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Text: World Copyright
Martin Foreman

Copyright of pictures acknowledged where possible

Confessions of a karaoke singer

Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1998. The first day of my first visit to this sprawling, impoverished city. My contact, a Filipino, has invited me for a meal. In a karaoke restaurant. A Thai karaoke restaurant. I have never been in a karaoke restaurant before, of any nationality, and I do not want to be here now. After a fourteen-hour flight and a six-hour time change, the only place I want to be is in bed. But Fernando and I are to be colleagues and I have not the heart to plead jet-lag.

The first to arrive, we are seated uncomfortably close to the darkened king-size screen. The waiters, all Bangladeshi, young and over-eager, flutter round, bringing menus and glasses for the Scotch and beer which Fernando pulls out of a bag. In this Muslim country foreigners may bring their own alcohol.

We order, drink and talk. Fernando's eyebrows rise when I admit to being gay. After a moment's silence he asks if I think he is too. I had assumed not, but I put together the question, his prissy manner, worried frown and faded Hawaiian shirt. Yes, I think he's gay. "How should I know?" I say. "I'm engaged to be married," he tells me. "Oh," I reply. "But I've had many gay experiences," he goes on. "Oh," I repeat. "Perhaps I am gay." "Perhaps," I shrug, not knowing what to say.

The food arrives. I pick at it, reminded how spicy Thai food can be. The Heineken offers relief but threatens instant sleep. Other customers, European and American, enter. The screen flickers into life and a waiter begins to sing. Off-key. In front of me an insipid Caucasian couple, one of each gender, walk hand in hand through a forest. The colours are faded, lacking blues and reds. Even more distracting, the singer's words seldom match those on the screen. Sometimes they anticipate, more often they fall behind; frequent they lapse into tuneless la la las.

A smattering of applause. Fernando signals for the list of songs, writes down several titles and waits for the microphone. Leaning back, glasses at the end of his nose, half-crooner, half-professor, his voice is a pleasant tenor. The applause is louder, respectful. At the end of the second song, he offers me the microphone. I refuse. He sings again. Each track features the same couple in the same wood. The exception is "Dock of the Bay", which offers waterside views of Hong Kong. My ears lose focus: every song is reduced to the same slow di-dum, di-dum, di-dum.

The microphone moves on, to a black American, a white Frenchman, the Frenchman's girlfriend, back to the waiter. Some sing with gusto, none in tune. Each is politely applauded. Fernando, meanwhile, is thinking aloud. Maybe the problem is not his sexuality but his fiancee. Also Filipino, she is a nurse in California, enjoying the lifestyle and with no desire to leave. Fernando, on the other hand, prefers the Third World; after another year here he might move to Vietnam. Maybe if he were in love with a girl who respected his work and wanted to live with him, he wouldn't be gay. What do I think?

I think very little. I am trying to eat food I do not like and drink beer I do not want. I am trying to stay awake and be polite but I keep being distracted by over-amplified foreigners mutilating the corpses of songs I once enjoyed. At this moment I do not feel confident about counselling a stranger on his sexuality. I make a neutral comment. He tells me about the sex he occasionally has with two women in the city - one an Australian, the other a Brit who makes too much noise in bed.

The evening progresses; the microphone returns. He sings well, but with the same slow monotony. In between songs he drinks copious amounts of Black Label while I alternate water and beer. While others sing, Fernando quotes statistics that most Bangladeshi men have their first sexual contact with someone of the same gender. He sees this as significant; I see it as the practice of adolescent boys the world over.

My attention is suddenly taken by a cloudburst and I wonder where the rickshaw drivers shelter. Within a quarter of an hour, the rain stops; when I leave the streets will be dry again. What kind of man do you like, Fernando asks. He wants me to specify height, weight, body shape and other vital statistics, but I can only vaguely describe good looks and empathy. He is attracted to large, well-endowed men. Unfortunately there have been few in his life; he is sure that more would help him decide if he really was gay.

I reflect that he has chosen a good career to postpone discovery of his own sexuality. In the Philippines and California too many men would break open his closet door. Bangladeshi and Vietnamese men do not attract him, while expatriate North Americans and Europeans are more interested in handsome young natives than a plain-featured thirty-year old Filipino. For several years to come he can reassure himself with the occasional brief heterosexual affair.

But perhaps I should point his head in the direction his heart faces. I push aside the last of my meal. "If you think you're gay..." I begin. "I didn't say I was," he interrupts, suddenly defensive. "Perhaps I'm not. Perhaps I just need to find the right woman."

In the silence which follows he signs for the bill. We are back at the beginning of the conversation, a journey through a topic that has led nowhere. The restaurant is emptying. The Americans have left; the French group has grown louder, their rendering of English lyrics almost painful. Fernando and I stand up and walk back down to the street.

As I settle into the rickshaw that will take me to my hotel, I thank him for the evening. Distracted, he says goodnight, his frown deeper, as if he regretted having said too much.

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