There's Nothing Like Karaoke On A Saturday Morning

Sara Schaff
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The singing began last spring. One Saturday morning I was startled awake by a low groaning sound and a steady bass that vibrated our floor. I looked at the clock: 7 a.m.

My husband Ben and I are used to the sounds of our Beijing apartment building by now: Every weekday at approximately 6 a.m., an elderly gentleman upstairs hacks and coughs and gargles for several minutes; at 7 a.m., someone comes to the gates of the Muslim preschool outside our window and shouts: "Teacher! Teacher!"; and at 7:45, when the parents drop their children off in the school courtyard, the commotion is so loud, it almost seems to be coming from within our apartment walls.

But this Saturday morning, the groaning was different and unwelcome. Straining our tired ears, Ben and I realized the sound was some poor soul singing his heart out to a karaoke machine.

For the next several months, our weekend sleeps were interrupted by the warblings of Karaoke Boy. We had theories: The guy wanted to make it onto the Chinese version of American Idol and was intent on practicing every weekend. Or: During the week he worked an intense job full of overtime and drudgery, and this weekend karaoke was a way to let off steam. Or: He was trying to impress the date(s) who spent the night (occasionally we heard a youthful female voice singing the songs with him or by herself).

We soon concocted another theory about Karaoke Boy: perhaps he was working toward a life as a corporate mover and shaker. I've only recently come to understand that in China, karaoke is like golf: Deals are sealed not on the course but at the karaoke bar, and offices celebrate holidays and successes with late-night drinking and singing sessions. Your boss might practice for days before a night out at the karaoke bar. At some interviews for positions in the financial sector, prospective employees are asked if they sing. Say no, and you can kiss the job goodbye.

Regardless of the guy's motives, he was annoying us. But we didn't feel like we could do anything about it. We weren’t sure if it was culturally appropriate to knock on his door and ask him to turn down his music. Too direct, we thought.

The weekend singing continued, and Ben and I finally decided to act. I consulted my Chinese colleague, Zhao Yuan, about an approach. She agreed that it was rare for anyone to be confrontational about such a problem, but she thought Ben and I were in the right to ask our neighbor to stop disturbing the morning peace.

With Zhao Yuan's blessing, Ben and I decided to take action the next time Karaoke Boy started singing. On Saturday morning, we threw off the covers, pulled on our slippers, skirted around the clusters of cigarette butts on the stairwell, and approached apartment 201. The door was pulsing with the music. Now, standing closer to the source, I heard that the voice had a tearing quality; I almost worried that the guy was going to shred his vocal chords with the effort. We knocked, and the door slowly opened, revealing a woman in her 50s, wrinkled around her eyes, her hair pulled back as if she were about to get around to some serious house cleaning. The place looked like it needed some attention: Piles of clothes, papers, and dirty dishes filled the surfaces of the small front room.

The woman smiled. Over her shoulder, a male face appeared—mid 20s, ruffled hair, glasses, a sleepy look. I recited the speech I had been rehearsing in my head on the way downstairs: "Hi. Sorry to bother you. We are your upstairs neighbors. We can hear your music. It's too noisy. Can you—" not knowing how to say “turn down,” I motioned with my hand like I was fiddling with a knob on a radio—"the music?"

The woman nodded vigorously, her smile brighter than before. "Yes. Yes." She turned to look at her son, who stared at the floor.

Slowly, Karaoke Boy nodded his drooping head. "Sorry," he said, in English.

Karaoke Boy hasn't sung on a Saturday morning since our encounter. And whenever I run into his mother, she smiles kindly. I like to think that she is grateful to us for helping to provide a little quiet in her own home. But sometimes on a Sunday afternoon, or if I am home on a weekday, I will hear the familiar crooning voice below my feet—as strained as ever, but not quite as determined.

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