I asked the man how much per hour for a karaoke room.
“Are there many of you?” he asked.
“No,” I answered truthfully. There was exactly one of “us”.
It was a $30 flat rate and as I babbled on about drinks – I like my beer cold; I’ll probably have two bottles – saw the words dawn across the man’s face: she’s come alone.
My cheeks burned when he offered the beer for free. Nothing beats the taste of ice-cold pity beer.
Like so many absurd things, it had started off as a joke. A friend complained that he could never convince his girlfriend to go to karaoke, just the two of them.
I sympathised with her – in my book, karaoke was strictly a group activity. The company should consist of fun-loving, non-judgmental types (to create a “safe space”) and it should be done spontaneously, say after a night of prolonged drinking.
Such perfect storm conditions meant I rarely did karaoke as often as I’d liked.
When my friend highlighted one clear advantage – the opportunity to sing many more of your own songs – I blurted out: “Then why not just go on your own?”
At that point I was days away from moving to a beautiful town called Dali, on the other side of the country. I had sworn off moving ever again, but experience junkies don’t know any better. A new place, bereft of friends; it would be the perfect time to give this hypothesis a run.
Friday marked my one-week anniversary in Dali, 90 per cent of which was spent completely on my own.
I’d already developed a routine: wake up early, take a walk and pick up breakfast. Spend the day working on my laptop. Eat my meals on the apartment rooftop, where I could watch clouds tickle the mountain tops. The weekend would pass with long bicycle rides through villages that dot the shores of Erhai Lake.
Until recently I had thought it quite sad to live on your own. I remember visiting a friend and noticing in her tidy one-bedroom a remote control holder resting over the arm of a lounge chair, two controllers snugly in place.
It is the niceness, rather than slovenliness in single occupancy dwellings that pull at my heartstrings. For whom are they offering such sweet consideration? The child plays house, all on her lonesome.
And yet living alone is becoming more and more common.
American sociologist Eric Klinenberg has been studying solo living and last year in The Guardian reported that “living alone and being alone are hardly the same” (though routinely conflated), and “research shows that it’s the quality, not the quantity, of social interactions that best predicts loneliness”.
The Economist too published numbers from Euromonitor tabbing solo residents as the fastest-growing household group in most parts of the world, predicting a 20 per cent global jump by 2020.
If it is time to shake off any remaining stigma, I for one am relinquishing the notion that long bouts of solitude cause one to lose grip on reality. In fact one gains a new reality called the Kingdom of One.
In this realm of which you are both king and sole inhabitant, every action becomes decree. Eating in bed is a celebrated tradition. Farting with abandon, the local handshake.
With no need for this-and-that o’clock, time becomes purely relative to hunger pangs. In contrast the self loses relativity as you realise the dichotomies of attractive/unattractive, funny/dour, kind/mean, witty/boring and so on exist only in the company of others.
Place yourself in an empty room and you become as inert as the chair you’re sitting on. And while I find it energising to be around people, there’s a point of diminishing return – when crossed that same company becomes draining.
Cave in the Snow is writer Vicki Mackenzie’s chronicles of a British nun who spent 12 years alone, meditating in a remote Himalayan cave. Tenzin Palmo, born Diane Perry, has likened such retreats as the “pressure cookers” of spiritual development.
“Even for short periods, it can be helpful,” she says. “It’s very good to have an opportunity to be alone with oneself and see who one really is behind all the masks.”
My admiration runs deep for such hermits and mystic wanderers. Or naturalists such as Henry David Thoreau, who leaves behind the safety of civilisation to taste the blood and body of nature.
As he wrote in his memoir Walden: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
In an age of ever-tweeting, brand-building LinkedIn writers, one looks back nostalgically – or at least with fascination – at the J.D. Salingers, the Thomas Pynchons and Emily Dickinsons, who cultivated no public persona beyond what leaked from the corners of their prose.
Still I doubted my tenacity and arrived in Dali with a bag full of terrors about the solitude that waited, my only comfort being that if I could pry off all the fingers holding karaoke in a death-grip, liberate it from the land of people and bring it to the Kingdom of One, I could face anything.
Near the west gate of Dali’s old town is a flat building covered in neon lights with a tall spire and the letters KTV brandished like a cross. Welcome to the holy church of craptacular.
The karaoke room was wall-to-wall mirrors with a table covered in enough snacks for my five non-existent buddies and me. A public service announcement played featuring stock photographs of happy Chinese families having a blissful, strictly drug-free existence.
My beer arrived as I was programming songs. One thing to note about the Kingdom of One: with power comes great responsibility. The awesomeness of song selection would fall squarely on my shoulders, and several times the karaoke fun would have to pause while I programmed more songs.
Because, oh yes, it was fun.
I kicked the night off with Halo by Beyonce.
Remember those walls I built? / Well, baby they’re tumbling down / And they didn’t even put up a fight / They didn’t even make a sound.
My voice sounded harsh and ungainly, but in karaoke that never matters – particularly tonight. I followed up with Rihanna and Eminem in Love the Way You Lie (sang and rapped both parts), then the aptly titled I Get Lonely by Janet Jackson.
A world of people and the mixed-up feelings they inspire came flooding back into my kingdom. Emotional masochists, the desperately heartbroken and crazy in love; I was singing my heart out with all of them.
My longstanding specialty has been a genre I dub “sad lady ballads“, tonight provided by Amy Winehouse, Adele, Duffy and Lisa Loeb. But in Robyn’s Hang with Me there were flirtations with a new crush, Lupe Fiasco’s adoring fans in The Show Goes On and drunk-dialling an old flame with Need You Now by Lady Antebellum.
And what a thing you missed when Crowded House’s Neil Finn and I sang a duet:
Now I’m walking again to the beat of a drum / And I’m counting the steps to the door of your heart.
In this karaoke room I was alone but surrounded: the “pressure cooker” of human relationships. After a week of no mask wearing, I was suddenly trading them every three minutes: cool like the Editors, young and keen as Katy Perry and a grinding sex machine with Ciara.
No one is inert and chair-like here. They are “amazing”, according to Bruno Mars, and “paranoid” according to Garbage. Even the loners of REM’s Everybody Hurts are reminded they aren’t alone at all.
For two hours I had brought karaoke to the Kingdom of One, but a ragtag of merry men and women had followed behind.
I have not one regret about my decision to leave big city fabulous for a sweet, country life. But it would be disingenuous to finish without mentioning the pangs of loneliness – wolves that come at night, when this house seems to swell to gargantuan size.
In those brief moments I miss swapping secrets and jokes with loved ones, and feel myself under 30 metres of water with no way to reach the land of the living.
My final karaoke song, No Air by Jordin Sparks, summed it up best:
Tell me how I’m supposed to breathe with no air / Can’t live, can’t breathe with no air / It’s how I feel whenever you ain’t there / It’s no air, no air.
Daily Life, May 2013.