Paradise for my 18-year-old self

The Match: Russia v. South Korea

The Date: Tuesday, June 17

The Venue: 5 Bar Karaoke Lounge on West 32nd St. in  Koreatown

I grew up in a small rural town and mostly visited New York City for big touristy events like baseball games, Christmas tree lightings and art museums. I thought Times Square was exciting and exotic. Gaudy was good. When I started drinking at 18 and got drunk at a restaurant in Boston’s tiny Chinatown, I felt like a subversive wild child.

Koreatown would have seemed like paradise.

The small neighborhood is nestled beneath the Empire State Building right next to Herald Square, one of the busiest spots in the country. Wow! It’ the Manhattan Mall! Can you believe all this hubbub?

Young non-Koreans flock here because, buried inside the office towers and residential buildings are cheap, lawless karaoke bars and underage drinking havens.

I quickly found one at 5 Bar Karaoke Lounge, a place I think I sort of remember going for a friend’s karaoke birthday party a few years ago, but the details are a little hazy.

The glitz inside 5 Bar Karaoke Lounge in Koreatown
The glitz inside 5 Bar Karaoke Lounge in Koreatown

5 Bar had a colorful sign outside offering half-price drinks and free shots after every goal. I figured it would be like one of those European pub-crawls manufactured to attract a gaggle of Australians and Americans in every major capital. The British guides lead you along a prescribed route through a city’s major tourism sector and manufacture the illusion of an authentic experience. In reality, you don’t meet anyone different from yourself and your free thimble of “absinthe” is vodka, licorice zest and green food coloring.

5 bar karaoke before South Korea's first match in the 2014 World Cup
The sign that made me think this bar might suck

I was skeptical, but I decided to check out the crowd. As soon as I reached the elevator, I met Han, a Korean network engineer wearing a blue polo shirt tucked into his khakis. Han had his ID badge dangling from his pocket. In a heavy Korean accent, he told me he worked nearby and lived in Queens. He seemed like a nice, calm guy and we hit it off.

The bar was stuffed with several Korean teens, tables of diverse young people and a few guys in business clothes who came straight from work like Han and me. The walls were mirrored and neon track lighting lined the bar. I had never been sober in a place like this. It reminded me of the lurid techno bar atop a Berlin hostel where I once stayed.  There, the bartenders kept trying to sell me coke and pick up Australian girls. Here, they just sold $3 Bud Lights and kept very quiet.

There were a few small TVs behind the bar and one large flat panel screen where everyone focused their attention. I noticed a few of the karaoke rooms had the match on, while others displayed bizarre stoner screen savers. The staff was frantically pulling every object away from the walls to use as chairs for the expanding crowd. People sat on crates, stools and even a large conga drum with a Puerto Rican flag painted on it.

When the game started, there were no available seats. The crowd was a cool mixture of Korean drinkers and non-Korean drinkers who seemed to bond over half-price pitchers of Bud Light and cheap appetizers. I didn’t know how people would react to the match until South Korea had an opportunity to score in the ninth minute. The crowd whooped and I felt comfortable staying at 5 Bar.

I asked Han if he wanted a beer and he agreed. When I failed to get the bartender’s attention, Han called to him in Korean (I swear Han said “Yugioh!” to call the bartender and I think he said it later on to a waiter. Can someone who speaks Korean tell me what Han actually said?).

Han ordered the beers then started to pay. I objected and took out my credit card, but Han refused. Later on, Han’s friend Jang showed up and Han ordered a pitcher of beer, which he then poured into my glass. I again offered money, but he refused. I started to suspect I was missing some custom about how one pays or insists on paying or pretends to argue about paying or something, but I dropped the issue and let him buy the pitcher.

At halftime, I left Han and Jang to use the bathroom. After I navigated the labyrinth of karaoke rooms, I got on line and a group of three ~20 year olds invited me to share the bathroom with them (see: bonding over half-price pitchers of Bud Light). I declined their offer, but I ended up going in with some guy named Gabriel.

When I returned to Han and Jang, my beer glass was full. Han had ordered and paid for another pitcher. Jang offered me plates of shrimp tempura and french fries. I took small bites of each and sipped my beer slowly. I didn’t want them to keep buying me stuff (plus I didn’t want to buy any stuff myself).

There was also a new couple standing in front of us. The young man looked like a K-Pop star. He had a carefully sculpted helmet of black hair and he wore a tight striped long-sleeve shirt under a black suede vest. His baggy black jeans tapered at the ankle and he carried a large leather purse. His girlfriend appeared to be a delicate 15-year-old in a white peasant dress that hung off her body like a couture clothes hanger. They are definitely the most popular high school juniors in their clique.

When South Korea finally scored off the Russian goalie’s humiliating butter fingers, the crowd cheered and sang and banged drums. Even the brooding K-Pop star seemed to show emotion.

Russia tied the match up a few minutes later, but people didn’t seem to care too much. Free shots after someone scores, after all.

One more note: Han told me that this year’s World Cup is much less exciting to most South Koreans than past tournaments because the country continues to mourn the Sewol Ferry Disaster. I said I didn’t realize how devastating it was to Koreans. Han said it was like 9/11 to Americans. I hope the South Korean team succeeds at this tournament and picks the nation up a bit.

OVERALL ATMOSPHERE: 6/10 with very nice, friendly people — especially Han and Jang. I’m not 18 any more so this felt like an odd place to watch a soccer game. 

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