That night, I was with my Cambodian friend. We had just finished a good dinner and he asked me what I wanted to do with what was left of the evening. I remember telling him that I wanted to go somewhere quiet and talk. Maybe with some music. But nothing too loud. My days in Cambodia were very busy and by 8pm, I was usually sleeping standing up. I wasn’t in the mood for anything too exciting but my mood apparently didn’t matter since my friend knew exactly what he wanted to do all along. And he wanted to sing.
We pulled up to the karaoke building and the first thing I noticed was that there were large numbers of very young, well dressed women lounging around at the entrance. They gave me some curious looks and the first thing I thought was that my friend was taking me on a side trip to a brothel. In Cambodia, sometimes it is fun to see where things will go so I dutifully followed my friend up some large stairs where a sturdy older woman who kinda reminded me of a worn-out gym school teacher ushered us into a smallish room. She talked to my friend briefly in Khmer, sprayed some air freshener which was probably called Mist of Cheap Cambodian Whore and she left.
The room was not in good shape but when the lights were lowered, it didn’t really matter. There were large stains on the carpet, there were dark patches of suspected mold on the walls and the fabric couches had tears and cigarette burns. But the room was nonetheless inviting. There was a large TV screen, some coffee tables where beer and snacks were efficiently laid out and a large pool table. Neon lights were begging us to be “Happy, Happy, Happy!” I plunked myself down on the couch and waited for the next thing to happen.
As I soon found out, the karaoke rooms are private. Apparently fights would break out if too many Asians were competing over the same song book. I can’t imagine someone kicking someone else’s ass over a Brittney Spear’s song but I suppose anything is possible on this side of the world. But when I say private, I don’t mean that there aren’t other people. Two younger girls dressed in uniform came in and started setting up the karaoke machine. Another girl came in and started to open the beer. A friend of my friend arrived and I thought that everyone was there that was going to be there. But boy, was I wrong.
The door opened and about twenty very scantily clad women were paraded into the room. I didn’t dare ask how old the youngest was (maybe I should have) but the oldest didn’t look any older than 21. Now I’m not exaggerating when I say that they were all beautiful. Cambodian women have a very exotic look and at that age, they are stunning. Dressed in their cocktail dresses, it was like I was suddenly the judge on a Miss Cambodia pageant.
“You have to pick one”, my friend said.
“You’re kidding me”, I replied.
I wasn’t really sure what the protocol was here. My first thought was what in the hell was I getting myself into? My second thought was that I only had about $20 in my pocket and I had no idea how much the girl was going to cost. Or the Karaoke room. And my third thought was there was no way I could choose. I have a hard time deciding what clothes to wear in the morning. There was no way I could pick out something as serious as a fake date for an evening.
I looked down the lineup. Some of the girls looked at me but most acted very indifferent. Very cool. Very professional like they had seen everything (and maybe had done everything) a million times before I had gotten there. I wanted someone who looked fun and there were a couple that caught my eye. I figured that if I were going to be in this awkward situation, I wanted someone who I could joke around with and dance with and …
“How about that one?” I said to my friend.
“She’s ugly”, he said without hesitation. I later found out that none of them could speak English so I guess the insult landed on deaf ears.
“Then you pick out one for me.”
I obviously wasn’t good at picking out choice Cambodian meat (which was how they were presented and NOT how I felt about them) so I decided to leave it to someone who had apparently better taste. My friend went over, grabbed one by the hand and brought her back to sit with me.
She looked at me, smiled very shyly and clasped her hands on her lap. I asked her what her name was and she, of course, had no clue what I was saying. This was going to be tough but then I remembered that my iPhone had a little app that translates English into Khmer. I pulled out the phone and tapped away. I found out her name was … something. I can’t remember what she said but I have a hard enough time remembering names anyway. Then I asked her everything on the app. Where she lived. The directions to the airport. I counted from 1 to 10 and told her that it was a sunny day. She smiled and laughed but I think deep down inside she thought I was a moron and was probably hoping that I had more than $20 in my pocket.
I’m a nervous drinker. Whenever I’m in strange situations, I tend to drink more than I should. This isn’t by design but it does loosen me up and calms my nerves. In this situation, the funny thing was that every time I took a drink, my date had to drink too. And we had to clink the glasses and stare into each other’s eyes like we were madly in love or something. The other funny thing was that the beer was bottomless. In other words, as soon as the glass was emptied by a mouthful, a host rushed over and filled it back up. So you never know how much beer you’re drinking. Very smart for the karaoke business but no so smart for the dumb foreigners who don’t have an off switch for drinking. If there is alcohol in front of me, I tend to drink it. And it can be any alcohol. Strong or weak. Whisky or wine. I’ll suck it down. Thankfully in this case, it was Angkor Beer which is great tasting and not especially strong. At least initially.
The music was fired up and the lyrics scrolled across the screen. My friend jumped up and belted out an obvious Khmer love song. If you have ever been to an Asian karaoke bar, you know what I mean when I say that the karaoke videos are amusing even by themselves. You really don’t need the added entertainment of hearing your friends trying to hold a note. The actors in these cheesy videos are required to have two “looks”; they either look they are in complete lust with each other or they look like they have been torn apart and this forsaken love has left them tortured forever. And the backgrounds seem so arbitrary. I remember looking at one video in my drunken stupor and thinking, “why in the hell are these lovers in Istanbul?” Recognizing that the background was indeed Istanbul was a proud accomplishment for me at that hour in the evening and I mentally patted myself on my back.
I got the feeling that my date was hungry because the host came over with some packages of “something” and my date looked at me with big eyes and pointed at the snack. I nodded yes and she eagerly ripped it open and spilled the contents on the plate. I wasn’t sure what they were. Small and round and moist and very pale. She stabbed one with a toothpick and aimed it at my mouth. I opened up (like a good little baby) and she stuck it in. I’m not sure how to describe the taste. A little garlicky. Maybe a little fishy? It was soft and squishy. An acquired taste which I quickly acquired because she proceeded to stick more down my gullet at every opportunity. I think she was being polite. She was starving and didn’t want to make it look like she was eating without me. The host came over with some more snacks but these ones didn’t look as appetizing. In fact, they looked like larvae in tomato sauce. Did I eat them as my date forced them upon me? Hell yes! I really can’t say no. I simply made a mental note to be on high alert for any intestinal grumblings. Getting hit with EBD (Explosive Butt Disease) in Cambodia can happen at any moment but usually there are at least some initial warning signs.
You don’t have to ask me twice to sing especially with a group of people who don’t speak English or barely know it. I went through the songbook and picked out songs that I would never sing in a million years back home. Kesha. Yes, I will admit it. I sang Kesha because what happens in Cambodia stays in Cambodia unless you spill all your guts out on a public blog. I think I did it pretty well because it got everyone up dancing and if you can’t dance to Kesha, then you really haven’t drunk enough.
As the evening was winding down, I got the nagging feeling that I actually had to pay my date. I was certainly not under the illusion that I was so charming and attractive that I was going to get away with a freebie. And getting mouth fed like a baby bird and getting smiled at every five seconds was not going to be cheap. I pulled out my wallet. Yep, the $20 was still there and sadly had not multiplied itself since I had last checked. I snuck over to my friend and asked him how much I should tip. He told me not more than $5 and $3 was appropriate if I didn’t have enough money. I looked over at my date. She was with me for about three hours and my friend was asking me to give her less money than what it costs to buy a venti frap at Starbucks. I couldn’t do it. I felt like she deserved more for putting up with my goofy crap. I asked my friend for change and he gave me two $10 bills and I went back to my date and gave her one of them. She folded it up. Clasped her hands together. Gave me a polite bow and disappeared out the door. As quickly as that, she was gone.
In a weird way, I felt cheated. (Maybe she did too?) I think I half expected her to give me her email address or exchange phone numbers. Or give me a big kiss. Or whisper in my ear what she could have done for more money. Leaving like that was like getting a band aid ripped off. The lights came up and the illusion was over. I remember the same feeling at my high school dances. Okay, everyone go home. The party is over and pretend like you don’t know each other again.
When we were leaving I saw my ex-fake-date by the front door. I looked at her and she looked at me. She didn’t look down and held my gaze. But I couldn’t interpret it. Was she being polite? Was she as curious about me as I was about her? Was she just being professional and giving me a last taste before hooking up with the next guy that came around? I don’t know.
But the fact that she made me linger one last time probably means she is just being good at what she does.
Even so, I wish her well.