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)
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”
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
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”
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.