The National Pastime

The first time I participated in Princeton in Asia, then executive director Carrie Gordon gave us a piece of advice I will always remember: Don’t bring music with you to Asia. It will force you to get to know the local music.

I disregarded her advice completely, and I was happy I did so. Music in China was really about boy bands and Celine Dion. So I can’t say I really missed out on a cultural experience by bringing music. In fact, I think it may have kept me sane that I had a small collection of CDs with me. (And of course I was exposed, nonetheless, to the music of choice of the Chinese youth simply because I was a teacher.)

Two years later, and I’m back in Asia, but this time in the Philippines, which I am fast learning is the captial of the bad ’70s and ’80s love song. I have had cab drivers spontaniously burst into song when the radio starts playing “Almost Paradise.” I hear “Especially for You” at least two times a day–it’s played on the radio and it’s a karaoke favorite. I didn’t even know that song until I moved to Manila, but now I have the lyrics constantly stuck in my head….

I wanna show you
My heart is oh so true
And all the love I have
Is especially for you

And when I finally rid them from my brain, someone outside my apartment will start singing it at the karaoke bar below me.

In response to the barrage of bad music, I find myself walking around my apartment with my iPod glued to my ears. I’m constantly trying to drown out the latest drunk guy belting out “November Rain” into a microphone. Don’t get me wrong, I’m far from being a music snob. I have no right to be. But I’m not about to purchase a copy of the acousitic version of “Hit Me Baby One More Time” I heard the other day. Oh, by the way, that one was performed by a man — not Britany Spears. (I’m not sure which one is worse, really.)

Now karaoke is popular all over Asia, but I have yet to hear about a place where karaoke is as out of control as it is in the Philippines. Luckily, probably 99 percent of Filipinos have good voices — or can at least carry a tune. It’s something that’s pretty much ingrained since birth, at least according to my observations. When you can talk, you can sing. And I’m sure the training starts before the child has even left the womb.

This has, in turned, spawned a nation obsessed with karaoke — and has made the inventor of this amazing item, no doubt, extremely wealthy. One of my friends here actually suggested I purchase said item so I can practice my singing! I really have better things to spend $200 on than a Magic Mic — complete with extra memory chips with all your favorite songs! And I’m not joking when I say this thing is a complete hit here. Filipinos abroad ask their families to buy them a Magic Mic because they can’t find them in their overseas locations.

Singing really is the national pastime — perhaps more so than baseball could ever be to the United States.

If I sound slightly mocking, I don’t mean to. I’m really floored by this phenomenon. It’s hard to take the whole singing thing seriously, because it’s really quite funny. And it’s everywhere. It’s on the streets, in cabs, on the news. It’s in malls, restaurants, and, in my case, it infiltrates my living space. But I have to admit that I have already fallen victim to a night of karaoke with some ABS employees. I will blame it completely on beer and peer pressure. Of course, the one person who was able to hold her ground and refuse to sing, is not only a local, but also drank way more than I did. This same person, an ABS employee, admitted to me that she hates karaoke.

“Sometimes I don’t think I’m Pinoy, I hate karaoke so much. If I ever become president of this country, I’m going to take all the karaoke machines and build a bonfire with them.”

I knew we would get along just fine. So I made a pact with her: I wouldn’t sing if she wouldn’t sing. But as the night wore on, and as I was continually pressured to sing (“Christina, these five beers are for you. I’m going to get you drunk and make you sing!”), I gave in. There are even pictures to prove it. My fellow karaoke-hater called me a traitor — and rightly so.

Thank god we were at a slightly more upscale karaoke venue — with our own private rooms so we only have to embarass ourselves in front of friends. And thank god we did not have one of the karaoke machine that gives scores when you’re done with a song. I believe it scores out of 100 points. This intimidated me at first — but then someone told me the machine really just delivers a score based on how loud you sing, not how good you are. That sort of made me feel better. And luckily I have not had to sing since. That does not mean, of course, that I am exempt from further karaoke nights.

I could really write about this forever, that’s how much karaoke and hits from the ’70s and ’80s have been a part of my experience in the Philippines so far. But I need to go hide in a corner with my iPod to drown out the girl who is singing “Eternal Flame” as I write this.

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