The other day I learned the difference between karaoke and KTV in China. Although these terms are used interchangeably by most people, I suspect for the simple reason that KTV is just easier to pronounce when you live in a place where language is a constant barrier for everybody, there is in fact a difference between the two. Karaoke is for Chinese people who like to sing, and foreigners who don’t happen to have anything more interesting to do after dinner & drinks than to go listen to their Chinese friends sing. KTV is where Chinese businessmen go to live the lives they wish they could live everyday if only they didn’t have bothersome technicalities like wives and children. Occasionally, you also find foreign men at KTVs, who are there with the Chinese businessmen who like to show foreigners that life in China is fabulous and therefore they should invest money in Chinese ventures. Anyway, that’s what I gleaned from my conversation with Mr. Gamer, who I consider a reliable authority because, up to that point, he was my only authority on this subject.
But anyway. Talking about scandalous things isn’t as fun as experiencing scandalous things first hand. This might be the kind of thinking that leads to Sunday news stories about naked bodies with multiple stab wounds found in garbage bins behind greasy restaurants, but I justify myself by self-convincing that I have the brains to outsmart (and the legs to outrun) any devious serial killer lurking around. This is not actually true: I still cannot configure iTunes and can barely make one, very slow lap around my apartment building. But it’s my delusions that string along my will to live, and it’s been a good system thus far. So it is that one recent Saturday evening, I found myself in a cab with three dudes shuttling towards a “real” KTV on the outskirts of town. It was all I could do to refrain my hands from clapping with glee.
Behold, my partners in scandal:
1. Mr. Capitalist: White boy from the U.S., here in China in ubiquitous pursuit of riches and fame. Maybe just riches. Calling someone a capitalist in China doesn’t really mean anything – everybody is a capitalist here, whether they intend to be one or not. I debated amongst several names for this guy, including Mr. Republican, and Mr. Frat Boy, but given that “capitalism” is his motto in life (as well as his favorite word when describing himself), and making money at any and all cost is his singular obsession, I decided that he deserves the name Mr. Capitalist despite the stiff competition against 1,339,724,851 other people in this country.
2. Mr. Chinese Boss: Mr. Capitalist’s boss. As you might guess from his title, he is a Chinese guy. When I say someone is Chinese, it does not mean that someone simply looks and speaks Chinese. It means that this person is Chinese to his deepest roots, that the Chinese way of thinking, doing, eating and pooping has comprehensively penetrated into every single last cell in his body. This guy, he is a Chinese boss. He looks like a Chinese boss. He talks like a Chinese boss. He celebrated his birthday with his wife and kids at home with cake and soda immediately before abandoning them to take us to KTV, just like a true Chinese boss would.
3. Mr. Intern: As the name implies, this guy is Mr. Chinese Boss and Mr. Capitalist’s intern, hailing from an European country that harbors and breeds all the particularly hot men in the world, in my humble opinion anyway. Mr. Intern isn’t exactly an eyesore himself, if you don’t mind me saying. Too bad I have morals and am not a pedophile.
How did I get caught up with this particular crowd? Well, it’s hard to say, exactly. At the moment of this fateful cab ride, I had known Mr. Capitalist for 6 days, Mr. Intern for 6 hours, and Mr. Chinese Boss for, uh, about 6 minutes. The simplest way to recap what happened was that I eavesdropped on Mr. Capitalist and Mr. Intern talking about the event, immediately volunteered myself to tag along, and prayed to god they were too nice to say No, which they were (yay!). And then Mr. Chinese Boss was simply bullied along by the group momentum. Coincidentally, this is pretty much my only but generally successful method of getting what I want.
When the meter in the cab hit about 45RMB, we reached our destination: a hotel. I was momentarily confused, not to mention slightly alarmed. The confusion subsided quickly, however, when we went downstairs to the basement and was immediately greeted by eight busty women in skin-tight green skirt suits bowing and chanting “欢迎光临!” (“Welcome!”). My bad. I forgot that the truly awesome Chinese sights are all in the basements.
Our gang of four were quickly hustled into a room. To an innocent eye, this might look like any other karaoke room, but there are two distinct differences: 1) It came equipped with its own bar, and bartender/servant/songtress, a.k.a., The Hostess; and 2) It was big enough to seat ten, since, obviously, we’re expecting company. I settled into a corner chair, ready to be the quiet observer.
“You! You sit in the middle.” Mr. Chinese Boss ordered, looking directly at me.
Uh…ok. I moved my ass and sat myself smack inbetween Mr. Capitalist and Mr. Intern. Okay. Not bad. The view is good. I can dig this.
The company wasted no time. In the time it took The Hostess to fill two beer glasses, a dozen girls in either red or turquoise glittering gowns had filed into the room and lined themselves up in front of us. It was pretty dazzling, I won’t lie. In a different country or setting, I might have expected these girls to be kind of weathered and gross. But these girls weren’t gross at all. They were all very young and fresh looking, actually. Like they were dressed up to go to the prom. Except dressed in identical gowns, which I guess would be kind of weird for a real prom. There were two girls at my own prom, 900 years ago, that wore the same dress. They weren’t friends afterwards. At least they’re not on Facebook.
I believe it is in these such moments that a guy’s inner inhibitions reveal themselves. I looked around the room at the three guys present. Observe:
1. Mr. Chinese Boss – The guy with no inhibitions.
2. Mr. Intern – The guy with some inhibitions probably, but had clearly decided to put them aside for the occasion.
3. Mr. Capitalist – The guy who suddenly looks rather uncomfortable.
Mr. Chinese Boss, true to form, is a very selfless and courteous man. He insisted that Mr. Intern and Mr. Capitalist pick their girls first. Mr. Intern and Mr. Capitalist looked from left to right, then from right to left. Then from left to right.
I decided to make myself useful by making suggestions. “Fourth from the right! Oh wait, what about second from the left?” I started belting out. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. All the girls stood around looking generally confused and uncomfortable, clearly uncertain of my role in the procedure.
“What’s the difference between the girls in the red dresses and the girls in the blue dresses?” Mr. Capitalist posed the question.
“The girls in the red can speak some English, the girls in the blue only speak Chinese.” The Madam answered.
Oh wait, I forgot to mention The Madam. It appears that wherever you have girls lining up on exhibition, you also inevitably have The Madam. Otherwise there would be no one around to keep the girls in check, to assuage angry customers (more on this later), and to explain the differences between red and blue (dresses, not pills). The Madam is an impressive creature. A forty-something, petite woman, dressed head to toe in black but blinged out equally head to toe, she is everywhere at once and commands authority over just about everybody. The Madam sat patiently next to Mr. Chinese Boss and listened attentively to his instructions.
Mr. Capitalist and Mr. Intern immediately dismissed all girls in blue and concentrated only on the girls in red. I found this behavior equally encouraging and befuddling. Men want to have conversation with girls? At a KTV? What could they possibly talk about?
Within minutes, Mr. Intern picked out a girl in red, who stepped out of the lineup and came to sit on his right side.
“You can choose more than one!” Mr. Chinese Boss clarified helpfully.
“Oh. Uh…” Mr. Intern resumed surveying the lineup.
In the meantime, Mr. Capitalist was sitting rather quietly on the other side of the couch.
“Mr. Capitalist! What about you?” Inquired Mr. Chinese Boss.
I was equally concerned. “Dude, are you okay man? You look kind of…dazed.”
“This is kind of weird. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.” Mr. Capitalist finally said.
I don’t know what type of imagery Mr. Capitalist had in his mind when he said that, but this is what I was thinking inside my own eyelids.
Mr. Chinese Boss interpreted this indecisive behavior on Mr. Capitalist’s part as dissatisfaction with the selection. “Don’t worry, there are more! Many more! No need to rush.” He began to raise his hand in a gesture to dismiss all girls in the room with a wave.
“Wait, wait, okay that one.” Mr. Capitalist finally picked a girl, also in red. This did not, however, prevent the next wave from coming in. Actually, the next 4 waves.
After some serious quality evaluations, the final composition of the room looked like this: 1) Mr. Chinese Boss with 1 blue girl, 2) Mr. Intern with 2 red girls, and 3) Mr. Capitalist with 1 red girl. Plus The Hostess, and me, the random girl who looks Chinese but runs around yelling things in English. Yay. Party on.
This party, like any other party, consisted of several phases.
Phase 1: The Awkward Phase. No one has had much alcohol yet. The room is well lit and the conversation is polite. And limited, because despite The Madam’s claim that the girls in red speak some English, they really…don’t. Their English level is pretty much at the same level as most other people in China who claim that they know some English, which is to say that they can probably read a master’s thesis but is too shy to say something like “This dress may look hot but is really scratchy inside.”
To fill the awkward silence, I turned to my fallback role of translator/gossip, during which I learned the following about these girls: They’re incredibly young. They’re like, 19 years old. Some of them are in college. But they can earn anywhere from 600 to 2,000 RMB a night at these places without even going home with anyone! They don’t have to go home with anyone at all. They can pick and choose and say No Way in Hell to you (politely of course) if they don’t happen to like you. They will only go home with you if they think you’re pretty darn cute. The average turnover time with these girls in these places is about 4-5 days. I.e., make your buck and run. I am totally impressed.
I started planning my alternative source of income.
Phase 2: The Everybody Gets Drunk Phase, a.k.a. everybody’s favorite phase. The beer bottles have now lined all the walls. Really old American rock music is playing with original sound on. Mr. Intern and Mr. Capitalist are grinding with each other, and Mr. Chinese Boss plus all the ladies are laughing and clapping encouragingly. Eventually everybody joins in on the type of dancing you see at the end of a boozy wedding, or a high school dance. (Young people don’t need booze to party. Old people do.) Shirts come off (not mine), cell phone cameras start snapping (mine). It’s an all around good time.
Some of the other things that happened during this phase：
- Somebody ate fruit out of somebody else’s underwear.
- Somebody ate fruit out of somebody else’s mouth.
- I finally figured out what all the fruit is for.
- Some of those beer bottles lining the walls got broken.
- Some goodwill also got broken and The Madam had to come intervene. Mr. Intern and Mr. Capitalist got nervous that this party might end before its time. But more fun for everybody, it didn’t.
Phase 3: The Everybody Needs To Take A Break From Being Drunk and Start “Talking” Phase. At some point Mr. Chinese Boss decided that this party was turning into too much of an American frat party, and not the kind of party he intended on having. So the music was turned down and the lights came back on, so that everybody could really get to know each other. I left very soon after this phase started, because I don’t need to get to know everybody that well.
As I finally made my way up the exit stairs (not the same as the entrance stairs, those sneaky tricksters) after navigating my way through throngs of red and turquoise-gowned girls marching in single file inside a ginormous maze of mirrored hallways, a bunch of drunk Chinese guys happened to be making their exit at the same time and apparently took a liking to me. I stood on the stairs and considered their proposition. Should I make 2 months worth of rent money within a few hours’ span? Could I? Sadly, I could not. I am doomed to a life of sitting in a cubicle working for The Man and bawling inside every time I have to hand over the rent due every 3 months.
Days later, Mr. Capitalist reported that the girl he picked out of the lineup, the 19-year-old college girl, ended up going home with Mr. Chinese Boss. Apparently, they will also go home with you if they think you’re pretty darn rich.