Foreign Babes in Beijing
Foreign Babes in Beijing
By Rachel DeWoskin
W.W. Norton $195
When Rachel DeWoskin moved to Beijing in 1994, single, foreign women - 'foreign babes', if you will - were scarce. It was a place where luxury cars were swiftly replacing donkey carts, and where glass skyscrapers mushroomed over tangled hutong alleys. Anything seemed possible - when even a recent college graduate, who spoke almost no Mandarin, could become the star of a Chinese soap opera watched by six hundred million viewers. In Foreign Babes in Beijing, DeWoskin recounts her experiences in the TV show of the same title, and also offers insights into her life as a young, single, American woman living in Beijing. This is an appealing and intelligent memoir about China, told from a refreshing perspective: a woman's.
The daughter of Sinophiles, DeWoskin arrives in Beijing with rudimentary language skills and an overwhelming desire to experience the new China. In the beginning she rides her Flying Pigeon bicycle to her job as a public relations consultant and absorbs the capital's colourful sights.
When, by chance, she's offered a role in a Chinese soap opera, she accepts the part as a lark, hoping the experience will teach her something about Beijing. Soon, she finds herself clothed in skimpy outfits, her hair huge, her face thick with makeup, reciting incomprehensible lines. The author's character, Jiexi, is a dark-haired vixen who falls in love with a Chinese man and seduces him away from his wife and family.
But in the end, she learns to value Chinese culture and becomes a filial daughter-in-law. The drama's dazzlingly packaged moral message was an easy pill to swallow. Foreign Babes in Beijing became a cultural phenomenon and was shown in repeats 12 times.
Despite the show's success, DeWoskin was paid a pittance for her role. She supported herself by working in the Chinese branch of a US public relations firm, hawking everything from washing machines to doughnuts. Her job gave her a window into China's new economy - foreign investments were just beginning to bear fruit - and she recounts regretfully watching western influences envelope Chinese culture.
DeWoskin struggles with mixed emotions about China's modernisation. Although her insights are generally perceptive, they sometimes neglect to consider the ways that China's own history has influenced its contemporary culture.
Sprinkled throughout the book are biographies of 'model babes'. These are portraits of DeWoskin's friends - male and female, Chinese and foreign - who influenced her time in Beijing. There's Anna, a rebellious Chinese woman who dates only western men; Kate, an American who dates only Chinese men; and Zhao Jun, DeWoskin's boyfriend and her complete opposite: a Chinese man who lived as a foreigner in the US. With his perfect teeth and almost perfect English, Zhao introduces her to Chinese slang and cinema, and to the notion of being both 'cynical about patriotism and nostalgically patriotic'.
Questions of patriotism and identity lie at the heart of the book. Although DeWoskin immerses herself in China, living there makes her more attached to the US. She eloquently captures cultural clashes, describing situations both humorous (most Chinese greet her skinniness with surprise, since they believe all Americans are fat), and heartbreaking.
At times, her candid emotions collide bitterly with the guarded expressions of her friends. She can't read the cultural code because she's an outsider. Although her love and admiration for China never cease, DeWoskin is always honest about her frustrations at living in an opaque and sometimes impenetrable society.
After more than five years in Beijing, DeWoskin returns to the US, leaving in the wake of demonstrations against the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. In only half a decade, Beijing has changed forever: food stalls had become sleek cafes, grocery stores spread imported cheeses, fast food outlets hawked their greasy wares on every block, and China developed its own weight problem. DeWoskin describes these changes remorsefully, yet perhaps she proclaims modernisation too eagerly. Donkey carts still clatter through Beijing, and society remains conservative in many quarters.
Ultimately, however, DeWoskin wisely focuses on her own story, which she presents delightfully and intelligently. She offers a fresh and clear-eyed portrait of a young woman's strange, shocking and wonderful adventures in modern China.