Sorting through the CDs to bring you the best - by natita2
Sorting through the tracks to bring you the best - by natita2

I am one of those people who associate music with times and places in my life.  As the academic year in China comes to a close, a few songs stick out to define the highs and lows of the rookie year of my China experience.  If you are about to start your own trip to the Middle Kingdom, or would like to reflect on some old times, be sure to acquire these songs to guide your thoughts.

(QUICK NOTE:  I tried to include links to all of the songs, but in typical China fashion, not all of them can be accessed around the GFW at the time of posting.  Should any of you find any versions of these songs that we can see here, please do not hesitate to post it in the comment section and I will fix it as soon as I can.  Also, please appreciate that while I tried to be as versatile in my song choice as possible, I mainly stuck to my Canadian alternative/Indie roots, hopefully you’ll enjoy the ones that you haven’t heard before)

The Departure

Track #1: Xavier Rudd – Messages:  The definitive song before any journey. It sums up the fact that some people don’t understand why you would want to go all the way to China, especially for such a long period of time. It also includes a series of well wishes, and some good pre-travel reflection.

Most China-tastic Lyric: “I know you are strong, may your journey be long. And now I wish you the best of luck”

The Arrival

Track #2: The Strokes – Juicebox: A great, energetic song, to reflect the enthusiasm that you are no doubt arriving to this country with. It also references some resistance that you may receive from your new peers here, who may not share your full enthusiasm.

Most China-tastic Lyric: “Why won’t you come over here? We’ve got a city to love”

Track #3: Led Zeppelin – Communication Breakdown: And so it starts… you expected there to be some difficulties communicating, but nothing like this!  The complete inability to communicate with the locals here is the first source of frustration; as points, shrugs and “ting budong” becomes the language-du-jour.

Most China-tastic Lyric: “Communication breakdown, it’s always the same. I’m having a nervous breakdown, drive me insane!

Track #4: The White Stripes – We Are Going to be Friends: This one is more for the many, many teachers out there. This is the perfect song for the first day of school, and way to define the new friendships you may be starting to cultivate.

Most China-tastic Lyric: “Then safely walk to school without a sound”

The Disillusionment – Part 1

Even he has a soundtrack, what is yours? by BL1961
Even he has a soundtrack, what is yours? by BL1961

Track #5: The Shins – The Weird Divide: Surely at some point you’ll notice the vast cultural differences. While it is not correct, it is certainly natural to label them as “weird” and “different”, certainly at first.

Most China-tastic Lyric: “Our purpose crossed. The weird divide between our kinds”

Track #6: LCD Soundsystem – North American Scum: At some point you’ll start to encounter the “Ugly Expat”, and hey, you may even become a bit of one yourself. While they’re certainly not all from North America, it is the only continent with such a great song dedicated to them.

Most China-tastic Lyric: “I hate the feeling I get when you’re looking at me that way”

The Reconciliation – Part 1

Track #7: Michael Franti & Spearhead – I Know I’m Not Alone: A great song to help you realize all the great friends you have made in your new home, and the connection you still have with all of your friends back home.

Most China-tastic Lyric: “I know I’m far from home but I know I’m not alone”

Track #8: Ted Leo and the Pharmacists – Biomusicology:  One I would describe as being on the “sad side of happy”, which helps with the profound realization of just how far away you are from your old life, but emphasizes that you are still connected to those close to you.

Most China-tastic Lyric: “They may kill, and we may be parted, but we will ne’er be broken hearted”

The Disillusionment – Part 2

Track #9: The Joel Plakett Emergency – Chinatown/For the Record:  Will this song may be about a friendship broken over a girl, the lyrics oddly apply to the expat blues.  Especially when you realize that you may have gotten more than you bargained for in this country.

Most China-tastic Lyric: (TIE) “I don’t know why I cam here in the first place.  To find you, to find myself, to tell the truth, or to save face” AND “China’s not the same as Chinatown”

Track #10: The Arcade Fire – Ocean of Noise: With all of the people, crowds, and cell phones, it’s hard not to feel like you’re drowning in an Ocean of Noise.  The lyrics really emphasize a feeling of hopelessness, which may or may not be familiar to you in this setting.

Most China-tastic Lyric: “In an ocean of noise, I first heard your voice. Now who here among us still believes in choice?  Not I!”

Track #11: The National – Fake Empire: Perhaps the most applicable song to modern living in general, but expat decadency in particular. Is what you are doing really of importance? Will it have any lasting meaning? While I certainly can’t answer those questions for you, they are certainly ones that should go through your head at some point.

Most China-tastic Lyric: “Tiptoe through our shiny city with our diamond slippers on”

The Reconciliation – Part 2

Track #12: Coldplay – Lost!: A song to help you rally from previous defeats. While it focuses on negative experiences, it tries to look at them in a positive light; good practice for all of us I dare say.

Most China-tastic Lyric: “Just because I’m losing, doesn’t mean I’m lost, doesn’t mean I’ll stop”

The Disillusionment – Part 3

Track #13: Peter Bjorn & John – It Beats Me Every Time: Just when you think that you’re in the clear of your expat blues, it comes back again, this time harder. It’s hard not to feel like you are getting beaten every time.  Also, while the frustration in the song is very clearly directed at an ex-lover, it could have some odd connections to any cultural frustrations you may be feeling.

Most China-tastic Lyric: “What’s a man supposed to do when I don’t know?  Every fifteen minutes, someone asks a question. What’s a man supposed to do when I don’t care?”

Track #14: Iron & Wine – Sunset Soon Forgotten: The lowest point of the China experience. Everyday blends together, and it’s hard not to feel a little anonymous at times. But don’t worry, it’ll get better!

Most China-tastic Lyric: “Down and down once again, down and down gone again”

The Reconciliation – Part 3

Track #15: The Tragically Hip – ‘It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken’: At some point you’ve got to come to the realization that things aren’t so bad here. The pay is decent, the locals are great (if idiosyncratic), there is cheap food, cheap beer, and some experiences and friendship of a lifetime.

Most China-tastic Lyric: “Let’s get friendship right.  Live life day-to-day”

Track #16: Ben Lee – We Are All in This Together: A song dedicated to all of your friends who are in this experience with you. There are literally millions of people here who know what you’re going through, both the good and the bad. Your time here wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t for all of your friends, both local and expat.

Most China-tastic Lyric: “The city’s changing, ’cause we are changing, and we’re all in this together”

Track #17: Neil Young – Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World: You’re living in a communist country, how could this song not be included? A great, and empowering song to keep you rocking at all times!

Most China-tastic Lyric: “We got department stores and toilet paper. Got styrofoam boxes for the ozone layer”

The Homecoming

Going home is an exciting, and conflicted part of the expat cycle by futurestreet
Going home is an exciting, and conflicted part of the expat cycle by futurestreet

Track #18: Sound Garden – Rusty Cage: At some point your year starts to wind down and it is time to head back, and it’s natural to start to mentally check-out. It’s easy to feel trapped someplace when you are on your way out, as you wait to break out.

Most China-tastic Lyric: “I’m gonna break my rusty cage and run”

Track #19: Spirit of the West – Home for a Rest:  Living as an expat can be very difficult, and you’ll feel like you need to get yourself home, even if it’s just to get a break from China-living.

Most China-tastic Lyric: “These so called vacations, will soon be my death”

Track #20: Kanye West featuring Chris Martin – Homecoming:  A great song about coming back to your roots.  While it is a touch too specific, I am sure that you can think of sights other than the “fireworks on Lake Michigan” that may or may not apply to you. It also has a great story about reigniting a relationship that may have been lost over your time away, which has some applications for all of us.

Most China-tastic Lyric: “Do you think about me now and then? ‘Cause I’m coming home again”

Well that just about does the musical journey of Expat:  Year 1.  I am interested to know of any soundtracks anyone out there in commentland has made to describe the roller coaster that is our time in China.


  1. It’s a nice collection — I just finished listening to a few of the ones I’d never heard before — thanks for taking the time to share these! The Shins are the best!

  2. @Klortho: Your wish is my command – deleted that first comment. You have a fair point though [Klortho mentioned that Glen should have listened to more Chinese music]. However, I think the problem is that unless you have a good command over the language, Chinese songs are hard to appreciate for more than their aesthetics.

    I’m a huge fan of Neocha’s NEXT player (which allows you to stream some awesome Chinese indie music). And as much as I love some of the tracks on there, they don’t connect to me in the same way as music in my native language does.

    @Glen: Have heard most of these tracks, but a few I’ve not heard I can’t wait to dig into! I find that getting good music recommendations is one of the most challenging things living abroad.

    Did you check to see if any of these MP3s were available on

  3. @Klortho: You do raise a good point for not including Chinese songs, but like Ryan mentioned, I don’t have enough of a grasp of the Chinese language to fully appreciate the songs for anything more than the pop-y goodness. Once I get the Chinese language down a bit more, I can post a new one 🙂

    @Ryan: I didn’t try any on baidu, since I do have all of them on my computer. However, that can be my project for later on today 🙂

    And I agree, getting access to new music can be quite difficult over here. It’s actually been one of the hardest parts I’ve found about being over here. Thus me hoping that someone else will post some good recommendations here. I’d recommend The Arcade Fire and The National more than any others, they will blow your mind and then some.

  4. To go a long with Ryan’s point there are also a lot of Chinese indie bands that sing all or some of their songs in English so the language is not always a problem. Check out the next player or for MP3s to stream.


  5. @Ryan, I updated many of the links courtesy of baidu, still missing two though, sadly 🙁

    @Chris, sorry, I couldn’t quite fit them in, thought it would be a touch too self-serving to include a member of the extended family 🙂

  6. A few of you have mentioned that it’s hard to get music over there in China, but the Baidu MP3 search engine is inaccessible *outside* of China — one of those perverse ironies of the IP wars. And what really pisses me off is that Google’s music search system, put in place to compete with Baidu, is also restricted outside of China.

    Go to this page
    and tell me if you see “Music streaming / download services are not available in your region”. I’m connecting from Maryland, and I do.

    Which raises an interesting question — the whole time I was in China I was keen on learning new ways to get outside the GFW. Anybody know a good way in? Any free VPN servers in there?

  7. @Klortho, there’s a plugin for firefox called “China Channel.” It’s meant to simulate the censored Chinese internet experience. Don’t know if it’ll get you onto the sites you want but it might be worth a try.

    @Glen, thanks for all the recommendations, I’ll try to get into them soon!

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  9. @Glen: Really – try the NEXT player I linked to in my first comment and have covered several times here on Lost Laowai. Way cool. It’s not Chinese radio, it’s Chinese radio done right. Jay Zhou and SHE need not apply.

    @Klortho: That’s fk’d. And I hear Youku is deadly slow — they don’t want you North Americans having any fun! Well… I guess they just want you to pay for it.

    I’d check out Gin’s recommendation (we covered it on LLW back last year) – might be a solution. Though I’m betting even if you do connect it’ll be slow.

    Or just torrent them. 😉

  10. Ah, yes, Chinachannel. Now I remember seeing that and trying it before. I just installed and tried it again, with “deja vu” results. It doesn’t work well. And by “well”, I mean “at all”. I think it uses an outdated list of proxy servers inside China. I wasn’t able to figure out where the add-on gets its list of proxy IP addresses, and the website was no help.
    I think just as with getting out, the best way to get into the GFW would be through a VPN. Ad hoc solutions like these are too unstable.

  11. Wow. Fantastic choices, I couldn’t have picked better ones myself! I love all the Canadian artists, makes me so proud to be Canadian! Great variety of artists, well done!


  12. While I’m no ‘laowai’, i’m intending to become one soon, i think an excellent song for the home coming part would be ‘Home again’ by Shihad. Excellent, of course, mainly for Kiwi’s.

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