I had an American friend visit me over Christmas. Needless to say, I took him to Geysir, Gullfoss and the Blue Lagoon, which is basically mandatory if you’re entertaining foreigners in Iceland. We took touristy pictures of each other with chattering teeth and frozen smiles in the 24-hour dusk, and let out sighs of relief when we got back into the warm car. When my friend had seen enough landscape and I’d taken him to most of the cool places I could think of in Reykjavík, too, I started to run out of ideas. Finally, I did something that had never come to my mind: I actually asked my friend what he wanted to do in Iceland. With a beaming smile, he replied: karaoke.
Now, karaoke isn’t a common phenomenon in Iceland. It is considered an outrageously corny activity that can only be excused if those participating are obscenely drunk. In fact, I only know of two places to have regular, advertised karaoke. One of them is the sport bar Ölver, the other one is Kaffisetrið, a Thai restaurant that turns into a karaoke hot spot on weekend nights. Ölver was closed due to the holidays. I had been told by people who have gone there that Kaffisetrið had a substantial Thai song selection. Being typical Icelanders, they were so drunk when they went there that they couldn’t tell me if there was an English song selection for my American karaoke enthusiast. The only thing to do was to go there to find out.
Stepping into Kaffisetrið was like stepping into a different culture. The place smelled of exotic spices and the walls were decorated with Thai art and symbolism. We found ourselves in a situation that hardly ever arises in Iceland; we were the Caucasian minority. At the next table sat a large group of people who took turns singing karaoke in their native tongue. It was fascinating to discover how different the Thai karaoke experience is from the Icelandic one. The people at Kaffisetrið weren’t staggeringly drunk. They weren’t fooling around, singing cheesy hits from the eighties hoping to derive giggles from the audience. They were simply singing. Nobody laughed. Nobody jumped up on a table during the solo. Nobody was faking it.
I had heard stories about Icelanders who were thrown out of Kaffisetrið for making fun of the karaoke and its participants. I had also heard that as a result, the regular Thai customers are a bit suspicious of Icelanders dropping in. Not knowing if any of these stories were true, I still put on my best, most respectful manner and advised my friend to do so too. We sat like Sunday school children and picked out songs from a large English song list, while a Thai transvestite sang her heart out to a video of pink flamingos flying over a pond.
When our turn came around, we were warmly received. I realised that there had been no reason to fear that anybody there would pass judgement on us or be suspicious of us. As a matter of fact, we reaped cheers, smiles and applause from the audience after we tried to harmonise our way through Extreme’s More than Words with dubious results. Quality wasn’t the point, just getting up and doing it. Suddenly it hit me that I’d sung karaoke completely sober for the first time in my life, and that it was actually fun.
An Icelandic friend of mine and fellow karaoke lover showed up at the scene. She knew some of the people at Kaffisetrið and she stayed behind after my American friend and I had sung our share and gone home. After we left, my friend tagged along with her Thai friends to a nearby dance club. Upon their arrival, the doormen let my Icelandic friend in, after which they folded their arms across their chests and refused to let her Thai friends into the club. Seeking an explanation, the doormen told her it was due to dress code. She pointed out the fact that she was in fact wearing jeans like the majority of the group, so that could hardly be the reason. The doormen just shook their heads and refused to budge. Feeling the blood boiling in her veins, my friend confronted one of the doormen, asking if the real reason was because the rest of the group was of Asian descent. “Yes. It’s orders from the boss,” the doorman replied and shrugged.
I was blissfully unaware of this incident until my American friend left the country. Truth be told, I am glad he didn’t witness it. Apart from the blatant racial discrimination that flourishes in Iceland, what I find the most unjust about the events of that night is the fact that I, as an Icelander, was warmly welcomed to a place owned, run and frequented by people of Asian origin. When the tables were turned, Icelanders shut their doors.
Unfortunately, this is not a unique story. These kinds of events are taking place all over the country. Occasionally, the media take interest in them, but mostly they are quietly condoned. If we like to call ourselves a civilised country, it’s time to stop acting like white plantation owners and start respecting basic human rights. In the meantime, I urge everyone to try the Thai karaoke experience. It’s a much-needed lesson in open-mindedness.
(Kaffisetrið is located at Laugavegur 103, 101 Reykjavík)