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Lost in K-Town

How hard could it be for two clueless white guys to find a Korean karaoke bar in Tacoma? Harder than you'd think.

My evening went something like this. Photo courtesy Youtube

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Karaoke has always had a special place in my heart. As a kid, my mom bought my sister and I a plastic karaoke machine with a few CDs of disco-era hits, which, consequentially means I've sung "Car Wash" more times than any sane human should.

Singing karaoke, however, is absolutely terrifying once you grow into an awkward adult.  So, assigned to investigate Korean karaoke in Tacoma, I knew I'd need backup. It would've been brilliant to bring a Korean friend, but, being the idiot that I am, I brought a friend who is as painfully white bread as I am. He has the same name as a Tacoma-area high school, but to protect his privacy, I'll just call him by the name of a different high school.

I picked up Spanaway Lake on a Saturday night, and we went straight to South Tacoma Way, making tired jokes about the obscene amount of used car dealerships there. We arrived in K-Town at 8:30 p.m., which I felt was way too early, and Spanaway hadn't eaten any dinner yet, so we stopped at Phö Tai. I had what might have been the oddest tasting bubble tea of my life (although I might have been spoiled by the offerings in Los Angeles, where I go to college), while I waited for him to finish his pho.

Finally, it was 9, and we started cruising slowly through the various strip malls, hoping to find a karaoke bar. What we found instead was just about everything else: plain restaurants (with no karaoke), doctor's offices, grocery stores, even tax specialists.

After a half hour or so of searching, we stumbled on a strip mall with two different karaoke centers. One, named Grand Music Studio, which had private rented booths for karaoke. Cool middle school birthday party, but not what we were searching for. Luckily, the other place (which didn't have an English name) was an honest-to-God bar with a karaoke machine. It also was absolutely dead. Outside of me, and Spanaway, it was the bartender and one elderly Korean man, who wasn't even singing.

The bar itself had at least a hundred different varieties of liquor, but no beer on-tap. Of course, if I was going to do this right, I was going to have to sing. Because the ultimate choice for karaoke is ‘80s power ballads, I went with a timeless classic of the genre: Journey's "Faithfully." A bit obvious, maybe, but give me credit for passing up, "Don't Stop Believing." The bartender politely clapped, while the old guy just looked at me, confused. As soon as the mini-concert was over, we hit the road, heading to our next destination: the Lincoln district.

In case you haven't deduced this yet, I don't know too much about East Asian culture outside of the really obvious, mildly-racist-to-bring-up touchstones (and most of those are Japanese or Chinese - shout out to my childhood obsession with Pokémon). So I figured, hey, if the Koreans love karaoke, maybe the Vietnamese do, too (again, sincere apologies for my general cluelessness). That was inaccurate, at least in terms of Tacoma Vietnamese, because the Lincoln District was a total ghost town that night. It was only 10:30 p.m. by this point, and it was a Saturday, so we figured it had to be bumping somewhere, but it wasn't happening on the Eastside. In fact, many of the stores looked permanently shuttered, making us wonder if we didn't accidentally wander into Detroit.

I tried to come up with another hip Korean neighborhood in Tacoma that might have karaoke bars-a-plenty, but I couldn't, so we went to (shudder) Federal Way - the suburban mecca of low-priced chain restaurants has a pretty sizable K-Town, too.  I was sure we'd find another karaoke bar, but we came up dry, again. By this point, it was 11:30 p.m., and Spanaway was starting to fall asleep, so I promised him we'd go back to South Tacoma to find one more place, and we'd jet back to his apartment.

We zoomed down I-5, back to those strip malls in the International District to dig a bit deeper. We actually stumbled across a pretty legitimate club, complete with an intimidating bouncer. He asked us for $10 to come in. I told him I'm a journalist. He laughed. That club wasn't happening. Thank God that right next to it was another true Korean karaoke bar. And just like the last one, it was mostly dead, and this time, it was midnight, so there was no excuse of being there too early. Spanaway was too tired to sing a duet with me (apparently, he has an aversion to the Dirty Dancing soundtrack), so I went solo again, singing the cheese classic, "Hard For Me to Say I'm Sorry" by Chicago. I absolutely embarrassed myself, since Peter Cetera has a much higher voice than I remembered, but I didn't care. Who did care was the group of elderly Korean men at the bar, who gave me cranky looks for interrupting their marathon of singing what sounds like the Korean versions of Rat Pack songs. We dipped out of there, too, so they could continue their evening in peace. After that, I dropped Spanaway off and drove home, exhausted and disappointed ... and hoping my editor wouldn't rescind my summer internship.

So, what did I learn? Nothing ... except that maybe younger Koreans aren't as into karaoke as their older counterparts. Either that, or their clubs are super secret so that clueless outsiders like myself wouldn't be able to find them. If that's the case, bravo! I hope I find your secret karaoke bars one day, but for now, I'll just settle for the karaoke set my mom gave me.

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