I find it strangely refreshing that I am enjoying KTV. Not that I dislike singing. On the contrary, I was an avid fan of pop music as a teenager. Never shy of acting different, I would always belt out dance or rock songs at school singing competitions, in front of all the straight-faced teachers who were learning to refrain from labeling pop music "spiritual pollution".
But when karaoke arrived in my hometown in the late 1980s, even though I spent hours practicing singing and dance moves in front of mirrors, I found it distasteful.
It spread like a plague - every restaurant, even the small hotpot stall, had a karaoke machine blaring all day long. The singers were usually tuneless and their efforts sounded like screeching tires. Then, my parents' generation flocked to the microphone, yelling old songs.
Karaoke was for people to butcher pop, I decided.
On arrival in the United States, I found the singing environment a lot more orderly. On campus there were a capella groups, rock bands and classical orchestras. But in that environment I stopped singing.
One of my American lab mates invited me to a performance of his, a capella group. Any one of them could have been a pop star in China, I concluded. I declined his invitation to join, too chicken to admit that I could not read music.
Then karaoke seemed to pick up in popularity over there. I chanced upon a couple of karaoke nights at bars where the singers, some with huge beer bellies but all singing beautifully, could have advanced to the finals of American Idol.
Finally one night in 2003, I gathered up my courage and stepped in front of a machine. I asked for the only English song I thought I could sing, and it went disastrously wrong - the key was too high and my vocal cords were tight.
I swore off karaoke after that humiliation, even though everyone at the bar applauded my effort.
When I returned to Beijing in 2004, I often found myself ending up at KTVs when there was a work or birthday party. When I suggested, instead, a fancy bar or club, my colleagues and friends would stare blankly and say they were boring.
Most of the time I was lost at the KTV, having learned no Chinese pop songs in the previous decade. Gradually, however, the KTV atmosphere grew on me. I started to learn new pop songs and enjoy the silly drinking games, which are designed to leave one with a huge hangover the next morning.
It was at a recent teambuilding event held at a KTV when I had an epiphany. Looking around the huge room, I saw my 30-plus colleagues happily chatting, drinking and fighting for the mic to sing cheesy ballads. It was then that I realized such a scene could not have happened in corporate America - female staff giggling together like high school friends; fathers and mothers hanging out with colleagues, leaving kids to the care of grandparents; and blushing engineers being dragged in front of the TV screen to sing.
It was then that I realized KTV's draw was not just about singing, but a Chinese way of sharing time and camaraderie with people to whom one does not have to share life's intimate details to feel close. So I went merrily along with the flow, drank, sang and danced, until the expensive bill hit me and made my head ache.