We left work around nine and wandered around our district of Ulsan, looking for a place to eat. The nice sashimi place the girls were wandering toward happened to close early that night, so we decided anything would do. Still, all the other places we checked were closing or closed, and after an hour of searching, we still hadn’t found a place. This was my first clue that the night was going to be long.
Because of the dead-end in our district, we headed downtown to a place the girls knew would be open. We ordered soju, beer, and a giant plate of sashimi, which of course, came with ten or so side dishes.
As we started eating, drinking, and getting more comfortable, we were sitting traditional Korean style on the floor, the girls I was with started joking about a second stage. I laughed and thought, ok I’ve done that before. Dinner one place, dessert another. At this point, I was pretty convinced I would be spending the evening with them, then going home, but I really had no clue what I was in for.
After about an hour of eating and drinking, another coworker showed up with her boyfriend, and we continued to eat and drink. He had been out drinking with coworkers previous to meeting up with his girlfriend and suggested almost immediately that we head to a Noribong, which is Korean style karaoke. The girls laughed, but obviously took it seriously because after we drank a bit more, there we were, outside, walking toward a Noribong. My coworkers half gave me the option to leave, by asking me if I wanted to go, but of course, they really expected me to come. While I’m not crazy about karaoke, it was definitely an experience I was curious about, so I went along thinking I wouldn’t sing, I would just sit and watch.
Fairly typical Noribong hall stolen from the Internet
Inside of a Noribong "singing room" also stolen from the Internet
The girls ordered more beer and food, and the singing started almost immediately. They handed me a book, showed me the English section and encouraged me to pick out a song. How can you say no to that?
Here’s the thing about Noribong. No one can get away with not singing. I mean, maybe if you have iron resolve, haven’t been drinking, and dislike the people you are with, it’s possible. No matter how much I stalled, saying I couldn’t find anything, my coworkers kept insisting and encouraging me. I tried looking for a song I listened to as a teenager, that I knew I would know all the words to, but failed. Finally, I saw a song I knew and thought, I listen to this song all the time and sing along, so I must know the words. Boy was I wrong, I knew maybe fifty percent of the words to a song I listened to all the time. It was a bit catastrophic.
When my turn to sing came, I got nervous. I had no clue how this was going to go. I grabbed a mic, pushed back my fear, and tried to imagine I was in my apartment just singing along with the song. This pseudo-self-confidence worked until about 10 seconds into the song when I realized I hardly knew the song at all. While someone with more confidence performing would have simply embraced it, I kept shaking my head, saying I didn’t know the words, shrugging my shoulders and the like. After a humiliating two minutes, the song finally ended, and I sat down. Perhaps because my coworkers were drunk, or maybe just out of politeness, or out of excitement that I had participated, they congratulated me and said it was great.
It wasn’t great.
The Noribong gives you a score. My coworkers had been scoring in the 90s, making me think it was impossible to get a lower score.
I scored a 76.
This was a fairly embarrassing affirmation that I didn’t know the song and sucked at singing it. I shook my head, and started looking for another song. I thought, I’ve got to be able to do better!
In the end, over the course of perhaps three hours, I sang three songs, one with the help of a coworker, and I discovered that regardless of how much Koreans argue that the words are on the screen, it doesn’t help unless I actually know the song.
I have no idea what time it was when we arrived at the Noribong, but after an hour or so of singing, the boyfriend who suggested Noribong in the first place, fell asleep. No one seemed to pay him any mind, and we continued to hang out, singing until I started showing obvious fatigue. I danced less, was less interested in finding a song, and generally was overwhelmed by the cultural immersion I was experiencing.
Finally, at four o’clock in the morning, we all headed home. My first initiation into Korean night culture was complete. Afterwards I was surprised how going out for “a drink” turned into all night, but it was a Friday night after all, and we did have a pretty great time.
Now that I have been here nearly two months, I am beginning to discover that going out for “a drink” with Koreans is never just that, regardless what day of the week it is. This last Thursday evening the scenario repeated itself. When with Koreans, the night will have many stages - first grab food, soju and beer, last head to Noribong, with a few unknowns inbetween.