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Movie lover. Growing Capoeirista. Space enthusiast. Dedicated craftsman. And best of all, homegrown Los Angeles native. Wait, how in the hell did I end up in China!?
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It’s been a wild 7+ years teaching English abroad in China—I know, I can’t believe it either. I’ve had ups and downs, highs and lows, experienced the good with the bad, and … yada, yada, yada. Who cares? Look, in the span of those years I’ve come to notice two genuinely important things: One, I don’t know who was/is a cooler president, Barack Obama or Xi Jingping? What do you think? Ah, that’s a tough one. Damnit!
And two? There are about 18 great songs that can truly define my incredible experience/s in China, from epic travel adventures, feelings of inspiration, laugh out loud moments, memorable nights out, and falling in love, to days, weeks, and months I was stressed-the-hell-out by my students, people, and the world Chico… the world, to the point where it felt like I’d fallen head first into a spiraling black hole of mounting negativity of which there absolutely was no return. Yeah, sh** happens.
I’m glad I’ve found these songs over the years, or rather, I’m thankful to have had them find me. They mean a lot, and rest assure I’ve bumped the hell out of them and still do til’ this day. Here’s my list of 18 songs that define my experience teaching English abroad in China.
"The Show Goes On" / Lupe Fiasco
Alright, already the show goes on,
All night, till the morning we dream so long.
Anybody ever wonder, when they would see the sun up,
Just remember when you come up,
The show goes on!
Seven years? My, how time flies! I played this one over and over again before entering China and shortly after landing. You know why?
Vibes. Positive vibes. That’s what Lupe Fiasco’s “The Show Goes On” is all about. Its lyrics are inspirational, its chorus is catchy, and its instrumental alone has got enough juice to rock a sold-out crowd at Coachella.
You just feel that good and motivated listening to it, and as young mid-twenty year old about to embark on an incredible adventure teaching English abroad in China, I’d say it was the perfect tune to kick start the journey!
"Gangnam Style" / Psy
Oppa Gangnam Style!
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve most likely heard Psy’s 2012 mega-smash hit “Gangnam Style” a million times and counting. It was everywhere—bars, clubs, house parties. Heck, it even made it to the Grammy Awards. And it was so popular that it became the first video on Youtube to reach 1 billion views. An remarkable feat, ain’t it?
Man, that joint was blasted everywhere across China, too. It played in ads, shops, markets, KTVs, elevators, on ringtones. All my students even knew it—or at least, knew how to dance to it. You weren’t safe anywhere.
“Gangnam Style” was the biggest, most played record I've heard in China over the past 7 years. And next up? That god awful “What Does the Fox Say” tune. Shoot me please.
"A Good Time" by Carly Rae Jepsen & Owl City / "What Makes You Beautiful" by One Direction
We don't even have to try,
It's always a good time!
“Donovan, can you help find some good songs to play during our event?” Oh boy. You know how many times I’ve been asked that!?
And actually, it was never really a problem. After all, I’ve always had two solid aces up my sleeve to kick off any oral competition, spelling bee, Halloween event, Christmas show, or whatever the hell my ESL school would put on.
Those two aces? “A Good Time” by Carly Rae Jepsen and Owl City, and “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction.
They’re popish, they’re fun, they’re highly energetic, and they’re so good for ESL events that I’ll probably be using them 10 years later at my own kid’s birthday parties.
"Shui Shou" / Zheng Zhi-Hua
Ta shuo feng yu zhong zhe dian tong suan shi me,
Ca gan lei bu yao pa,
Zhi shao wo men huan you meng.
Ta shuo feng yu zhong zhe dian tong suan shi me,
Ca gan lei bu yao wen,
Wei shi me.
The year? 2012. It was my very first KTV experience in China. It was mid-day on a weekend, and the coworkers rounded up for an afternoon discounted rate at the KTV.
We’d knock back a few beers, and before I knew it, my colleague had thrown on “Shui Shou”, one of the illest Chinese records I had ever heard up until that time.
Actually, I hadn’t even listened to any authentic, homegrown Chinese music by that point, but as soon as the instrumental dropped on those loud speakers, no joke, I immediately knew it’d be one of my favorite Chinese songs ever.
Plus the video was that cool, Just a bunch of friends, or sailors, on a ship singing and doing absolutely nothing but seemingly enjoying the hell out of it. In fact, it’d remind me of that infamous Stonecutter’s song “We Do” from The Simpsons. Remember that one?
Later, that same colleague would help me learn the song’s chorus and first verse, and I promise you, I’ve since sung “Shui Shou” at every KTV (karaoke lounge) I’ve been too where the majority was Chinese. Now that’s how you rock a party!
"Can’t Keep No Good Boy Down" / The Parlor Mob
This train is leaving, it’s rolling down the tracks,
Singing 'Ain’t no turning bacckkkkkk'
Truthfully, I probably bumped this song the most during my early years in China. I first heard it in 2013 on the ending credits of an episode of HBO’s hit series Entourage, which is one of my top 10 favorite TV shows of all time.
I don’t know—the ‘vibe’ of the track just captured the essence of Entourage awfully well. You ever seen the show? Four friends move to LA and try to make it in Hollywood. They spend days and nights enjoying fame, starting businesses, partying, and getting all the hot girls, all the while undertaking a number of small to grand scale dilemmas and challenges that throw them off course, but yet, bring them closer together.
Wait, what? I know what you’re thinking: This doesn’t have sh** to do with China. Wrong. You’ve got to understand, I was 25 yrs. old at the time, moved across the world on my own, was promoted to manager within the first 6 months, was traveling, learning Mandarin, making international friends—basically, I felt so positive about what I was doing that there was ‘no turning back’, and despite the challenges I knew I’d face, my dream of doing China B-I-G overshadowed anything that'd get in my way.
Entourage was a huge inspiration for how I wanted to carry out my journey in China, and if you’ve seen the show, you know exactly what I mean.
"Celebrity" / Big Sean
But for now I’m a celebrity ... la la la, la la
You may not agree, but I’d argue that Big Sean’s Finally Famous deluxe album was one of the best hip-hop records released in the last decade.
“Celebrity”, track 14 on the album, was my favorite. I heard it, and I instantly felt it had a strong resonance with my time in China.
Matter a fact, it was my 2nd year in the country. At work, I was manager, and as more foreign and Chinese ESL teachers rolled in, I helped train and organize outings with all of them. Not bad, right?
Around the city, I had started a blog—the early foundations of Don’s ESL Adventure—documenting what it was like living and working in Kunshan, and making highlight videos of life in China. I’d get random messages from strangers and potential teachers to the town that loved what I was doing. Dope!
And in the country? Wait, this-is-China—being a foreigner automatically makes you a ‘celebrity!’
You can imagine how I felt as a young man, on the other side of the planet, in a responsible position, and being acknowledged for doing a great job, being a good role model, and being an inspiration to my family and friends back home.
“For now I’m a celebrity…“ Momma I made it!
"Drinking in LA" / Bran Van 3000
Tell me what the hell am I doing,
drinking in LA, at 26
Another banging joint I discovered from HBO’s Entourage. This song just reminded me of everything about LA—Venice Beach, palm trees, Hollywood Boulevard, 10 Freeway, tacos, Crenshaw.
It’s always nice to ‘feel’ like you’re at home when your living abroad, and that’s whether chilling with people, eating at food joints, celebrating holidays and special events, or listening to music from that region.
Plus, I appreciated the fact that it was a pop song about LA, and not your typical infamous rap tune which I know oh so well.
"I Like the Way" / Hi-Five
Classic 90’s R & B. You don’t get those type of jams anymore. Nowadays R & B songs are made for the clubs instead of important things like love and romance. I know, sucks doesn’t it?
I dedicated this hit to my once long-term girlfriend in China, a local Chinese woman I had met at work. Actually, we wound up seeing each other for nearly 4 years.
We made it official in the month of September, and by fall of the next year we had just been having such a good time working together, hanging out, grabbing food, watching movies, traveling, and sharing each other’s culture, that “I Like the Way” just seemed to parallel it all. Check out the lyrics:
All summer long, we’ve been together,
And I’ve never felt so good,
Cause when I’m with you,
It’s such a good time, yes it is
And when you get next to me
You make my heart beat fast
You throw me bad when you smile
And when we're alone, I know we're in love
Cause I can't get enough, cause ...
(I like the way)
You kiss me when we're playing the kissing game
(I like the way)
You keep me looking forward to another day
"Senhor Do Engenho" / Marrom Capoeira e Alunos: Bresil
I started practicing Capoeira, a Brazilian martial art and dance, with Capoeira Batuque way back in 2010. When I moved to China in 2012, I lived in Kunshan, a small city of Jiangsu Province that had zero places to train Capoeira. So, I practiced on my own at the gym or park, and it was this song, “Senhor Do Engenho,” that I always practiced to.
Several years later when I moved to Shanghai and began training with Capoeira Brasil Shanghai, turns out my coach would play the same song all the time during warm-ups. Small world, ain’t it?
"Sugar" / Maroon 5
Your sugar, yes, please
Won't you come and put it down on me.
I'm right here, 'cause I need,
Little love and little sympathy.
Yeah you show me good loving, make it alright,
Need a little sweetness in my life.
Your sugar, yes, please.
Won't you come and put it down on me.
It was November 1st, 2015, and finally, nearly 4 years after my arrival into China, it was time to say goodbye to my first ESL job in the country.
We’d wrap up a Halloween event, grab dinner, then cap the night off at the KTV.
All the right people showed up, too. Colleagues, friends I made in the city, and a combo of drinks galore.
It was just about time to leave when Maroon 5’s “Sugar” found its way on the flat screens, and it couldn’t have been better timing.
Everybody got up to sing and dance, including my girlfriend and I, and it was probably the most content moment I’ve ever had in China.
Not only was it my last day of work and I was surround by my lady and close friends, but I’d also head to South Korea for a weeklong vacation a few days later, and best of all, I was starting a new and exciting chapter working in Shanghai 2 months later.
And the song? Well, it was just the icing on the cake!
"Shut Up and Dance" / Walk the Moon
Oh don't you dare look back, just keep your eyes on me,
I said you're holding back.
She said shut up and dance with me.
This woman is my destiny, she said oh oh oh
Shut up and dance with me.
It was 2016, and I’d just gotten my IPad screen fixed after dropping it for the 2nd time. I downloaded a whole bunch of apps, including one for online radio. Best ... decision ... ever.
Classic oldies, hip-hop, R & B, pop—nothing like keeping up with all the old school hits and latest jams while living abroad.
I tuned in to one of those ‘positive vibe’ online stations, and that’s when I first heard Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” record.
This song’s just as positive as it gets. No kidding, it’s just that good of a feel to it—one of those kind of happy-go-lucky songs you can add to the background of some highlight video you put together of your fun travel adventures in, let’s say, China. Speaking of which, that’s exactly what I did!
"7 Days" / Craig David
I met this girl on Monday,
Took her for a drink on Tuesday.
We were making love by Wednesday,
And on Thursday and Friday and Saturday,
We chilled on Sunday.
Those KTVs nights in China—I tell ya’, there’s just something about them!
So I’d just started working at an English training center in Shanghai, and one night, the foreign teachers had set our targets on drinks and a KTV.
What’s cool is that I wound up playing DJ that night, dishing out a whole bunch of hit songs spanning hip-hip, pop, and classic karaoke joints.
We were a decent international mix too—there were about 10 of us—that included South Africans, Londoners, and Americans.
Myself and a chick from London were the only Black/non-White people present, and when Craig David’s “7 Days” track popped up, everyone in the KTV started singing it word for word, without skipping a beat. Everyone.
Wait, why is that important? Well for one, it ain’t exactly the easiest song to sing. You would’ve had to practiced and listened to it hundreds of times before getting the melody perfect. Hell, I couldn’t even do that!
And two, to look up and see all these White people from different regions of the world singing it—again, perfectly, mind you—and having a blast, made for one hell of a fun, eye-opening experience I’ll never forget.
Man, music really does have no borders and brings people together!
"I’ll Be There" by James Beau Barclay X Olmos / "Why We Sing" by Kirk Franklin
You will never be alone,
I'll be there for you, I'll be there
And I hope you always know,
I care for you, I care
And I’ll rescue you if you want me to,
I'll help you through, whatever you do.
Listen, to “the realest sh** I ever wrote”: Teaching English abroad in China hasn’t always been a breeze. I’ve experienced ups and downs like anybody else, from dreading having to teach certain classes, strongly hating to work at one particular ESL job, and not getting along with a colleague or two at one point, to feeling stressed by the everyday challenges of living in China, experiencing long and brutal winters in Shanghai, and even feeling down right lonely.
And let’s get to that: There was a time in Shanghai when I worked at an incredibly lame job and had trouble finding a solid group of friends to hang out with. Yep, I got lonely, and boy was that period rough.
I got through it though, but not without being active. I traveled, joined sports clubs, blogged, watched movies, hit the gym, went on mini-adventures across the city, hung out every chance with the cool people I did know, and listened to a bunch of laid back, soothing, good vibe type music.
Two of my favorite songs that helped get me through were James Beau Barclay x Olmos’ “I’ll Be There” and Kirk Franklin’s “Why We Sing”. Go ahead, check them out for yourself. You have any songs like that to lift your spirits and pick you up when your down?
"New Beginnings Chill Mix" / Chill Nation / DJ R3Z
The best music playlist ever, period, and I played it all year round in 2017.
Now that was a crazy year. My grandmother passed away, my long-term girlfriend and I split, I’d visit Los Angeles for 3 weeks, return to Shanghai and finish out my contract for that dead-end ESL job I was working at by June, spend the next several months going into my savings and traveling the world, and I’d start working at a new ESL school by October, of where I’d also meet the woman who’d end up being pregnant with my first child less than a year later.
Whew. Lots going on there. And with so much going on, I’m just thankful to have had a good mix to celebrate and keep me in good spirits when I needed.
"Yearning For Your Love" / The Gap Band
The time has come for us to stop messing around,
'Cause don't you know that I like having you around,
In my life, oh, baby
I played this oldie-but-goodie jam all of 2018. Here’s something you should know: Winter time Shanghai is notorious for sucking every bit of life out people until they're one Tequila shot away from borderline insanity.
It’s unbearably cold, rainy, and a depressing gray that blocks out the sun for weeks at a time, which is something I’m just not used to as a California native.
Nevertheless, come Spring, Summer, and Fall, the sky clears, it gets apocalyptic hot, hope returns, and Shanghai regains its status as one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
“Yearning for Your Love” was the kind of feel good picnic record that no matter up or down, it got me going and kept me in the right state of mind. Don’t believe me? Take a listen for yourself!
"Wake Me Up" / Avicii feat. Aloe Blacc
So wake me up when it's all over,
When I'm wiser and I'm older.
All this time I was finding myself,
And I didn't know I was lost
And f-i-n-a-l-l-y. That song. Oh boy. You have one like that? Where every time you hear it you just—you just zone out and forget about everything. You’re reminded of good times where your spirit was refreshed and emboldened, and of budding moments full of positivity, laughter, and hopefulness. Alright, this is getting too sappy, but hey, for me, that’s Aloe Blacc and Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” in a nutshell.
Wait a sec, back to the sappiness: Each time I listen to it, I get this strong sense of fulfillment and gratitude about my time spent in China.
I think about the cultures I’ve experienced, perspectives I’ve gained, students I’ve taught, friends I’ve made over the years, people I’ve met from all across the world, awesome places I’ve explored, and challenges I’ve conquered, in addition to my growth and maturity from an ambitious 25-year-old kid living in Los Angeles to an accomplished 32-year-old having spent 7+ years abroad in a foreign country.
I think about just how lucky I’ve been to have had the time of my life in China, and that this once in a lifetime journey was brought about by simply using ESL teaching as a means to do so. Incredible, ain’t it?
Nowadays, “Wake Me Up” doesn’t just stop at being a “China moments” jam for me either; in fact, I’m pretty sure it’s upped its ranks to become my #1 favorite song of all time.
I’ll listen to it anywhere, anytime, and no matter what mood I’m in. C’mon, please tell me you’ve got a song like that in your life!?
There you have it folks! My list of the 18 songs that have defined my experience teaching English abroad. Feel free to listen to each one, and if you’re up for it, post some of your own favorite songs that have significant meaning in your ESL adventure. Safe & happy travels!
Travel Blogger. ESL Teacher. Optimistic Millennial Adventurer! -->
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