Noraebang Night Shift
By Stephen J. Gallas
The ahjumma scrolled through her phone, looking at old pictures as the muffled music emanated from the walls of Room 6. In one of the pictures, on a trip out into the hills of Gapyeong, the ahjumma and her husband were standing knee-deep in the river, holding their young daughter Soyeon above the water, each hand gripped by a different parent. Back then the family was carefree. Sure, the karaoke business was keeping them busy, as their noraebang was in one of the busier neighborhoods, but they were happy with that. Soyeon had been just three years old on that trip to Gapyeong, and the ahjumma herself hadn’t yet been old enough for people on the street to call her “ahjumma.” Now she was the epitome of the moniker, with her short black hair teased into a sort of afro and her clothes typically being of the open-air market variety.
A pair of business men were in Room 6, belting “Nest” by Namjin. Singing the songs of an old time pop legend was the best way to cap off a night of soju and barbecue. These kinds of guys were common customers in the noraebang. It was the only room occupied in her place at the moment, as it was roughly 2:30 a.m. This being Sinchon, the late night crowd would probably begin to pour in pretty soon, and the ahjumma needed to take advantage of the situation and make sure that the place was ready for the surge.
The refrigerator behind her was full of beer, soju, soda, and water, so that was ready to go. The ahjumma checked all of the karaoke rooms and made sure that they were devoid of used glasses and plates, and that they all had their remote controls and song binders in place. No karaoke without the ability to pick songs, after all. The ahjumma would definitely need anju for her customers, because drinking was senseless without snacks, so she went back into the kitchen to double check. The kitchen was small but had a refrigerator, shelves, a sink, a cutting board, and all of the necessary cutlery for preparing food. Next to the refrigerator was a mattress, which the ahjumma slept on during weekday night shifts, but never on the weekends.
In going through the refrigerator and shelves, the ahjumma confirmed that she had a sufficient amount of watermelon, Korean melon, bananas, dried squid, and pretzels to get her through the evening. Last but not least, she had a four huge bags of gangnaengi in her arsenal. The sweet popcorn was the perfect complement to karaeoke. The only combination better than gangnaengi and karaoke was gangnaengi and dongdongju, but she stopped selling rice wine awhile ago. Customers only wanted to drink beer and soju these days. As for the unisex bathroom, the ahjumma had recently bought soap, so she assumed that it was fine.
This late at night, the noraebang seemed to be a lot more dismal than in the earlier hours. There were no windows, so the red glow from the ceiling was the only source of light, and red lights could make charity work seem like an illicit affair. Even without the red lights, the ahjumma felt like she was sneaking around, despite there being nothing wrong with karaoke.
Perhaps it was because her husband did not like her being away from home at this hour. Unlike the other men in the neighborhood, the ahjumma’s husband did not like to play bumper pool and drink soju until he was blind. He preferred to come home and watch TV with his family. His sense of familial duty was her favorite trait in him, and she considered his genial personality a lucky break. Their mothers had known each other from a calligraphy class back in Ulsan, and upon realizing they had a son and daughter of roughly the same age, set the two of them up. The ahjumma, back then young and pretty, initially resisted but grew thankful of her mother’s decision. If her husband had turned out to be like the rest of them, she would have been infinitely more miserable.
That same devotion that she found endearing led to a nagging naivety when it came to her recent decision to fire her night shift employee and start working the shift herself. Why did he not understand the sacrifices necessary for the family? In the modern age, making sacrifices was the only way to tread water. Resounding success generally meant playing politics, and that route was littered with the trampled remains of old opponents.
As the ahjumma braced herself for the late wave, she received a message from her husband. It read, “Make sure you text me when you come home!”
She immediately responded with, “Go to sleep.”
A group of five young men, most likely students at Yonsei University, came in. They were laughing and teasing each other about how they struck out with girls at the bar they had just been at. The ahjumma smiled, processed their payment for one hour of songs, and led them to Room 4. Red, pleather, cushioned seating hugged the back and side walls, and a table stood within reach of the seating. The big screen TV was the strongest source of light in the room, which was otherwise muddled with specks of blue and green light. The ahjumma indicated that if the students needed anything from her such as beer or anju, they could press the call button attached squarely to the table. The boys told her they understood, and one of them picked up the unwieldy karaoke remote and put on “Fantastic Baby” by Big Bang. All of the boys started jumping up and down, and fought over the two microphones as the ahjumma exited the room.
When she got back to the front desk, a young couple who probably also attended Yonsei University was standing there. They held each other’s hands lightly below the counter, and the ahjumma received their payment for one hour’s worth of karaoke. She led the couple to Room 9, which looked a lot like Rooms 4 and 6 but smaller, and walked back to the desk. She heard music start, but no singing. It was at moments like this that the ahjumma wondered why young people couldn’t just have sex elsewhere, because she didn’t feel like dealing with it. She was also happy that the couches in her noraebang were pleather.
With all of these students from Yonsei University coming in, the ahjumma couldn’t help but think of her daughter Soyeon, who had recently enrolled at an after school English academy in order to keep up with everyone else. The girl was only ten years old, but having never studied English up to this point meant that she was behind her peers. At the academy, her classmates were second graders, and other kids of her age and level were deemed to be dimwitted. While the ahjumma hated that she had to take the financial hit of sending her daughter to a place to study as opposed to play or draw, she knew that she had no real choice. With any luck and the proper preparation, Soyeon might one day attend the same school as all of these drunken customers singing karaoke like it was their last night on Earth.
The stewy businessmen shuffled out of Room 6, with their shoes sticking to the floor, and thanked the ahjumma for her business. One of them wore thick black-rimmed frames that looked silly, because that trend was common among people much younger than he. She wished them a good night, and thanked them for coming in. Once they were gone, she went into the room for the cleanup effort. As was to be expected, one of the beer bottles lay in a puddle, and it did not appear as if the men had made any effort to clean it up. The ahjumma handled the mess, collected all of the rest of the glasses and bottles, and made her way back to the counter.
Once she was there, she saw that a new message had come in from her husband. It read, “But I can’t sleep.”
“I don’t like that you are out so late.”
“I already told you why I had to start working the night shift myself.”
“I know, but I still don’t like the idea of my wife walking home alone at 5 o’clock.” “You want our Soyeon to go to Yonsei, don’t you?”
Her husband did not immediately respond.
A rabble of English resounded in the stairwell, and the ahjumma knew that some
difficulty was afoot. She didn’t speak a lick of English, which meant that handling the transaction of these potential customers would be a lot more tedious than it had been for the other customers. She was happy that she had her calculator with her at the counter. The ahjumma didn’t particularly like foreigners, mostly because they typically refused to learn Korean and showed no real regard for anything around them. She guessed that she was going to have to walk them through the process of selecting a song, turning on the microphone, and ordering anju. On one occasion, a group of foreigners pressed the call button, and when she went into their room to take their order, they were surprised to see her. They had evidently not known what the call button was, and pressed it out of sheer curiosity. Then they laughed at her like it had been her fault. In the present moment, the ahjumma hoped that someone among the group knew how to speak Korean, or that a Korean was among them.
The foreigners cascaded down the stairs and flooded into the noraebang. The ahjumma counted six among them, with none of them being Korean. Four of the foreigners were male, and two of them were female. Everyone looked to be in their early to mid twenties. One of the women, a blonde one, approached the counter and held up two fingers. The ahjumma guessed that this meant two hours, so she typed in “60000” on her calculator and showed it to the customer. She was transfixed by the foreigner’s green eyes, because she had never seen anyone with that eye color before. It looked alien. The blonde turned away from the ahjumma and said something to the group. It took a moment to figure out that the figure represented 60,000 won and that after converting it, the price wasn’t too bad. They seemed to come to an agreement, as they all nodded and did not protest, so the ahjumma led the group to Room 10.
The foreigners were enjoying themselves. As soon as they arrived in the room, one of the men grabbed the tambourine and started cacophonously banging it against his hand. He hadn’t semblance of rhythm. One of the foreign girls, who was shorter and had curly black hair, tried to wrestle the tambourine away from the self-styled musician. The whole display was way too loud and annoying, so the ahjumma quickly handed the song binder to the beautiful green-eyed girl and left the room without explaining how to select songs. It’s not like they would have understood, anyway. The only sound to come out of the room as she walked away was group chatter, and only after a few minutes did “Gangnam Style” start throbbing through the walls. That trite song was still playing everywhere in Seoul, and the ahjumma had long since grown tired of it.
She walked past Room 9. Music was still playing, but nobody was singing.
She walked past Room 4. One of the boys was singing “I Am the Best” by 2NE1, and he was struggling to keep pace with CL’s rapping.
She figured that if she was going to have to watch over three rooms with a total of thirteen people, she might as well eat something. So she stopped in the kitchen and grabbed herself some dried squid, because that was her favorite snack. As the ahjumma bit her first piece of squid, she saw another message from her husband.
It read, “Do we really have to start her so early, though?”
The ahjumma rolled her eyes and typed, “She’s already behind, honey. And you know that being behind means that she will have extra work to do if she is going to catch up and get the exam score she needs to get into Yonsei.”
“What if she just went to Seogang? I’ve heard that it’s pretty good these days.”
The ahjumma sighed. Seogang University was not nearly as prestigious as Yonsei, and no employer would take Soyeon seriously if she approached them with a Seogang degree in hand. “She has to go to Yonsei,” the ahjumma responded. “And we shouldn’t even be talking about this right now. You should be sleeping.” After that message, the ahjumma sent a cute emoticon of a dog falling asleep.
The bell rang, indicating that Room 10 had pressed the call button. Maybe these foreigners had done it by mistake, too.
When the ahjumma went into the room, a wave of American rap washed over her, and the tambourine guy was mumbling nonsensically. Whatever nonsense he was dribbling off key was playing over with the curly-haired girl, as she was singing along with him. The blonde ordered beer and soju, and held up her fingers to indicate the amount. Three big bottles of beer, and two bottles of soju. The other members of the group were relaxing on the pleather seating, shouting away. Why did Westerners always have to be so loud?
As the ahjumma left the room, a sickening thought came over her — these young, drunk people were most likely the type of people teaching English to her Soyeon. Young people should have fun, but did these people even realize what they held in their hands every day they went to work? These people were spending their time drinking into the wee hours, as if they were on a prolonged vacation. Did they know that Soyeon’s future rode on the progression of her English, that she would never be able to work they kind of job she wanted if she failed to make strides on her peers? Did the teachers know that her progression hinged on their performance? Maybe the other mothers in the neighborhood simply assumed the teachers to be effective because of English being their mother tongue, but how many of these teachers were formally trained in teaching children? It was clear to her that they, with the exception of the blonde one, did not care the least bit about the education of their students. The problem with these English academies was that the vast majority of teachers did not care. Hiring a tutor was an option that often yielded better results, but the ahjumma and her husband were not in good enough financial standing for that.
Back at the front desk, another coed group of friends waited, but they were neither students nor foreign. If the ahjumma had to guess, she would say that the group was in their thirties. Apparently staying out this late wasn’t only for young people. The group was professional throughout the transaction, the ahjumma led them to Room 5, and that was that. When she listened to them through the walls, however, she heard one of the men in the group make a squealing attempt at “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye. The ahjumma could also hear one of the women contribute a serviceable attempt, at least.
There was not much action after that, and the ahjumma even noticed that her husband hadn’t responded to her latest text. Maybe her logic had prevailed. With the din of dissonance dancing through the noraebang, the ahjumma killed time by playing Angry Birds.
When she was on the verge of setting a new high score, the ahjumma heard one of the doors shut. She down the hall and saw one of the foreigners approaching. It was the guy who had been playing the tambourine worse than a monkey.
He arrived at the desk, and instantly exuded an air disagreeable to the ahjumma. The foreigner smiled at the ahjumma, and she tried to make sense of what he wanted as she stared into his dead, drunken eyes.
Assuming he had to go to the bathroom, the ahjumma pointed the other way and said, “Toilet,” in English.
That didn’t seem to register with the foreigner, as he continued to leer at the ahjumma. “Toilet,” she pointed and repeated.
After three full seconds, the foreigner turned and ascertained the position of the bathroom.
The ahjumma nodded and said, “Yes.”
The foreigner giggled and began to walk to the bathroom. As he left the lobby, he made a poor attempt at saying, “I love you,” in Korean. He butchered the pronunciation.
He meandered down the hall, scraping against the walls, and he sloppily bobbed his head to the music. The ahjumma noted the time he arrived in the bathroom as 3:34. She went back to playing Angry Birds.
At 3:37, the group of male students filed out of Room 4, their hour having expired. The ahjumma thanked them for their business on their way out, keeping an eye on whether or not they were too drunk. She went into the room and found that they had smuggled in Cass beer, apparently afraid that the ahjumma wouldn’t sell them beer because of their age. This struck her as odd, because if they were university students, they would be of age. Maybe the outside Cass was simply cheaper than what she sold at the noraebang. Either way, it didn’t please the ahjumma, and she resolved to take a harder line on future beer smugglings.
She finished the Room 4 cleanup at 3:41, and saw that the door to Room 9 was wide open. The couple in there must have simply left when their time expired. The ahjumma checked and saw that this was the case, and that the room smelled like sex. She would have to grab some Lysol from the bathroom and spray down the couches. It was possible that she would even have to mop the floor. Better safe than sorry.
The foreigners in Room 10 were singing “Hey Jude,” which was a song the ahjumma knew well. It was a song she and her friends sang when they used the bar for their own enjoyment. Room 5 was too far away for her to hear what they were singing, but it seemed that they were still having a good time. Now that there were only two occupied rooms the noraebang, the ahjumma felt at ease. While walking down the dark hallway, she thought that there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and that her most difficult task remaining was to wipe down Room 9. After that she could just sit at her desk and play her game some more. Maybe she would even find a way to beat her high score.
When she arrived at the bathroom, however, the ahjumma found that the door was locked. She gave it a try, but it did not yield. The ahjumma knocked and waited for a response, but the occupant was silent. Luckily, the door was not of the best quality, and the ahjumma knew how to work it open even if it was locked. She twisted the knob about thirty degrees to the left, turned it about ten degrees to the right, then quickly turned it all the way to the left. The lock clicked, and the ahjumma had access to the restroom.
She quickly realized it would not be that easy, as the door was blocked by someone laying on the floor. Since the last person to go to the bathroom was the drunken foreigner, she assumed it to be the drunken foreigner. She tried to call out to him, but that got her nowhere. She even tried to bang the door on his curled up legs, but he did not stir. The ahjumma put all of her force into pushing the door open, and after a few spirited attempts, she was finally able to work it open enough for her to slide into the room.
Upon entering the bathroom, the stench of bile overcame her. The foreigner had thrown up, with only some of the vomit making it into the toilet. The rest of the slop was in a puddle on the floor, and the foreigner was laying his head in it. He was not conscious, so the ahjumma shook him by the shoulders. It took awhile — and the ahjumma thinking that she had broken his collarbone — for him to wake up. Once he did, he called out what was presumably a girl’s name. The ahjumma went back to Room 10 to get somebody.
The ahjumma interrupted a stirring rendition of Sisqo’s “Thong Song” and beckoned for the blonde foreigner to come with her. Upon seeing what was happening, the curly-headed one volunteered to accompany the ahjumma to the bathroom, where they discovered the heaping, drunken mess. When he saw the girl the ahjumma had brought along for help, the tambourine man shook his head and emitted a guttural groan. The curly-headed girl attempted to assure the ahjumma that the young man would be fine, but the ahjumma ran and got the green-eyed foreigner anyway.
What transpired between the two women when the blonde arrived was most certainly a terse exchange. The ahjumma did not know what they were saying, but that didn’t mean that she was unable to pick up on verbal clues. She guessed that they were bickering over who should take care of the pile of human on her bathroom floor, and she admittedly enjoyed the acidic exchange. It was settled that the blonde, green-eyed foreigner would be taking care of the guy who couldn’t handle his soju, and the ahjumma was all the more thankful for the episode being over. She was also happy that the blonde one was the one who was going to be helping out. If any of these foreigners could help this guy out, it was her. She was observant and caring. The other girl simply came off as needy and narcissistic. The ahjumma hadn’t observed the other people in the group too much, but she assumed them to be more like the curly-haired one. It wasn’t like they had jumped at the opportunity to help their friend. After a forceful effort of coercion and sweet talk from the blonde, Tambourine made it onto his feet. The ahjumma called a taxi and, alongside the blonde, helped carry him up the stairs and out of the noraebang.
After the couple was out of sight, the rest of the night flew by. The ahjumma may have even fallen asleep at the counter. When everyone was gone, she decided that it was time to close up shop. It was nearing 5 a.m.
The streets of Sinchon at this time were like a post-apocalyptic nightmare. The ahjumma couldn’t help but think that a horde of zombies had just fanned out over the neighborhood, leaving beer cans, styrofoam bowls, and other trash along the way. The street food stalls, teeming in the night, were left shuttered and abandoned. Some of the zombies remained in the streets, swaying with every step and leaning on each other for support. The ahjumma could safely assume that these people were not the church-going type, because zombies didn’t attend church, especially if they had spent the previous night on the prowl. Despite the dismal setting made even more dismal by the muted sunlight failing to touch her toes, the ahjumma knew that the neighborhood would look as clean and cosmopolitan as ever within just a few hours. Seoul was regenerative like that.
Craving something to eat, the ahjumma stepped into an alley restaurant because it was the only one open at this time. She quickly scarfed down a tuna kimbap and sympathized with the ahjummas who, like her, had to work ridiculous hours. She regarded them with the utmost courtesy during her quick meal, and made her way out as fast as she could.
The buildings of the neighborhood loomed over the ahjumma as she emerged from the labyrinth of the back streets. If she kept walking straight for a bit, she would end up home. If she went straight even further still, she would reach the Han River. The ahjumma considered going there, as it would be beautiful in the morning light, but she knew that she had to get home to her family. Before going to sleep herself, she planned on preparing rice, tofu, and fried kimchi, and leaving it out as breakfast.
As she navigated the sidewalk around the intersection, the ahjumma noticed a man in a suit sleeping on a ledge. When she got closer, she saw that he had thick, black-rimmed glasses laying on the ground next to him. It was the same businessman who had been in her noraebang singing “Nest” earlier. She considered prodding the man awake and telling him that he needed to go home to his family, but thought twice before doing so. She had already roused one drunk man awake in the past hour; she had no inkling to do it again. Besides, if the man had not been robbed by this point, it was highly unlikely that he was going to get robbed at all. Maybe, just maybe, he preferred sleeping away from his family. There was no way for the ahjumma to know.
As she proceeded home, the sun shot through a slit between two buildings and caught the ahjumma in the eye. After squinting and holding her hand up to block the light, she saw Seogang University across the street. What a small, unassuming university. Before the ahjumma could think any further about her disdain for any university not named Yonsei, her phone vibrated in her pocket. Who could be calling her at this hour? It was way too early. The ahjumma dug the pulsing monolith out of her pocket and read the caller ID. The call was from Soyeon. In a panic, the ahjumma stopped in her tracks and answered the call.
“Yes?” Her daughter’s voice sounded stable, but that didn’t mean that everything was okay.
“Why are you awake right now? Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I just wanted to talk.”
“About what? I’ll be home soon,” the ahjumma said as she continued to shield her eyes. “About your work, mommy. I don’t like it,” Soyeon said, her voice quavering.
“I’ve had the noraebang since before you were born, honey. It’s always fun to have your own noraebang, isn’t it?”
“I like the noraebang, but you being out all night scares me. I just want to wake up with my mommy in the house, making breakfast. Like how it used to be.”
“Well, mommy wants to be in the house in the mornings, too, and I will be soon.” The pit in her stomach told the ahjumma that she was tap dancing.
“I couldn’t sleep last night,” Soyeon said, the phone acting as a sieve of sadness.
“I’m sorry, honey. Be home soon. Go back to sleep,” the ahjumma said.
“Okay,” Soyeon answered.
“Okay,” the ahjumma said, hanging up. She looked over at Seogang University, took a deep breath, and headed home.
The ahjumma arrived at her dormant den. She crept through the pastel apartment and into the kitchen, where she rummaged for all of the proper breakfast materials. She made the meal in silence, pondering on what Soyeon had said to her on the phone. It made her sick to her stomach that she had to work the night shift in order to pay for her daughter’s English education, but that was the way of it. It was all for her future, and she hoped that Soyeon would one day understand it.
After she finished cooking the food and wrapping it in cellophane, the ahjumma made her way into Soyeon’s bedroom. Even in the dawn light, the pink in the walls gave off a warm glow. Soyeon lay on her side, eyes closed and hugging her stuffed rabbit. The ahjumma had won that plush little guy at a game stall throwing darts at balloons, and gave it to Soyeon knowing full well that she would love it.
The ahjumma leaned in, doing her best not to disturb her daughter, and kissed her on the forehead. Fully aware of the situation, she said, “I know you’re not sleeping.”
“I love you,” Soyeon said, a small smile breaking out on her face.
“I love you too,” the ahjumma said, a wan smile breaking out on her face.
The ahjumma went into the master bedroom, where her husband was sleeping like a slug.
She shuffled into the bathroom and prepared to go to sleep. As she brushed her teeth, she saw herself in the mirror. Upon seeing her drained reflection, she felt the urge to sleep for ten years.
After washing her face, the ahjumma slid into bed next to her husband. She didn’t say anything to him, as she was just too exhausted. She thought about the look on her daughter’s face when she came home that morning, and she thought about waking up on Sunday mornings in her own bed, and the two of them watching TV together. Now Sunday mornings consisted of her slinking around like some sort of stray cat. As the ahjumma’s limbs grew increasingly heavy, and the sensation of sleep cloaked her like a warm blanket, she thought about Soyeon’s smile. Her last conscious thought was that Seogang University didn’t seem like such a bad school after all.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Stephen J. Gallas is an MFA candidate at Chapman University in Orange, California. Prior to attending Chapman, he lived in Korea for four years and worked as an English instructor. His writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Adelaide Magazine, and Praxis Magazine.