Foreign Babes in Beijing
Behind the Scenes of a New China
By Rachel DeWoskin
NORTON; 332 PAGES; $24.95
In 1994, fresh out of Columbia, quirky, energetic Rachel DeWoskin decided to move to Beijing to improve her "nerdy college Chinese," and to catch a glimpse of the New China. DeWoskin's a good candidate for such an adventure: Her father is a sinologist, and she spent her childhood vacations in China, taking boat rides up the Yangtze River. After a brief, somewhat disorganized job hunt, DeWoskin found work as an account executive in the Beijing satellite of a U.S. public relations firm, and, as one of only two Americans in the office, was plunged into the odd life of strategizing ways to sell American doughnuts, fixed-asset perfectPixelWide noGen: item_perfectpixelwide 19 e fixed-asset perfectPixelWide cars and fast food to Chinese markets. Yet no sooner had DeWoskin begun scripting American press releases than she was given a chance to read some equally strange Chinese script-work about the West.
When an acquaintance invited her to audition for a new television show called "Foreign Girls in Beijing," she was intrigued, and attended the audition, only to find that a faint suggestive brushstroke in the otherwise innocent Chinese character for "girl" changes it to "babe." Almost accidentally, it seems, DeWoskin was cast for the soap opera "Foreign Babes in Beijing." She landed the part of the white mistress.
Suddenly, DeWoskin had a dual life: By day she managed the nuances of press releases about doughnuts, and by night she was filmed in sizzling scenes about the pleasures and pitfalls of a star-crossed cross-cultural love. When the show was released a year later, it became a smash hit -- a "Dynasty" or "Sex and the City" for a culture in flux. Overnight, DeWoskin found herself becoming a Chinese sex symbol. She also became a prominent, and sometimes controversial, figure of cultural change.
It's definitely a larger-than-life expat experience. What make DeWoskin's account of it so readable are the multifaceted ways she understands her role and her time in a changing China, and her cheerful, self-assured navigation through weird realms of cross-cultural desire and misunderstanding. Her book explores the ways people want to see each other and revels in the mystery of how cultures imagine, absorb and reject elements of other cultures.
DeWoskin herself is a good example of the odd ways Western-ness surfaces in the New China: She embodies them, observes them, scripts them and acts them out, and for five years gets swept along on a strange ride. One minute she's working to represent what her PR firm imagines the Chinese will want to see in their cars and in their fast food. (Kentucky Fried Chicken commercials have close-ups of raw meat, DeWoskin marvels, rightly noting that such intimate images of chicken veins would never sell KFC in the States.) Another, DeWoskin is costumed and maquillaged to enact a fantasy version of Western-ness for Chinese audiences. "It's not what you want," she's told when she asks to change into more representative clothing. "It's what the audience wants to see. " Her character, Jiexi, a Western woman in love with a Chinese man, Wang Ling, threatens and eventually overturns his traditional marriage. The seduction between this East and this West is not neutral, DeWoskin notes. In some way, by leaving his marriage, Wang Ling is seen as abandoning China itself. The foreign babes, and the foreign companies, have come to Beijing, and the city both admits and fears its seduction.
DeWoskin doesn't explicitly pass judgment on such changes. In the show, Jiexi and Wang Ling end up together, but it's unclear what would happen in real life or what togetherness would mean. Instead of trying to answer these questions, DeWoskin circles the city on her bicycle, finding friends, attending parties and cheerfully puzzling over cultural misunderstandings. She's a knowledgeable and savvy narrator, the kind you'd almost hope to end up at a club with. She makes picking up and moving to Beijing and ending up as a soap opera star seem almost normal. Her friends, by and large, are children of people who survived the Cultural Revolution, and their lives represent new revolutions, taking forms that their parents might never have imagined.
DeWoskin does pause to wonder, from time to time, what the ultimate result of these upheavals will be, and she ponders the bouts of resentment and nostalgia that go along with the strange new constellations that this great wave is leaving in its wake. In her account, new forces are bringing new opportunities, while perhaps foreclosing others. She's not totally decided about what's good or bad -- exactly. The change is happening: It intrigues her, and she hopes to watch, enjoy and go along for the ride.