Communicating Through Karaoke

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Commentator Andrew Lam's family recently got together for a birthday party. When they sang karaoke, they were able to communicate in a way they never could before. Lam is an editor with Pacific News service and author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.


You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. In the last couple of decades karaoke has made its way from Japanese bars all the way to little kids' birthday parties and video games. For commentator Andrew Lam and his family karaoke has become more than entertainment.

ANDREW LAM: On the recent occasion of my uncle's 60th birthday my clan gathered from all over the country to celebrate. Instead of gifts, however, he had an unusual birthday wish. Everyone was asked to sing a song on the karaoke. What began as an amusing exercise in merriment turned quickly into something I can only now describe as our first and only session of family group therapy.

When it comes to matters close to the heart, my family is notoriously inexpressive. We rarely ever communicate to one another what we really feel. Immigrants and refugees from Vietnam, we often digest our losses and sorrows differently and alone. My uncle who was going through a painful divorce had not been able to convey to the family his profound sadness. He was still in love with his wife but she had had it with him. He masks this with jokes and once said, while drunk, Vietnamese men don't cry outward. Our tears flow inward back into the heart.

But what we could not talk about we discovered that some of us could at least sing out loud. Thus the cousin whose wife took off with their daughter and left him high and dry sang Delilah with a heartbreaking voice, and we managed to tell him that we were sorry for his troubles by singing along with every refrain. Why, why, why Delilah, my, my, my Delilah. Another aunt, now in declining health, took the mike to sing the theme song of Dr. Zhivago, dedicating it to the rest of us. God speed my love, she sang gamely in a hoarse whisper. Till you are mine again.

My uncle's turn and he chose a Vietnamese song titled Come What May I Will Always Love You. He voice was beautiful but halfway through he choked. Another aunt had to sing the rest of the song while my uncle cried. His tears were flowing outward, finally, and in front of everyone. As I listened to my relatives sing it occurred to me that words when sung or turned poetic become somehow acceptable in an Asian immigrant society where love and resentment often flow subterraneously.

And what song did I sing at my uncle's birthday party? I sang a few, but the one I dedicated to my entire clan was Carole King's You've Got a Friend. You know the lyrics, when you're down and troubled and you need a help and care and nothing, nothing is going right. Close your eyes and think of me and soon I will be there, to brighten up even your darkest night. It was how I felt and I just went with it in front of the family, I too sang my heart out.


NORRIS: Andrew Lam is an editor with Pacific News Service and the author of the book Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.


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