For the millions of East and Southeast Asians who live in America, navigating the culture gap between East and West can be tricky. Cultural imports including Asian cuisine, music, art, cinema, and literature help these communities bond over shared experiences. But there is one phenomenon that has particularly helped both foreign-born and US-born Asian Americans establish ties with one another and stay close to their roots: karaoke bars.
Born in a snack bar in Kobe, Japan, in the early 1970s, karaoke is a Japanese word that’s a mishmash of karappo, meaning empty, and okesutura, meaning orchestra. Since then, the activity has spread throughout Asia, taking on slightly new forms along the way. For example, Korean karaoke bars, or noraebangs, are an integral part of the country’s social scene—bosses take their employees there, families get together, friends celebrate birthdays, and strangers become friends.
The essential difference between American and Asian karaoke is that while the former is performed in front of an entire restaurant or bar, the latter is performed in private singing rooms. This allows for a close-knit group of people to craft an experience that is more personal, empathetic, and social. When transported to America, it creates a familiar space that helps Asian Americans find a community within the US that feels like home.
This is increasingly important, as Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial group in the US. In 2013, the Pew Research Center polled a group mainly comprised of Indians, Chinese, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Koreans, and Japanese to put together their study on The Rise of Asian Americans. In this report, they found that 74% of adult Asian Americans are foreign-born, about half of them believe they don’t speak English very well, and 53% of Asian Americans don’t identify as typically American.
In her book Politeness and Culture in Second Language Acquisition, Sooho Song uses the example of Korean populations to note, “Korean culture belongs to the collective culture society, while American culture belongs to the individualistic culture.” This essential ethnic difference manifests itself as a perception of the Asian “other.” As the spectrum of race in American generally extends between black and white, the alienation of Asian communities is enhanced. This further prompts the necessity of typically Asian spaces where communication is cathartic.
Traditional Asian karaoke bars have been popping up across the US wherever there are large concentrations of Asian immigrants. From the choices of songs to the traditionally served food and beverages, by preserving the aspects of typical Asian karaoke set-ups, they offer nostalgic and cultural escapes that allow Asian Americans to feel closer to their roots, and for American-born Asians to connect with their heritage.
“Having been born in the United States, going to karaoke bars is an opportunity to build community with other Korean Americans or Asian Americans,” says Brian Shin, a 34-year-old Korean-American television writer. “I primarily karaoke with other Asian Americans: It helps me stay rooted to my culture because I’m enjoying Korean food in a place of business that reminds me of Korea, and I’m hanging out with other Koreans.”
In her paper “I Want the Microphone: Mass Mediation and Agency In Asian-American Popular Music,” University of California, Riverside (UCR) professor Deborah Wong talks about how karaoke helps Asian Americans navigate the chasm between being American and Asian American. “Karaoke is a social ritual of great satisfaction: it allows anyone to be a star for a few moments, and it can negotiate the potential wasteland between being Asian and being Asian American,” she says. Asians are fiercely protective of their traditions and work hard to pass them on to younger generations. So in America, away from their homelands, karaoke bars assume significance as valued spaces where the community ritual of singing together plays out.
Similarly, in her 1996 book, In Search of a Voice: Karaoke and the Construction of Identity in Chinese America, Casey Man Kong Lum demonstrates how karaoke cuts across economic and social stratification to emerge as a universal. “Karaoke embodies a process of human interactions and practices whereby certain values, meanings, or social realities are created, maintained, and transformed as part of a culture—a particular way of life,” she says. In her research, Lum explores how karaoke is a cultural connection for Hong Kong’s Cantonese community in New York’s Chinatown, a status symbol for New Jersey’s wealthy Taiwanese, and a means of escaping reality and the loneliness of life among the Malaysian Chinese in Flushing, New York.
A typical Asian karaoke bar has an extensive selection of songs in a multitude of languages. So while a noraebang will definitely have Korean songs, tracks in Japanese, Chinese, Cantonese, Vietnamese, and English are normally a given too. This opens up the possibility of extending the community circle to other Asians.
“I feel that Korean karaoke is usually for celebrations,” says 23-year-old Chinese-Canadian Michael Yip, who has been living in the US for two years. “K-pop is very upbeat, while Chinese karaokes are where you’ll go if you’ve just had a break-up. And Cantonese pop is really sad!”
In Asia, getting drunk with family members, friends, colleagues, and bosses is of no consequence within the four walls of a private singing room. Additionally, unlike Americanized karaoke bars, it’s a norm that everyone must sing.
“Because you’re in a secluded space, people can only connect through the music/singing/dancing,” says 31-year-old Sojung Kim, a Korean-Australian who lives in LA. “Korea is very hierarchical, but in noraebangs, hierarchies don’t exist.” In the Asian karaoke world, the entire experience is devoid of judgment or competition. It’s also a chance to break free of an otherwise restrictive Asian culture—or to sing off any frustration Asian-Americans may be feeling within the US. Considering the strict social hierarchies and codes of conduct prevalent in Asian and Asian-American societies, singing karaoke takes on new meaning.
The nostalgia of singing songs you’ve grown up with is another reason Asian karaoke bars can bring communities together. “I usually go to karaoke bars with my Chinese friends in China,” says Phoenix Wang, who is in her 20s and has been living in the US for five years. “My Chinese friends that I hang out with in LA also have similar experiences of frequenting karaoke bars in China, so we usually know the same songs.”
Socially speaking, Asian-style karaoke in the US may appear to simply be a fun pastime for Asian immigrants. But psychologically, its effects run deeper. No matter how fluid borders become, the desire to stay rooted remains just as strong, and for Asian Americans, the Asian half of their dynamic identity finds a home in a singing room.