Tonight, my little sister and her friend celebrated birthdays together. There was a meetup at a dive bar in Texas-- one of those really grungy, only regulars go, Karaoke bars. They are dimly lit and at about 11 PM fill with middle aged men waiting for mid-twenties females who go looking for a haunt where they can sing their hearts out in a drunken haze. As a mid-twenties female myself, my comment has no intended degradation toward the females who enjoy a night out singing. I was there too remember?
I picked a high-top table in the corner that was close to my sister's party group, but simultaneously allowed for some space. The bar tender was an attentive and friendly guy, and the whole place had the vibe of a scene worthy of Jack Nicholson in China Town--grunge and more grunge and can I use the word "grunge" some more? Someone was singing the Beastie Boys, and then next was Otis Redding. A guy lying on the floor screaming into the mic, and then some old school R&B followed by country. Talented individuals who chose the nightlife in some hole-in-the-wall dump, and then people with no sense or understanding of discretion in public (I chose not to sing, but dancing is all fine by me).
But anyway, it worked. I watched as the cranky mid-twenties, "alternative" female shuffled in the door. Her long, Avril Lavigne hair and her shirt with some catchy phrase defending her "bitch" status, piercings everywhere--truly she was a 90's baby. She looked around, discontent, and grimaced at me when we made eye-contact. It was a diverse crowd--race, gender, age--, but everyone was there for something, and somehow this shit-hole bar had some kind of unity to it. It was, in it's own right, beautiful. And sad.
Someone in front of me lit up a cigarette. It's such a far out thing these days to find a place with indoor smoking, I was a little mind blown. As the bar progressively filled up with smokers, and the music continued to blast, I closed my eyes for a moment and sank into the moment-- then it hit me. It smelled like China.
My roommate and I used to troll around random joints in Dongguan, hunting for a cool hang out. And yes, karaoke was in EVERY bar. We would dip in and out of many dimly lit bars, where the employees spoke zero English but everyone magically sang in perfect and crystal clear Rhianna English. Beastie Boys English. The Beatles English. Cigarettes. everywhere.
With my eyes closed, I was there, back in China. Zoned out from the voices around me, remembering what it was like to almost never have a clue what anyone around me was saying while I listened to strangers sing songs that they didn't understand, but I understood. I understood every word. And cigarettes. everywhere. In my hand and the person next to me and my roommate. We all smoked and listened. There were no words to exchange, only the darkness and the vibration of the speakers. China.
In China, I remember the clinking and clacking of dice against a round container as people around us played games we didn't understand. They would laugh and shout and scream as they shook and then dropped dice. But I wasn't listening to their words, I was listening to their mood. Everything was controlled in public, even their fun was some proposed excitement the forces out for themselves--to try and understand a concept that was intangible to them. Freedom. I would close my eyes and drag that cigarette, sink into "DONT SLEEP TIL BROOKLYN" and listen to the sound of longing.
So tonight, I drove home from my sister and her friend's joint-custody birthday party, in America, and I cried. Because I miss China. The people in those bars will never meet the people in these bars. Two worlds will never collide. But I saw them both, experienced them both, knew them both as home. And now... split between two worlds, I cry as I drive home, running from the smell of cigarettes, everywhere.