my first school outing went to a noraebang right after dinner, and everyone was expected to sing and dance together in one very cramped room. It was quite unlike any work party I’ve been to back in the US: I danced with the head teacher while the principal sang an old pop song, and then was asked to sing “Poker Face”. My lack of confidence was only made worse by everyone else’s impressive singing abilities. I don’t know if it’s because most Korean people grow up going to noraebangs and get more practice singing, but I think they’re much better than the average American at carrying a tune. After a couple crates full of Hite and Soju, my lack of ability didn’t matter. By the end of the evening, I had sang an ABBA song I’d never heard before with the gym teacher, and “Last Christmas” and “Love Me Tender” arm-in-arm with several less-than-sober colleagues.

As it turns out, this really isn’t anything out of the ordinary when it comes to workplace outings in Korea. At first I thought it was so “unprofessional”, but Korea just has it’s own kind of professionalism. And I have to say I appreciate it quite a bit.

Want to impress your Korean co-workers at the noraebang? Try some ABBA, Michael Jackson, Beatles, “Lemon Tree” by Fool’s Garden, or “I Believe I Can Fly”. Younger audiences will probably appreciate Lady Gaga, Adele (if you can pull that off!), Backstreet Boys, NSYNC or “Bad Case of Loving You” by Robert Palmer. Why some of these songs and groups are popular, I truly don’t understand…

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Halloween

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One of my students models my Halloween costume. Can you guess what it is?

I had meant to write about Halloween before, but apparently never got around to it. Oops! Nothing like some Halloween in January though, right?

I never really liked Halloween as a kid, I think because I could never come up with good costume ideas. But then in university I discovered the amazingness that is Halloween in New York, and that I really like to make things, and since then I’ve been all about it. And as far as teaching holidays to my students goes, Halloween is definitely the most fun.

Halloween isn’t really celebrated in Korea, although it seems to be gaining popularity from all the foreign English teachers telling kids about it and throwing parties at school. All of the big supermarkets have small Halloween sections with witch hats and devil pitchforks, but it seems most kids don’t dress up unless they have a Halloween party at their private schools. Most of the kids are aware there’s a Halloween-candy connection though, which is all they really care about. Many of my students came by the English room on Halloween to say, “Teacher! Trick-or-treat! Candy, please!” Haha, nice try kids.

Some decorations from home made for a nice festive atmosphere in the classroom–

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I hadn’t put little plastic spiders in cotton cobwebs in years! It’s pretty fun.

In my weekly “English Cinema” class we watched The Nightmare Before Christmas and made Halloween masks. I was a little worried about whether they’d be into the movie or not, as they don’t really celebrate Halloween or Christmas, but they seemed to like it. Especially the music.

The Halloween masks came out pretty cute, and gave me a good use for all the disposable chopsticks I’ve accumulated from over a year of take-out kimbaps and delivery.

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We should’ve used some paint or something more vivid, but they were still all right. I especially liked this project because I got to spend my “deskwarming” time making samples:

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The best part about teaching in a school is getting to wear my costume there, even if I am the only one.

Last year, I had had a rather raucous Halloween exploring downtown Daegu on a bar crawl with mobs of foreigners. This year, I stayed in Ulsan, where there were plenty of parties at the foreigner bars, but nothing quite like Daegu. I was really surprised to find a Korean-hosted party at one of my favorite bars, Showtime, in Ulsan’s old downtown. I was the only foreigner while I was there, and so forced to play the pass-the-paper-mouth-to-mouth game between two ajosshis, but also got a free cocktail. 아싸!