A Canadian in Beijing: The Inevitability of Karaoke

I really don’t enjoy karaoke. I’m sure it comes from the fact that it had a peak of popularity in North America during my high school years – a time that I don’t often enjoy recollecting!

I started to perform live when I was ten and so all of my classmates knew that I had a “nice voice” and I was often cajoled and dragged and/or berated into singing at various parties and school events. Usually, the songs were cheesy love songs with bad keyboard sounds and wind chimes. Whitney Houston was a favourite, I recall, as was “Unchained Melody” by The Righteous Brothers.

When I hear the word “karaoke,” I feel a rush of an ancient mortification being unearthed in my body.

I remember being worried that the pitch would be wrong for my voice or the words hard to see on the screen. I can see my classmates looking at me expectantly and remember feeling impossibly shy without a guitar or my own songs to sing, fearing letting everyone down. . . and then missing the opening line of the song because of all the over-thinking I was doing. I was a typical teenager and typically awkward in those settings.

Eventually, I started to hate karaoke and when I was solicited to sing, I would root my feet firmly where I stood and refuse to go up and sing “other people’s songs” as though this were an affront to my artistry. In all honesty, I was scared to death. I built that whole phoney stance around my fears. I suppose this is a human response, but being here in Beijing has forced me to acknowledge it.

Because really, karaoke isn’t that evil.

The psychological effects of karaoke aside (!), it was inevitable that I would have to face my fears here in China. Singing is very related to partying here. There is often a karaoke option in clubs or restaurants and people are just accustomed to getting up and singing after they’ve enjoyed a meal and had a few drinks. It’s a cultural experience, shall we say.

In fact, when I discuss my DVD with people here, I have to explain that it is not a karaoke DVD. Videos here are most commonly karaoke videos (with the lyrics running across the bottom of the screen) and many homes have microphone attachments to their VCRs so that friends and family can sing along to the videos being played on the screen. It is popular, to say the least.

On Wednesday night, I was invited to a party by my friend Zou Rui. She is a professional singer and she has a beautiful voice and several karaoke DVDs. She truly does have an incredible voice. It’s one of the loveliest voices I have heard in a long time.

She was invited to this party by her teacher, a singing coach, who also works for the government. When I arrived, I noticed that we were two of only five women in a room of over fifty people (not counting the waitresses.) I was the only foreigner and everyone came over to greet me and clinked my glass to say hello (in English) and toast my arrival. I was drinking juice, which was a good thing, because it was regularly being emptied with every greeting; had it been beer, I would have been drunk within twenty minutes!

We then sat down to eat and the food was fantastic. Yet another example of the hot pot, but in this case each person had their own “cook station” which meant that I could be comfortably and independently vegan at this table. I enjoyed every bite but was amazed by the amount of food that was not eaten. So much waste! To compensate, I ate more than my fill and felt grateful to have been invited to join in.

After the meal, the karaoke machine started to hum, the t.v. monitors lit up and Zou Rui got up to start the entertainment. She sang a few songs to everyone’s great delight and mine included. Turns out that she knew she was supposed sing and she encouraged others to get up with her and do various duets of famous Chinese songs. The men at the party didn’t need much encouragement and they lined up to sing with her. She also sang “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton (but made especially famous by Whitney Houston, of course) and I was once again rocketed back to my high school awkwardness.

Right on that cue, she grabbed my elbow and said “lai, lai” (“come, come”) and pulled me up on the stage. The whole place turned to see what this foreign girl would do. Zou Rui had chosen one of the few English songs in the repertoire of titles available and suddenly the opening chords of “Hey Jude” by the Beatles began. She sang the first verse and in the pause, she introduced me to the audience in Chinese as “a very famous singer from Canada” and motioned that I ought to start singing the second verse.

ACK! My throat tightened and I was sure that I was going to vomit right there.

I had the microphone in front of my face but I wasn’t sure what was going to happen when I opened my mouth. Not only was I supposed to sing “Hey Jude” (a song that I don’t know very well – thank goodness for words on the screen!) but now I was supposed to demonstrate my “very famous” singing voice!

I opened my mouth tentatively and, thankfully, the notes came. My body bailed me out. By the first chorus, I was actually smiling and singing at full volume along with Zou Rui. By the second chorus, we were harmonizing. By the end of the song, they were on their feet and cheering.

So karaoke isn’t so bad. I can handle it.

Next time, however, I think I’ll have a drink first!

A Canadian in Beijing: Hot Shots, Hot Pots & Distant Thoughts

On Sunday night, I had the great pleasure of having dinner with my cousin. Well, actually, he’s the son of my Mother’s cousin and so I suppose that means that we’re second cousins, to be precise! He and his partner are on vacation and this was their last night in Beijing. We made plans for dinner and I solicited my friend Rui to come with me.

Remember when I fell in love with the moped? Well, motorcycles are even more fun. In fact, I’ll have to upgrade my love affair from moped to motorcycle, which further distances me from the relationship I have with my bicycle. She and I have had a talk and she knows that I can’t be tied down to one mode of transportation and so all is well in my original matrimony! Seriously, though, I always feel like a “hot shot” when I’m on the back of a motorcycle — like I’m right out of the Grease movies (especially Grease 2!) and I’m pretending to be Michelle Pfeiffer. Okay, so it’s a remnant of my childhood but it makes me smile!

Rui has a motorbike and I have to admit that I rarely refuse if he offers to drive me home or pick me up when the motorcycle is involved. (Of course there are also helmets on our heads, so don’t worry!) I wonder sometimes if he will start to feel used for his motorcycle but I’m careful to thank him and not the bike when I arrive at my destination. It’s actually conscious and so I suppose that’s the true definition of conscientious!!But, really, there’s something so incredible about the zipping through traffic like it’s a video game, the whipping wind in my hair and the heavy sound of the engine between my legs. Okay, I’ll stop there (on that note) but you get my point! Why has it taken me until China to realize that motorcycles are amazing!? Not quite sure.

We arrived at their hotel just a bit late (which is a wonder of wonders in Beijing where it’s easy to be extremely late at the best of times) and it was great to see them. Tim and Paulie looked refreshed and excited about their vacation and I felt for a moment like I was much closer to home than I am.

They decided they wanted some authentic Chinese food (despite the plethora of western restaurants surrounding their hotel) and so we agreed on a “hot pot” place. Rui called a friend and got a recommendation for a good restaurant that specializes in hot pots just about a ten-minute walk from the hotel. We set off down small alleys, around corners that only Rui knew and found ourselves on a wide street with large trees casting their evening shadows on our faces.

We walked slowly and talked while Rui pointed out local landmarks and we caught up on our lives. I would characterize our pace as a stroll and it felt good under my feet – a plush summer evening rolling out before me like a carpet.

The restaurant was quiet and brightly lit and had nothing in the way ambience except our smiles, but we settled in and they brought out the huge hot pot tower, the likes of which I have never seen before. It’s a copper structure with a coal fire glowing in its core and a small chimney extending up the centre with a cap on its top. This oven heats the water above which is divided into two sections, one with hot spices and one without. Throughout the meal, the “fuyuan” (wait staff) regularly fill up the trough with fresh boiling water so that it never boils all the way off.

They then brought our large selection of vegetables and tofu and stacks of beef and lamb for the meat eaters at the table, i.e. everyone except me. I have become quite a fan of “xiang gu” or “fragrant mushrooms” and I was happy to see a huge plate of them arrive and before we knew it there were several different kinds of vegetables sizzling happily in the hot pot and my stomach was growling. They also brought us a sauce that was delicious. Not quite a peanut sauce and not quite a hot sauce but perfect. I wish I had the recipe!

I had already prepared myself for the likelihood that I would be sharing this hot pot water with meat. Being a vegan in Beijing has had its moments, as you know, and sometimes it takes some psyching up on my part to be able to accept what I believe to be inevitable. i.e. that I will be in a food situation that I can’t control and so I may have to quietly exit or simply accept that I’ll feel ill afterwards.

I filled up my side of the hot pot with vegetables and tofu while the water was still meat-free and cooked things all together and quickly, hoping my head start would mean that I wouldn’t detect the meaty aftertaste in the water after meat had been added.

I soon noticed that everyone was just eating vegetables, tofu and noodles. In fact, ten minutes later they still had not touched the meat and it dawned on me that they were waiting for me to eat enough before they started to cook their meat portions. When I realized what was happening, I was overwhelmed by their thoughtfulness and I said: “go ahead, it’s okay! I’ve had lots and I’ll be alright!” I was pretty full, to be honest, and I had a huge plate in front of me with my quickly cooked food that still needed to be eaten. I was also so touched by the gesture that I couldn’t possibly let them stall any longer. They hesitated and resisted a little, but then I convinced them to dig in. Soon all the food was being cooked and the conversation was flowing.

We agreed that it’s not “what is cooked” but “how it’s cooked” that makes all the difference. Being able to engage with your food while enjoying lively conversation is a total treat. I loved it! I would definitely get a “hot pot” again in this city. The experience was totally memorable, not to mention delicious.

Over two hours later, we left the restaurant having filled up on fantastic food and the exchange of ideas. We talked non-stop all evening and when we arrived at their hotel I was surprised at how quickly we had strolled back in the cool night air.

We posed for some shots in front of Rui’s bike (he’s taking the picture) and then said our goodbyes. There’s nothing like seeing family when you’re far away from home. It felt like a breath of Canadian air in my lungs. I could almost smell the clover and honeysuckle in the fields of Eastern Ontario.

I hopped on the back of the bike and waved goodbye as we sped away, feeling cool and hot at the same time and excited to be back again on my favourite mode of transport. I closed my eyes as we motored through the streets towards Wudaokou, letting the wind stroke my face with familiarity. I let the Beijing air get to know me that night. Maybe I could have more than one home in my future? Hhm. . . The thought lingers and seems less and less distant every day.

Building or Chinese Menu Item?

Seeing pictures of the proposed new biomedical research center in Chengdu, China (Szechuan province) reminded me of some menu items I tried in that city last year. One reporter called the proposed building “the blob.”

The Szechuan province, of course, is home to that terrific spicy food that is ubiquitous in Chinese restaurants everywhere, usually on the menu right next to an asterisk or a nearby ‘chili pepper’ icon, signifying “this food is hot as hell.”

The traditional and most popular way of eating food in Chengdu is the hotpot. Basically, you’re given a large bowl of boiling, flavored oil that sits atop your table, while you cook skewers of various foods in the oil–kind of like fondue without the cheese. Most of the time, you have some rough idea of what it is you’re cooking, since you picked it off the shelf yourself. The best oil, we were told, was as old as possible: as oil burned off and was eaten, the bowl was topped up; if you cleaned the bowl and used fresh oil, you killed the taste. The older the oil, the better. The table has a hole in it and sits above an industrial-sized propane tank and burner, one to each table. With the cooking-oil-slick floors and open flames everywhere, it’s an American trial-lawyer’s dream.

Back to the building: the building, it seems, was meant to look like a cell, peppered with meeting room pods which were meant to look like embedded proteins around the outside. And the shape? You can see for yourself. Care for a dip in the interior’s “mitochondrial” pools?

Yep, looks and sounds like something I’d be dunking in a bath of ancient, bubbling oil, filled with chili oil and fish heads.