Posted by James Harper on 7/26/2013 / Labels: beijing
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Ms. DeWoskin arrives in Beijing on something of a lark, a college grad with an English degree, a little Mandarin, and a desire for something adventurous. She has taken a position with the Beijing office of an international public relations firm (we later learn that "P.R." sounds uncomfortably like the Chinese word for an unflattering body part) but quickly finds the work empty of content. She unexpectedly gets offered a spot as one of the two foreign female leads in a new Chinese soap opera entitled "Yang Niu Zai Beijing," or "Foreign Babes in Beijing." She is duped into signing a contract for far less than she's worth to the producers (there are still relatively few attractive young Western women in Beijing in 1995), and a series of acting misadventures and cast romances ensue. DeWoskin can barely separate her real-life feelings for her hunky co-star Wang Ling from their respective romantic roles in the soap opera. In the end, "Foreign Babes" is a huge success throughout China, and Ms. Dewoskin is recognized everywhere she goes as Jiexi, the "loose" Western woman who steals a married Chinese man (Wang Ling's character, Tianming) from his wife and takes him to America.
The author eventually quits her P.R. job and takes on a series of small acting and spokesperson roles, and even takes a brief turn as a runway model. Along the way, she meets and briefly profiles four young Beijingers (two female and two male, despite oddly labeling their chapters, "Biographies of Model Babes") and describes their lives, beliefs, and aspirations. Each is fiercely independent and nontraditional, seeking to find their own identity and purpose in a newly-opened society. These four people are sometimes misinformed and often obstinate, even foolishly obstreperous, but there's no doubt they are brave, going where relatively few in their country have gone before.
DeWoskin develops close relationships with each of her four Beijingers, including a live-in relationship with the actor/screenwriter Zhao Jun. The last one-third of the book details her post-Jiexi life, which seems to devolve into clubbing and bar-hopping punctuated by occasional vague hints at working. Two tragedies -- the sudden death of a close Chinese friend juxtaposed against the mistaken U.S./NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade -- bring DeWoskin's relationships and her Chinese life to an abrupt end just as the 20th Century is drawing to a close. It is time to go home, to find her place in her native country.
Ms. DeWoskin tells her story in casual prose with easy pacing. Her writing is sometimes poignant and other times humorous. The reader feels her confusion about Chinese life and language; she doesn't even learn until later that her Chinese name, Du Ruiqiu (Du for DeWoskin, Ruiqiu to sound like Rachel), actually means "Bumper Harvest." She finds huge cultural gaps and differences with everyone around her. She makes repeated cultural faux pas, but muddles through nonetheless, just like any American in her place. Interlaced with her story are bits and pieces of Chinese history and language. Ms. DeWoskin also offers a number of surprisingly on-target, passing observations about Chinese life and culture: the importance of face, women covering their mouths when laughing, lack of winter heating, foreigners' prices, women holding hands but not hugging, and a host of others. Combined, these little bits add to a greater whole, creating a "Beijing atmosphere" that effectively complements her personal story.
It is hard not to see FOREIGN BABES IN CHINA as a coming of age story, both for the naïve, young college graduate author and for the country in which she is perpetually an outsider. She uses China and the Chinese for her own adventure story as surely as they use her for her "exotic" foreignness. This book is also a story about cross-cultural personal relationships, about roles assumed and played out, about what is thought and said, and not said, between any two people, complicated a hundredfold by cultural differences and ways of thinking. In the end, Ms. DeWoskin's confused, conflicted, and ultimately lost relationship with Zhao Jun may well serve as a metaphor for the instability, and perhaps the utter hopelessness, of the larger Sino-American relationship.
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