Letter of Recommendation: Karaoke at Home


Early in my life, without any supporting evidence, I fretted over what I believed was my fate: accidentally becoming an international pop star. The pages of my diary were filled with hypothetical ethical dilemmas. Could I at least retire early, or would that deprive my 20 million fans of my voice? What if world peace depended on my continuing to sing? I was 10 and lived almost entirely in my mind. In retrospect, this fixation was a heightened version of my parents’ very real fear that they would lose me to the ravenous, nightmarish black hole that was American culture.

While I was growing up in Flushing, Queens, we socialized exclusively with other Chinese immigrants. I was forbidden to make contact with nonapproved, non-Chinese peers outside school. That was fine with me. We went to parties every weekend at some family friend’s house that always concluded the same way: an adult drunkenly puking and another one turning on the karaoke machine.

Americans are just now settling into the age of doing things communally by staying at home, but Chinese karaoke technology has been around for decades. While Americans tend to do karaoke onstage at a bar in front of strangers, in Asia and in most Asian-American neighborhoods, you rent out private rooms or have a full setup at your place. It’s not uncommon to sing all by yourself, either: Recently, young people in urban China have started frequenting self-service karaoke booths that link to social-media apps so users can share their perform­ances online. Whenever my parents traveled back to the homeland they would always return with the newest home-karaoke technology. The early models filled an entire checked-in suitcase, massive clunkers that took LaserDiscs.

The adults — drunk or sober, it didn’t matter — would gather around the machine for hours to belt out old standards from their youth, as well as the occasional Communist anthem about smashing Western imperialism and plenty of Teresa Teng, the Taiwanese pop sensation. I was the oldest of a coterie of kids, and I had to see to it that we made an appearance, usually with our hands over our ears. ‘‘Don’t ask us to sing,’’ we’d warn pre-emptively. Still, I fantasized about singing to a crowd of revelers, only to freeze up every time the microphone was thrust in my face. None of the karaoke machines ever had English songs, anyway.

Karaoke was my family’s happy secret. In those early years in America, like many immigrants, my parents struggled with poverty and loneliness, but they also built provisional families, and inside our bubble there was joy, understanding, an intimate language I could never translate — and above all there was song. Out there, we were flat-faced, all-look-the-same nobodies. But in our own homes, I saw how my parents and their friends could be loose, free and loud.

In the middle of seventh grade, we moved to a white suburb on Long Island, and everything changed. Not only was the drive back to Queens long enough to make trips infrequent, but with the high of our newfound class mobility came crushing paranoia that the tentacles of American individualism, recklessness and narcissism were coming for me, and so my parents clamped down even harder. Meanwhile, among my classmates, I no longer flew under the radar; instead, I was singled out, and my ethnicity made me a target for mockery. Faced with ostracization at school and confinement at home, I turned to karaoke. That year, my mother returned to Shanghai and came back with yet another karaoke machine. ‘‘It has English songs,’’ she said, pulling out a LaserDisc that came free with the system. I recognized two of them. I feigned nonchalance, but the next day after school when no one was home, I turned it on and began to learn the words to ‘‘What’s Up’’ by 4 Non Blondes.

Accomplished vocalist I was not, but it felt good to belt out someone else’s words. The rage I didn’t know what to do with — for having to endure racism and bullying from my peers, for the intense isolation my parents put me through — slipped free of my body, and I felt worthwhile, dazzling even. At school, I was reviled; at home, I could shake the walls with my voice until the moon rose in the sky — or at least until my parents came home from work.

The latest in Chinese home karaoke — a portable microphone that connects to your smartphone, with a built-in speaker — has now made solo singing more appealing than ever. Last week, after a surge of renewed anxiety about the world, I ordered a knockoff from eBay, and alone in my cramped New York apartment, I put my new rose gold microphone up to my lips. I felt like the speaker in the William Carlos Williams poem ‘‘Danse Russe,’’ who dances naked in front of the mirror once his wife, baby and nanny have gone to sleep and sings to no one: ‘‘I am lonely, lonely./I was born to be lonely,/I am best so!’’ I cued up a song and suddenly realized that I wasn’t lonely, lonely. No longer that dim creature who lived subterraneously for years, longing to perform while terrified of an audience, I told myself a small New York lie: All my neighbors are at work — surely no one can hear me. And I took a deep breath, and I sang at the top of my lungs, ‘‘What’s going on?’’


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here