I constantly receive requests for stories about my time in the Pacific Islands running the National Development Bank of Palau.  So, here is one of my first experiences.

As the new guy in town I was invited by a couple of the local power brokers to join them for a night out on the town.  In the US, the invitation would have been for a round of golf but Palau didn’t have a golf course.  Instead, they asked me to join them for an evening of karaoke.  My eyebrow went up and I said “Karaoke? You obviously have never heard me sing.  Don’t you have a sports bar that we can go to instead?”

“It doesn’t matter how good or bad your voice is.  You will have a great time,” my host replied.

I was noncommittal, which was my way of politely saying, “Not a chance in hell are you going to get me on stage to unleash my cat-in-heat voice.”

My office manager pulled me aside and said “You have to go. It would be considered very rude if you didn’t go.”

So, at the scheduled time I arrived at a nondescript strip-mall.  The shop on the end had a neon sign that said “Karaoke”.  The interior was dark except for the stage and I was immediately approached by a gaggle of twenty-something Asian women dressed like they were going to a high school prom.  With a young lady on each side of me and a few trailing behind, I was led to some cheap leather couches where my hosts were gathered.

After introductions which included all the young ladies, my host asked me, “Which one?”

I said nothing. Given my dumbfounded look he quickly realized I had no idea what karaoke was all about.  We sat down.  When I say we, I mean the guys and our want-to-be prom queens.  My mind was thinking “brothel” and how to politely make my escape.  Our ringleader said a few words in Palauan and we went from a gaggle to one girl per guy.  The one sitting next to me was very cute and very touchy.

Part of me was saying “Relax and go with it.”  Part of me was saying “Run while you still can.” Quickly, drink orders were placed and the typical social chit-chat started.  After a few drinks the conversation relaxed as did my nervousness.  I must say that Jack and Coke and a neck rub from my prom date helped significantly.

The relaxed state changed drastically when my date asked me to go up on stage with her.  I balked, but this is exactly how my young Asian friend earned her keep.  She cajoled, begged then finally dragged me up on stage.  The “guys,” now several drinks into the evening, joined in with some heavy peer pressure and general “ball-busting”.  After a cat-fight version of Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, I felt relieved thinking I had done my penance.  Wrong!

It turned out the evening was all about getting stinking drunk, reverting to a high school mentality and bonding over general stupidity.  The prom dresses now made sense.  And as I think about it, the evening ended the same way my senior prom did; a peck goodnight and a bad case of the bed spins.

The next week I ran into the power brokers.  At first I was a little sheepish about the evening but after some good hearted ribbing about my singing and pathetic attempt at a good night kiss I realized what the evening was all about.  In the Islands the locals want to see what kind of person you are when your guard is down, and they use karaoke to do this.  I learned from the experience that rapport and relationships are vital to business no matter where you are.  And, in a global economy you have to be open to gaining that rapport/relationship based on the local methods, whether it’s a round of golf or a night of karaoke.