Foreign Babes in Beijing by Rachel DeWoskin

A wry, insightful and comic China memoir.

I just finished Foreign Babes in Beijing, the hilarious, insightful tragic-comic tale of an American girl who winds up acting in a Chinese TV series about love between East and West. Rachel DeWoskin arrives in China looking for adventure but finds herself working for a PR firm and gets caught in the cultural crossfire of a Western corporate environment in Beijing. So when she’s offered the chance to become an actress she jumps at the chance, however cheesy the role might be.

I was playing Jiexi, the manipulative American hussy who seduces a married Chinese man, falls in love with him, and then sacrifices everything for true love when she agrees to marry him.

DeWoskin is in China only a few years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, (like 9/11, known to the Chinese by the date, 6/4) but the tide of Westernisation can’t be stopped as the personal takes precedence over the public good and individualist consumerism takes hold of the country like a fever. Young Chinese get their hair dyed blond, their eyelids lifted and traditional values get shaken to the core by the cultural seismic shifts.

And DeWoskin is a great companion when it comes to understanding some of these changes. When the Chinese begin to suffer some of the effects of Westernisation, such as a rise in obesity, the China Daily claimed it was because China had ‘long emphasised morality and education, while neglecting health‘. DeWoskin comments ‘It’s a lovely spin that Chinese were becoming too obese because they were too busy with their morality and their studies to exercise‘.

DeWoskin, or her character, Jiexi – one in the eyes of the Chinese – comes to represent everything Western and her every word or action is scrutinized for the selfish motives that drive all Americans. But the TV producers are intent on DeWoskin portraying the character and values of a ‘true foreigner’ and so she’s required to consistently overact and fulfill Chinese cultural stereotypes ow wanton, selfish Americans. When she meets her true love, for instance, it takes many cuts before the producers settle for a lusty thumbs up that she gives the camera.

Dewoskin teaches us the Chinese proverb that ‘as a pig fears getting big, so a person fears getting famous‘ and soon begins to suffer the effects of success.

Watching myself, I saw a puppet, my own double. The thumbs up became a symbol for Foreign Babes and, for years, policemen and strangers gave me double thumbs up on the streets.

With an audience of 600 million people watching Foreign Babes in Beijing, DeWoskin becomes a celebrity, an ambassador for the West, while all the time she ‘foolishly hoped there was no obvious connection between me and the Muppet I played on TV.

But it’s the buffoonery and absurdity of DeWoskin’s position that makes Foreign Babes in Beijing such a great read. The tale is funny, embarrassing and bewildering at times but DeWoskin is a shrewd observer with a good feel for contemporary China and the TV antics make a brilliant foil to the deeper observations about China and expatriate life there.

A more entertaining travel memoir you won’t find.