Another Laowai’s Soundtrack

Back in May, I made a post entitled “A Laowai’s Soundtrack“, where I listed 20 songs that helped define my China Experience. As the New Year ring’s in, I figure it’s as good of a time as any to revisit that.   Just as before, the purpose of this is to share a bit of music with people who may not get too much new pumping through their knock-off iPod. Also, to hopefully try to catalog  my journey, and hopefully all of ours, through song.

My apologies in advance for my ignorance, with one exception all of the songs are in English, and I also haven’t found a good Chinese band to comfortably consider “mine” enough yet to include on anything so personal.  Nonetheless though, today I add 20 more songs to share/discuss with the Anglo-Sino-Blogosphere.  It includes:  Feist, Franz Ferdinand, Iceland’s finest, a Bob Dylan cover, Simon and Garfunkel, and a Beatles/Jay-Z mashup.  Really, how many more playlists can claim that kind of a lineup?

He loves his music, do you? by shankar_shiv

Track #1: Joel Plaskett – Nowhere With You: Before we get going, I’d like to apologize for all of the Canadian-Content on this list.  It was rather inadvertent, but what can I say, my country makes great music.  This song in particular is very Canadian-centric, with lots of references to Halifax, Nova Scotia.  That being said, this is still the perfect song to start out any journey.   Whether it’s across the planet or down the street.  Even if you don’t know what on earth a Tatamagouche is.  It’s just so full of energy and fully encapsulates the travelers mindset and the “na na na” part is full of joy.

Most China-tastic Line: “You got nowhere that you’re going to.  Can I go nowhere with you?”

Track #2: Arcade Fire – Neighbourhood #2 (Laika): Let’s face it, moving to the other side of the world from your family and friends is a little strange.  This song chronicles these kids talking about their brother who went away and from his family trying to escape himself.  They love and want him to come back, even though maybe he doesn’t fit there.  Sound familiar?

Most China-tastic Line: “Our older brother set off for, a great adventure…”

Track #3: The Rural Alberta Advantage – Don’t Haunt This Place: One of the reasons that many of us move away is to escape from something back home.  Often times, your past catches up to you, no matter how much you want it to not haunt this place.  Sometimes though, there is no escape.

…alright that may not apply to much to some of you out there, but it’s still a darn good song, give it a listen!

Most China-tastic Line: “Don’t haunt this heart, don’t haunt this place”

Track #4: Broken Social Scene - Pacific Theme: The first time I saw the Pacific Ocean was from a plane en route to Beijing.  That may not be the same for all of you, but this song always makes me think of the moment that I looked out the window and the land ended below me.  It’s still a great, quirky, song that just sounds right walking down Chinese streets.

Most China-tastic Line: [Instrumental…so…all of it!]

Track #5: Tegan & Sara – Our Trees: One of the first things that people notice in China is the pollution.  Even the most ardent defenders of this country can’t really stick up for that one with anything more than “It’s worse in other parts of the country”.  This is a great and haunting song about all those missing trees and our missing air supply.

Most China-tastic Line: “If the trees could be lions would they still fall and be tagged? Would they refuse to surrender, refuse to be gagged? If the trees had a mother and a father like mine, Would they stand up say praise the trees the trees will be fine ”

Track #6: Goldfinger - Is She Really Going Out With Him?: Probably the next thing after the pollution that is easy to notice is all of the crazy couplings of locals and laowais.  This has been covered all over the place along the blogosphere and I don’t have much to add to it to be honest.  While there are multiple healthy couples out there, there are certainly several that are not.

Most China-tastic Line: “There’s something going wrong around here”

Track #7:  DJ Dangermouse – Allure: Living abroad is a rather intoxicating thing.  Sometimes it doesn’t really make sense, but there is a certain allure to it.  Also, it’s hard not to feel like a bit of a big shot with all of your friends being excited in everything you have to say, and countless locals telling you how great your Chinese is (hint:  it probably isn’t), and everything being so cheap and easy to live large.  What better way to celebrate that than a song originally by the Jigga man himself?  I chose this infamous version by DJ Dangermouse from The Grey Album, featuring a sampling of “Dear Prudence” because nothing in China is real or legal, so why should every song on the playlist be?

Most China-tastic Line: “It’s intoxicatin man, y’all don’t know why you do what you do”

Track #8: Stars – Soft Revolution: Do you remember all the “#GFW” tweets that went out back in June and July?  Do you remember what that accomplished at all?  Do you remember any of the angry blog posts that were written about sixfour, the riots, the Three Gorges Damn, Google, or anything in Tibet?  There are all sorts of problems that we witness here in China, and some laowais try to protest, but nothing really happens in the end.  Lord knows I’m guilty of it, but it’s the sad truth.  We’re fighting a soft revolution here.

Most China-tastic Line: “And after changing everything, they couldn’t tell, we couldn’t sing.”

Track #9: Neutral Milk Hotel - Communist Daughter: (sorry, the video is really strange and irrelevant, but it was the best that I could find) After dealing with the pollution, the prostitution, the ghetto fabulous lifestyle and the restrictions that we face, it’s easy to lose sight of something, the people.  This song is here to remind us of them.

Most China-tastic Line: “Sweet communist, the communist daughter, standing on the seaweed water”

Track #10: Sigur Rós - Untitled #4: First a little context.  This song, and the whole ( ) album was sung in Hopelandic,  a made up language by the band’s lead singer.  At first it sounds strange and terrifying, but once you give it some tim and look to the beauty of what is being said and not the actual words, you’ll be genuinely touched.  Sounds pretty familar, does it not?

Most China-tastic Line: In the CD jacket, they left the whole lyrics section blank so that listeners could put in their own meanings.  Try it for yourself.

Track #11: M. Ward – Chinese Translation: A strange circular song to go for a strange, circular country.  This song doesn’t have a ton to do with the title, other than its loopy nature (much like translations).  It is all about someone searching for answers and only getting more questions, not unlike a lot of our journeys.

Most China-tastic Line: “I planned an escape, just like you”

Track #12: Eels – It’s a Beautiful Day: The perfect song to accept things, even when they get a little strange and discouraging.  For the zillionth time, sounds familiar right?

Most China-tastic Line: “Goddamn right, it’s a beautiful day”

Track #13: Wilco - Pot Kettle Black: This is a great song for when you’re getting sick of any of the hypocrite laowai’s you may know (or read on the internet).  They are all over the place, it’s impossible to find people who don’t do so many of the things that they complain that the Chinese are doing, or the many things that they complain about all the other foreigners doing, or…

Most China-tastic Line: “It’s become so obvious, you’ve become so oblivious to yourself”

Track #14: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Turn Into: Apparently, we’re not allowed to become Chinese.  Doesn’t mean that we can’t hope to some day!  There’s lots to admire about the Chinese people and culture.  Hopefully at some point or another all of us will make an attempt to become a bit more Chinese at some point or another.

Most China-tastic Line: “Hope I do, turn into you”

Track #15: Franz Ferdinand – Come On Home: Eventually someone wants you to come home.  Maybe it’s your parents, siblings, friends, or even yourself.  Sometime the urge is there, and it’s a hard, hard thing to fight.

Most China-tastic Line: “Let’s not forget, we were so strong, so bloody strong.  Come on home…”

Track #16: LCD Soundsystem – All My Friends: If you are only going to click on one link, please for your own benefit make it this one.  It is a perfect song to describe any loneliness, insecurity, and uncertainty that goes along with modern life, especially on the far side of the planet from where you may or may not belong.  This song was ever so close to making it to my last playlist, but I decided to go with a different song by the same artist instead.  I have blogged about this exact song before, saying:

“…this song just didn’t quite connect with me the way it was with other people in 2007.

When I first heard this I was confident (probably a little bit too confident) and I knew exactly where all my friends where.  So the message of this song just didn’t quite connect to me immediately.

But now, after having my bravado shaken, and moving halfway around the world.  This song rings loud and clear with me.

Because it helps me ask a question that I’m probably too scared to ask on my own:  where are my friends?”

Couldn’t have said it better myself!  Errr…wait a minute…

Most China-tastic Line: “Yeah, I know it gets tired only where are your friends tonight?”

Track #17: Feist – It’s Cool To Love Your Family: A very sweet song, by a very sweet songstress.  We all love to be independent, but sometimes you’ve got to give in to your desire to be back home.

Most China-tastic Line: “It’s cool it’s cool to love your family, I know because I love them more and more

Track #18: Sufjan Stevens – No Man’s Land: When I first back-packed around China in 2007, my friend and travel-buddy Steve said something incredibly intelligent.  I said how much I hate the long days on the plane/train/bus and he told me how much he loves it because he gets to be “nowhere in particular”.  This song is here to celebrate the uncertain location that you get in between points A and B.

Most China-tastic Line: “This land is yours, this land is mine”

Track #19: Simon and Garfunkel – Homeward Bound: Easily the most well known song on this list.  It’s a great song to have when you’re on your way back home or you want to be.

Most China-tastic Line: “I wish I were, homeward bound.”

Track #20: Antony with Bryce Dessner – I Was Young When I Left Home: It’s not often that people can cover someone as great as Bob Dylan, but damnit these two did it.  This beautiful song is one of the many, many highlights of one of hte best albums of 2009, Dark Was the Night.  It captures the learning that goes on when you’re on the other side of the planet, and it touches on just how easy it is to lose touch with the people that matter the most to you.

Most China-tastic Line: “I was young when i left home, and I been out a-ramblin’ round, and I never wrote a letter to my home”

So there’s my list, what’s yours?

Talk on Another Laowai’s Soundtrack


14 Comments
  1. Thanks! That’s a really inspiring playlist. Love the references to expat life in China :)

    I knew some of the songs before but never saw them in this light. All we need now is a fresh list of Mando-Pop Instant Classics!

  2. “After dealing with the pollution, the prostitution, the ghetto fabulous lifestyle and the restrictions that we face, it’s easy to lose sight of something, the people.”

    Do tell: How do you carve ‘the people’ away from these other things?

    Logic requires the following analysis:

    1. Grant that Country C (P) is overwhelming populated and “managed” (re: policy, governance, and law enforecement) by People C (P), where, for these purposes, C are both the current and the indigenous population.

    2. Ordinary language analysis of the structure of this sentence requires we understand that phrase ‘lose sight of something, the people’ as a contrast to the preceding phrases, such that the antecedent phrases are negative things, while the ‘the people’ are a positive thing. Simply: pollution, prostitution (etc.) are ‘bad things’, while the people (that of which we ought not lose sight) are ‘good’ things.

    3. Given (#2), then,
    3.1 no pollution in C is caused by P
    3.2 regarding pollution, those agents responsible for the success or failure laws and policies, and their promulgation and enforcement (etc), are not P
    3.2 if prostitutes exist in C, none of them are P
    3.3 if prostitution exists in C, none of the people who support prostitution – by act or by omission – are P
    3.4 regarding prostitution, if prostitution exists in C, then those agents responsible for the success or failure laws and policies, and their promulgation and enforcement (etc), are not P
    3.5 if C has ‘restrictions’ on the behaviours of not-P residents of C, then, those restrictions, insofar as they are laws and policies (etc.), are not created by P
    3.6 if C has any ‘restrictions’ on not-P persons, and these are enforced, they are not enforced by P.

    The much-maligned Administrative organs of China, and all personnel, are Chinese. All the good and all the bad things – bad from one’s own perspective – about China are bundled up part in parcel with ‘the Chinese’, and last time I checked, the polluters, the prostitutes, and the organs/personnel of state that facilitate the thriving of these things were Chinese people. Real ones.

    ‘The people’ – of whom, according to your words, we’re not to lose sight – come in many flavours — the good, the bad, and the ugly among them, just like people everywhere. There is no uniquely wonderful Chinese character, any more than there is a uniquely wonderful Icelandic, Nigerian, or Australian character.

    Eight months back I had a chat with a gal from the US, not long in China and recently arrived from India. She’s well-educated (BA, MA) and very involved in some specialised NGO-related work. “I’m just loving China” she told me. “Having a bit of trouble with the local cooking, but otherwise, loving it”.

    We chatted a bit, and found that she was also having a bit of trouble with local infrastructure, local taxis, and local road-rules, and had stopped cycling for that reason. She didn’t miss cycling, though, because she was getting sick of people pointing at her, or laowai-ing her, or even trying to touch her ‘yellow’ hair. But other than that, she loves China, she said. Wished the locals were a bit less pushy on the bus and in the markets, and minded their children a little better — but that notwithstanding, she was loving China. Not loving the way that, when sitting in a cafe, many locals kept asking if they could practice English with her. Definitely not loving the beggars. But otherwise, she loved China.

    What I guess she ‘loved’ was *being* in not-X, where X is any place with which she had become bored, or too-accustomed. ‘Loving China’ seemed be be “loving” the knowledge that she was now in her third country, and was far from the US, and that she could now say “I lived for six months in China”. She probably loved the buzz, the challenges, the full-on unrelenting stimulation of coping and reckoning, and loved whatever was novel but harmless, or dangerous but within her ability to control. Its probably the same general way she loved India, and will love her new not-X place.

    That’s not a criticism of her — that’s just the way we need to understand and contextualise our enthusiasm for a place and a people. Ive been in China nearly nine consecutive years — nine years within which I have been outwith China for fewer than four, maybe only 3 months. I stay by choice. (Disclosure: I am in the US at the moment.) There are specific people in China I care about, and specific things that I doubt I could do without.

    So: Do I love China?

    No, because that question makes no sense. And as for losing sight of ‘the people’, take a moment to note there are no ‘Chinese people’ in general to love. There are geniuses and assholes, good cops and bad cops, savants and imbeciles. Don’t over-romanticise.

    Perhaps there’s a song for this.

    • Profile photo of Glen

      Just as I said in the introduction to this post: “…the purpose of this is to share a bit of music with people who may not get too much new pumping through their knock-off iPod. Also, to hopefully try to catalog my journey, and hopefully all of ours, through song.”

      I just want to wax poetically about some good songs and how they relate to me (and maybe other people) in China. I understand your logical analysis about how the people have caused lots of problems and there are plenty of bad ones. I wasn’t trying to say that they are all great, or that they are all saints. It’s just that the song “Communist Daughter” is both a great song and makes me think of being in China.

      Going anymore into it anymore than that is over-analyzing it and just like over-romanticizing things, there probably isn’t much of a song for that.

    • Hey Glen, cool post – I love how music has the power to take you back to certain places and times in your life. And I love that Arcade Fire song! I know I have my own playlist that will take me back to China no matter where I am in the world. Thanks for sharing yours with us!

      I have to say that even though Jack Cameron’s response was a little bit intense and maybe not appropriate for this specific post, to me personally it was refreshing to finally hear some of my own thoughts coming from someone else. I am so sick of hearing about how great China is, and especially sick of being made to feel like I am a bad person for not liking it. After 6 months of an open mind and a very honest attempt to appreciate the language, culture, everything, I feel like I’ve gotten nowhere. And unfortunately I am definitely not charmed by the “people.” While I have met a few wonderful Chinese, the sad fact is that they are extremely few and far between. I didn’t come all this way to hang out with foreigners all the time, but I am finding it next to impossible to create meaningful friendships with locals. I honestly question whether it is even possible for a young single woman to enjoy this country, seeing as just about all the foreigners I know who “love” it here are male and/or married. I am prepared for a lot of incoming hostility from expressing these sentiments but I don’t care. I know that I am well-traveled, intelligent, inter-personal, and adventurous, but I still hate it here. I’m very happy for you all who are happy here and able to see the “good” in the midst of the bad. Maybe I’ll get there eventually.

      Anyways Glen sorry for going so off topic, I was just excited to see that someone else feels the same way I do. I’m off to go check out some of your songs, yay for new music!

  3. soledad: thanks. very. youre not a bad person. i think it was the philosopher kant who wrote (and i am probably misquoting) that ‘skepticism can be a resting place for reason, but it cannot be its abode’. the crushing weight of love-thy-brother-ism, and the powerful arguments that sustain cultural relativism (viz, there are probably no universal standards of right and wrong, and if there are wee humans cannae divine them) tends to force many people into the absurd position of tolerance for whhat every fibre of their being shouts ‘Bollocks!’. id love to hear more about your experiences and the evolution of your china trajectory/thought processes — perhaps in another post somewhere. (or email me.)

    glen: youre 100%right — my comment is off-point. no disrespect was intended, and i certainly didnt mean to belittle or mock your project — which is very cool. i came to your post fresh from having read and chimed-in on the ‘Laowai women like asian men’ column, so i confess i was still preoccupied with that. apologies, mate, for being off-topic.

  4. Jack Cameron: Sorry if I sounded defensive, it’s jsut your algebraic argument really caught me off guard. I mean, I like it, and you’re right, I jsut wasn’t realyl expecting it.

    But I think that you have a point, there is far too much “I love China” going aroudn the blogosphere, I guess it’s the cool thing to do. For the msot part I do love this coutnry, but I love Canada, and I love Scotland (ther other time I lived away from home). But I have to admit, there are certainly frustrating points about all three of them.

    And soledad, if you really hate it here, I think that you should see what other opportunities there are for you elsewhere. I don’t mean that in a “Like it or lump it” kind of way, just in an honest “you shoudl be happy” kind of way. China’s a strange, difficult place and I really don’t think that it’s for everyone.

    • I hear ya. You’re absolutely right, if I’m not happy I should stop complaining and do something about it. But I’m stubborn and it’s kind of a blow to my pride to think that I “couldn’t handle” China so I’m determined to stick it out – only 6 more months to go! Positive thinking is my goal, and I keep telling myself it’s a good learning experience if nothing else.

      Jack Cameron if you are serious about continuing this convo that would be fantastic, I would definitely appreciate being able to talk to someone who’s been here for so long. My email is h2oamay@gmail.com.

      • Very cool post. This is quite a fun and poignant playlist, I really enjoyed checking out the tracks I didn’t recognize, and seeing your take on the ones I did. As a DJ, I am constantly reading into the deeper meaning behind every song (although there is a time for just fun fluff). I have to admit, although I make it a point to have a perpetually mercurial playlist on my iPod, all I listened to for the first month in China was the Beatles. Literally, nothing else. I’m not sure why, maybe it felt like a piece of home.

        I have to say, I really haven’t talked to very many westerners who really say they LOVE living here. I mean, they do exist, they’re just few and far between. Let’s face it, there are many more “fun” countries one could choose to live in. Personally, I didn’t come here for a vacation, but rather for the work I can do here, and for the life-changing experience. As for the former, I teach at a large university. I firmly believe that a good deal of the future of the world rests upon China/US relations. Not everything, but it is important. I was having a good deal of fun back in the US, editing during the week, DJing on the weekends, but I felt like I wasn’t really producing anything. I felt like I was contributing to entropy rather than creation. So I’m here teaching language, culture, and philosophy–although I have to say I’m learning much more about these things, Chinese as it may be, than teaching. Humility is, of course, a good lesson for anybody, which is often really hard to accept. The stark contrast between the individualism of the West and the Collectivism of China is really amazing. Living in China can be incredibly frustrating, for any number of reasons. Personally, I plan on staying here for a long, long time. The lifestyle isn’t nearly as plush as one I previously enjoyed in the US, but here I feel I have a purpose.

      • I just remembered–hehehehe–walking around town the first few days in China with the Beatles “Revolution” blasting over and over on my iPod. It made so much sense to me after hearing so many friends talk about changing the world from their couch. “you tell me it’s the institution/well you know/you better free your mind instead/but if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow…”

  5. This might be a bit out of left field, but I remember walking around Shangrila a couple of years ago listening to Wu-Tang’s CREAM, and thinking that it actually made a lot of sense, especially in a place like Shangrila, formally known as Zhongdian, currently named after the mythical town in the novel Lost Horizon about a plane crash in Tibet. China has taken the whole capitalism thing and brought it to a new level, and a lot of that, if not all, is directly related to the American economy. And I’m not just talking about all the crap we buy. I doubt there are many Chinese people who have read Lost Horizon and understand the relevance of the name Shangrila.

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