I see the notification while I’m at work, arranging a stack of handouts for my first class. The message says: I have some news. Let me know if you have a chance to call some time today.
For a rare moment, my best friend and I are both online. I check the time—it’s nearing 8:30 a.m. in Masan, early evening in Providence, Rhode Island. I want to make the call now, but I type a rushed reply instead: Are you all right??
The answer says, It’s fine. It can wait.
All day, I try to guess the news. I imagine new relationships forming as I eat tasteless rice in the school cafeteria, perhaps a marriage proposal taking place at the exact moment I am peeling the skin off a tangerine with my fingernails. When the day ends, I rush through dinner and up to my room, cradling my phone in my hands until the call comes around 10 p.m.
The news is this: our friend died. When I hear his name, I don’t need to ask how. “It was a suicide,” comes the answer anyway, and the guilt of having already known is sharper than the shock of hearing it said aloud. “He sent some of us a text to tip us off, but we didn’t see it until the next morning. Couldn’t do anything until it was too late.”
“Oh my God,” I say. “Oh my God.”
I’m not religious anymore, haven’t talked to any gods since my last Mass in Catholic high school, but that night, my head hums with a litany of thoughts that feel a lot like prayers.
Please don’t let it be real. Please not him. Please not this. Please.
I watch as you get farther and farther away, becoming a small dot and then disappearing. Will all of this fade after some time? I think about the old days. I think about you.
— “If You,” Big Bang
Low score: 63 points.
My high school girls are learning about American geography and slang this week. When I pull up a big, colorful map of the U.S. on the TV screen, the hurt hits me all over again. None of my classes notice. For that, I feel both sullen and grateful.
I think about maps a lot, about how I must be a cartographic error. I shouldn’t be here. I should be in Providence, mourning with my friends. I should be in California at the funeral. In the days that follow, I often find I don’t know where I should be. So I end up going to the one place that feels familiar.
The CoinSinger singing room sits on the top floor of Changwon’s City7 Mall. Once I’ve made the trek up two mall escalators, a flashing sign with the singing room franchise’s name in 한글1
ushers me in through the automatic doors.
When I step inside, there are no questions asked. I already know what to do.
I take a package of shrink-wrapped microphone covers from the front desk and find an empty room. I peel a single ₩1,000 bill from my wallet and insert it into the singing room machine to start. This is how the ritual begins.
I first discovered singing rooms in New York City’s Koreatown, a tiny patch of imitation Seoul in midtown Manhattan. Growing up adjacent to the city, I had always seen New York as a shiny escape. Within that escape came another getaway in the form of the $10-per-hour karaoke room shared with friends.
We made our first pilgrimages to the singing rooms as middle schoolers, when we grew restless but found ourselves too old for arcades and playgrounds. We would catch a subway into the city, get off at 33rd Street and just start walking until we found one—a nameless 노래방2
sandwiched between restaurants and discount stores. For an hour or two we’d pass around the thick tome of song selections, queuing our favorites. When we gathered there, all four or six or eight of us clamoring for the sticky remote control pad, we lined up a playlist featuring everyone from Beyoncé to Big Bang, Selena to Utada, songs in all the languages we’d grown up with. We sang solos and duets, main parts and backing vocals. We sang beautifully and horribly with total abandon, like we had no troubles in the world.
Most rooms at the CoinSinger in City7 are tiny, intimate spaces, designed for a maximum of two singers. Stepping inside one now, I feel like I’m entering a confessional booth where I become anonymous—or as anonymous as one can be in a semi-soundproof box with a large, glass window on the door. For me, though, after the unrelenting show I’ve made of smiling and laughing and holding light conversation with hundreds of students and co-workers, even this amount of solitude is a dream.
With a steady stream of ₩1,000 bills I have saved up for this moment, I lay claim to an hour, two hours, three. I take my time choosing. I make sure each song counts.
* * *
My co-workers say I seem to be shrinking, losing weight and talking less in the weeks after. I try to explain it as simply as I can. “My friend died. And I miss home a little these days.” But none of this seems to translate the way I need it to.
“I lost my mom a few years ago,” my co-teacher replies easily. “It’s even harder to lose a parent than a friend. You just have to keep going.”
Another teacher adds, “If you look sad, people will think you’re not trying to enjoy your life in Korea. You have to stop looking so sad.”
I start to wonder if something is wrong with me, start to think myself a riddle with box braids and brown skin that no one in Changwon can decipher. When I try to open up to anyone, I feel the words jamming my throat, the way sheets of paper get caught and crumpled in the big printer in our 교무실,3
shutting the whole machine down.
At first, conversation seems to come most easily when I talk with Da Bin,4 another teacher in the English Wing. She studied abroad in the U.S. for nine years and practiced her English by watching reality shows. It shows in the way she speaks, casual but with a kind of intensity, like every word of the language is a savory piece of insider information.
Da Bin and I sit in an empty classroom one Wednesday afternoon, both in our winter coats even though it’s only October. I’d printed out copies of an article about Korean dating culture for our weekly English workshop, but just as I start to introduce the topic, Da Bin cuts in. “Can I talk to you about something else today instead?”
“Oh—sure!” I push the papers aside. “What did you want to talk about?”
She leans in like someone might be listening, despite the room’s door being shut and the hallways being emptied of students, all now in their sixth period classes. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” she says, “but are you depressed?”
I blink. Hope flutters in my chest. Maybe I will finally be able to talk with someone about the feelings I have been managing alone for weeks. “What do you mean?”
“It’s just,” Da Bin lowers her voice, “some of the other teachers said you’ve been really quiet these days. They watch you eat at lunch and they say you eat too little, you don’t put a lot of rice on your tray and you don’t smile when you eat. They think you have a problem. With food. You know—an eating disorder.”
She watches my face and quickly adds, “I don’t eat lunch with you, so I wouldn’t know. I’m just telling you what I heard.”
“What you heard,” I repeat, to be clear.
She nods. “Everyone’s talking about it. So I said I would ask you.”
Everyone’s talking about it. Everyone. Watching and dissecting my lunch habits, inventing rumors to explain to each other what I had already tried to explain. I try not to get upset. In a culture centered on shared meals, of course my co-workers would pay attention to the way I ate. “Why didn’t anyone talk to me about it themselves, if they were worried?” I ask.
Da Bin shrugs, frowning like the idea hadn’t even occurred to her. I wonder, then, if I’m not the only one who struggles to communicate. If everyone around me is a jammed printer, too.
Like the two hands on the clock inside my heart,I keep lingering in this same place.
— “11:11,” Taeyeon
Average Score: 89 points.
Unlike the upbeat playlists of my adolescence, I find myself mostly singing ballads these days. Maybe this is because I still struggle to read Korean quickly enough to rap along to Suga, J-hope and Rap Monster’s verses in BTS’s “Dope,” or because most days I don’t have the vocal range needed to trill Twice’s cutely-sung “TT.” But I like to think my song selection in the privacy of the CoinSinger booth also reflects the state in which I enter that hallowed space.
I come to the singing room vulnerable, voice scratchy with the beginnings of a cold. I come full of feelings I couldn’t say aloud prior to this visit, either for lack of courage or the inability to translate. Sometimes, I give a song everything I have, adding in extra runs and ad-libs in exchange for an average score. Some days, I stumble on the lyrics, voice teetering off-key, and the machine gives me a perfect 100 points. With each visit, I learn both humility and empathy. When I make mistakes—and I always make mistakes—at least here, I am forgiven.
Outside the door of my booth, a small crowd inevitably gathers, an audience for me and all my unfamiliarity, peering through the glass. I know they are wondering why I’m here, what the mall’s CoinSinger could possibly do for me: a foreigner who can’t sing and can’t speak. In these moments, I also reflect on why I come to the singing room. Why I offer tithes to the song selection machine.
Why I sing psalms with titles like As One’s “Do I Have to Be Sorry?” or T-Max’s “Fight the Bad Feeling.” Why I queue up the BTS songs and the Twice songs with unwarranted faith anyway, even when I can’t hit all the notes.
It’s because there’s something healing about the singing room. Its expectations don’t exist. Its evaluations are arbitrary. But more than that, it’s a space where I can release something. If it can’t be the exact sentiments I want to express, then it can at least be the lyrics to a love song. A drama OST. Whatever catchy bop is inching its way up the Gaon charts. Here, with a quick search and a press of the “예약”5 button, I can say anything I want.
These are the words I never said, not even once. These are the words I might never be able to say again.
— “Good Day,” IU
High Score: 100 points.
November comes, and each day brings new anxieties as the American election unfolds overseas. December comes, and as the holiday lattes appear on all the Starbucks menus in Changwon, I write a silent Christmas list, some days wishing more than anything that I could go home. On these days, I settle for CoinSinger.
The teachers at school always look scandalized when I tell them how I spend my weekends. “You go to 노래방…alone?” they ask, eyes round as ₩500 coins. They click their tongues in pity. This is yet another thing I can’t quite explain—that it would feel wrong now, even sacrilegious, to go to the singing room with anybody else.
There’s an evening at CoinSinger when I request Zion.T’s R&B ode to his working-class upbringing, “Yanghwa Bridge,” exactly three times. Each time I listen to the song, I cry.
When the music shifts into the second chorus and Zion.T croons, “엄마-아-아-아, 행복하자,”6 I think about calling home more. I think of the moments I’m missing—the last days of my friend’s life. The fluctuations in my father’s health. Those first post-graduation job offers I couldn’t celebrate in person. The breakup through which I couldn’t console a friend.
When Zion.T sings, “이제 난 서 있네, 그 다리 위에,”7 I remember how many dashed study abroad plans, Fulbright application revisions and years in the making this moment has been. I remember that even when it is lonely, it is still a privilege and a dream.
There are always feelings I will struggle to explain. Some things are bound to be lost in translation. But there are those nights in my booth at the coin singing room, in the small space I’ve carved out as my own in this city, when I find the words I need right there, in bright letters on the big screen:
“행복하자. 아프지 말고. 그래. 그래.”8
Let’s be happy. Let’s not be hurt. That’s right. That’s right.
Paige Aniyah Morris is a 2016-2017 ETA at Masan Girls’ High School in Changwon, Gyeongsangnam-do.
- Hangeul, the Korean writing system
- Noraebang, singing room
- Gyomushil, teacher’s room
- Her name has been changed.
- Yeyak, reserve, the button used to queue a song on the singing machine
- Eomma-a-a-a, haengbokhaja. Mom, let’s be happy.
- Ije nan seo itne, geu dari wi-e, Now, I’m standing there, on that bridge.
- Haengbokhaja. Apeuji malgo. Geurae. Geurae.