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If I added up all the hours I have suffered the indecency of being subjected to karaoke throughout Asia, the time would amount to literally months of my life. I can think of no other group activity with such singular disregard for aesthetic taste and one that so poignantly devours hope for the future of our race.
The sensory onslaught centers around the television, which by itself reduces social engagement to forward-facing blinking. Add to this the images on the screen: an asynchronous montage of frosted lovers galloping across pastoral landscapes, gaping in contemplation and overwrought with feigned longing. This, on its own, serves to stir and chill, but it is the mere beginning of the horror.
Enter the music. By and large songs range from drizzly pop to suicidal ballads. They are the inferior counterfeits of the most tasteless of western arrangements. But to make matters worse, these karaoke rip-offs are often not even played as they were originally recorded by their hapless poser composers, having often been re-orchestrated as synthesized versions of their poor copies. The final effect is reminiscent of a homeless busquer plugged to a Casio on the New York subway.
And if even this were the extent of the abuse it would still almost be tolerable. Yet karaoke is even so much less. Let’s lubricate the visual and audible onslaught with crates of warm lager and whisky cocktails sweetened with green tea. And let’s now smack around and screech into microphones, with the reverb turned up to a deafening echo. Yes, let’s. Bad ideas compound and flourish.
Sometimes a karaoke old-timer demonstrates his or her vocal prowess at a nationalistic military diddly, undoubtedly drawing enthused applause and subsequent rounds of toasts. Sometimes hookers are traipsed into the room with whom there is waltzing and fondling. Some of them can even impress with a boozy tune before being whisked to a hotel or into a corner.
A dark, confined and smoke-stained room with maximumly amplified music blasted through low grade speakers; the sexually starved scream through microphones and gush with inebriation and pride: for me an unparalleled nightmare, yet to many a karaoke dream.
So, the perennial question: why do I time after time fall victim to this agonizing charade? Perhaps, like Sisyphus, it is the hopeless belief that, but once, my struggles will conclude in a triumphant result. Perhaps it is my sensibility for the absurd, an appreciative and perverse eye for the culmination of nonsense. And like karaoke, the meaning is to be found less in the question and more in simply giving oneself over to the throngs of existence.
The Masai Mara is too hot during the day to make a game drive. All of the big animals have already fed and now retreated to the shade until dusk.
At my camp’s reception tent I sprawl amidst colorful pillows drinking a cold bottle of Elephant beer while zoning out on my electric guitar. I have brought a travel-size guitar, which is amplified through a portable walkman-like effects box and enjoyed through headphones. As the lone patron lounging under the oversized tent, this scene garners the curious enthusiasm of the several Masai warriors whom are waiting to greet the next SUV of arriving tourists.
A Masai warrior, Mbeke, who I met the day before invites me on a nature walk through the surrounding bush. He hands me a traditional bright red- and pink-checkered blanked to shield my head and arms from the engulfing sun. I haphazardly drape it around myself and sling my guitar over a shoulder. He fetches his spear and we both begin our stroll.
Only meters from the tent he leads us onto a narrow path through the thicket, clearing the overgrown thistle and thorns with a stick he tears from the underbrush. He stops at one shrub and plucks off several leaves which are edible. I try one but it doesn’t taste like much. Farther along Mbeke shows me a surprisingly velvety leaf that he chuckles is used for toilet paper.
A few minutes later we again pause and Mbeke yanks loose a small branch. He skillfully whittles at one end with the large tip of his spear, which appears ineffective for cutting the much narrower stick. But within moments he transforms one side into a bouquet of fine shreds. Mbeke repeats this process with a second branch and hands the undisclosed finished product to me. He then opens his mouth, displaying a naturally manicured set of white teeth, and in controlled semi circles glides the freshly torn end of the branch around them: a Masai toothbrush. We saunter onwards twisting our makeshift dental tools between our teeth, myself mimicking Mbeke’s nonchalance as if it, too, were something I have done all my life.
then inquire about his spear, which he says was handed down to him by his father and from his father’s father before that. He explains how a boy becomes a warrior when he is of age and then a cattle herder or a farmer after he is too old. I ask his age but he doesn’t know. He says the Masai don’t count time the way we do. Hearing this makes me recollect a case study I read about the Masai tribe in an introductory anthropology class in college. He looks 17 or so.
When we come to a clearing I want to know if the spear is hard to throw. He slows and steadies its weight, which seems as solid as Mbeke himself. It looks too heavy to be effective for throwing, but with his arm and elbow extended at an obtuse angle to his ear he then propels its mass about 15 feet in front of us. The spear briefly sails just above the bushes before collapsing with a thud and sticking into a soft patch of grass. Mbeke asks me to try and I graciously accept.
I balance my guitar upright against a thick shrub and he hands me the spear. It is even heavier than it looks, and it is hard to find the balance between the metallic head and wooden shaft. The butt gets tangled in my unravelled blanket, so when I chuck the spear it just drops a few feet ahead and skids across the sun-baked dirt. More determined than embarrassed, I collect the weapon for a second attempt as Mbeke gesticulates some pointers in the air. With the Masai cloth now properly tucked out of interference, I aim for a closer target, and my second try results in the spear’s briefly careening before feebly sticking into soft ground. We acknowledge the result and carry on.
I ask about safety in the Mara from animals, and Mbeke explains there are occasional hippo and lion attacks. Not expecting that he had fallen victim, I discontinue my gait in disbelief when he says he had once used this very spear to kill a lioness. With all my attention now quizzically focused on him, I am eager to hear the tale.
One evening Mbeke was returning to his village when he was abruptly stopped in his tracks by a lioness. She was en route to her cubs which he surmised to be nearby because she began threateningly growling and circling, refusing to let him pass. Forced to defend his position, he held out his spear keeping her at bay. This dance transpired for ten minutes while Mbeke’s attempts to quell her anger by shouting and kicking up dirt proved futile. Fortunately for Mbeke, the ruckus caught the attention of a cattle herder across the narrow Mara River banks. And the farmer’s arrival distracted the lioness just long enough for Mbeke to pick up a rock and hurl it at her, which connected solidly against her head. With the predator now disarmed, this proved opportune for Mbeke’s warrior instincts to kick in. He lunged with his spear, plunging the weighty point into her unguarded shoulder. And then again into her side. Badly wounded, the lioness collapsed. Mbeke rushed behind her and with a dagger he deftly slit her throat.
Mbeke relays the account with animated expressions and exaggerated gestures, like when he pulls a clenched fist across his neck and widens his eyes at the part about cutting the lioness with the knife. He sometimes pauses unsurely and thinks what to say next. Some of the details seem hammed up if even implausible. But it is hard to tell. We now shade ourselves under a large tree surrounded by cattle, and I half-interestedly inquire as to what happened to the lioness, to which he says he removed her furs and saved them as a token of his prowess and for good fortune. Even if he is making the whole thing up, even if it is all just a canned ruse reserved to indulge doughy eyed tourists, it is still the perfect Masai Mara story.
Years later I will hap upon a brittle toothbrush once fashioned from a stick that was torn from a bush somewhere far away in the Kenyan savannah. It will be in the back of a draw or stored in a closet, a peculiar souvenir I might think, and not quite ready to be discarded.
Upon entering Myun Young High School for boys, Ms. Jeong instructs me to take off my shoes and choose a pair of the communal plastic sandals stacked in rows along worn wooden racks. She leads me up the four flights to the teachers’ room where in the stairwell we traverse passed onrushing throngs of greasy, pockmarked boys. Sporadically one bursts “hello,” or “fuck you,” and anonymously giggles onwards in the swarm of disheveled school uniforms. Ms. Jeong pretends to ignore them, while I smile uncertainly and struggle not to catch my suit pants in the back of my slippers.
We enter a large teachers’ room and walk passed a teacher berating two boys. He is purple-faced and screaming down at them inches from their sobbing faces. Walking down the main corridor another student curls on the cracked linoleum floor as two teachers take turns clubbing him with sticks. It reminds me of the Rodney King beating. Neither Ms. Jeong nor the scattered teachers shuffling papers at their desks takes notice. Further down a student lays motionless with his hands on the floor and elbows locked as if about to perform a push-up, but his legs are propped up high behind him in a window’s ledge so his torso is propelled downward at a 45-degree. He struggles not to collapse. A teacher momentarily spins around in his wheeled chair and inspects the boy approvingly.
At the end of the hall a benevolently beaming Mr. Li bows towards us in welcome, introducing himself as Myun Young’s head English teacher.
Sparing any social graces of small talk, he cranes his neck and closes his eyes in sudden deep thought, and then asks in broken, slurred English if you can use the word “homework” as a verb. Trying to match his intensity and sternness, I carefully respond that I don’t think so. And then more definitively I confirm that in fact you cannot. He nods firmly as if the matter is settled. But he again suddenly falls captive to his subconscious, and begins audibly humming with perplexity before finally querying, “Which is better to say, my mother likes to farm or my mother likes farming?” Before I can answer, his train of thought is interrupted by the school bell, and following its command brusquely turns to gather a textbook, cassette recorder and wooden switch. “This is a ‘love stick,’” he burbles, and hands me the items. “If a student is sleeping you hit the hands or the neck.” And he demonstrates with a closed fist in the air the desired force, and smiles.
I follow him and Ms. Jeong into a classroom of 50 or 60 unruly boys, who as we enter scatter towards their desks or lunge awake from deep sleep before all abruptly standing at attention. Mr. Li shouts at a few of them disinterestedly as he walks to the lectern where he continues hollering.
When he introduces me his demeanor softens, his countenance becoming near angelic, which makes him appear only the more maniacal. Mr. Li instructs the group to be seated and open their books.
From atop the platform I gaze across the dim room into the blur of indistinguishable faces. My pulsating nerves replace any desire for the moment to pass, which for days has been percolating with dread. I feel unfamiliarly vulnerable standing on stage in front of a room of strangers and sweating in a suit and slippers, but I finally manage to wobble and blurt out, “Good morning.” In unison a thunderous chorus echoes back my greeting.
Mr. Li observes the students with militant scrutiny and Ms. Jeong cues the cassette.
“Charlie knows those boys swimming in the river,” the tape blares and then continues to crackle in silence.
Ms. Jeong signals the go-ahead for me to repeat this to the class, and so I do. “Charlie knows those boys swimming in the river.” And the group bursts back at me in a garbled refrain. I peer at the open book on the podium and find these words written under Exercise 1, Question 1.
Question 2 reads, “Some of the boys are Charlie’s pupils.” And then through weak tweeters this sentence becomes audible. So I repeat it now too.
“Some of the boys are Charlie’s pupils,” the boys roar back.
Either satisfied or bored, Mr. Li leaves the room and Ms. Jeong dutifully follows. I could not be more relieved. I hit ‘Stop’ on the cassette and return to the front of the room.
“How are you?” I shout with a smile.
“How are you!” they bellow back with broken laughter.
The dank room quickly exudes some levity.
It is surreal and fantastic. With this liberation a compulsion comes over me, and without hesitation I am just compelled to yelp, ”Fuck you!”
Nothing has ever sounded as distinctly beautiful as a packed house screaming ‘Fuck you’ at me. Seventeen years later it still fondly resonates.
I playfully raise the ‘love stick’ as to strike, and the animated boys relax in the hilarity.
This is my first time in Asia, and I have been in Kangnung only two days, and this is the first class I have ever taught.