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They say you shouldn't judge a book by a cover and that's never more true than with a book like 'Foreign Babes in Beijing' by Rachel DeWoskin. My edition differs from the one shown here on Dooyoo and has a stiletto clad, fishnet and mini-skirted cover girl. You could be forgiven for expecting some kind of 'Confessions of a Call Girl' type story but you'd be (thankfully) entirely wrong. 'Foreign Babes in Beijing' is not sensationalist or sexy. Instead it's a fascinating and beautifully written account of what it's like to be an American ex-pat living in the capital city of the world's most populous country and it's full of observations and advice about survival amongst Chinese city communities. I used to go to China a few times a year in previous jobs and I never could stand the place, but I remain fascinated to learn more about Chinese society - even if I don't want to spend more time there myself.
DeWoskin went to Beijing in 1994, prepared to take any job she could find in order to get to the country she loved. It's important to keep in mind that she was no 'innocent abroad' or stranger to China having spent much of her childhood on family holidays in China with her father who was a Sinology professor (Sinology - study of China, just in case you didn't know). Unlike many people choosing to work in Beijing, she arrived already speaking Chinese which gave her a far greater degree of access to local people than could be achieved by those without her language skills. She accepted a job in a PR company, working for an American woman boss who needed her as an assistant and go-between to help her communicate with the local team. PR, we learn, is a homophone for a local word 'piyar' which is slang for 'a**hole' which is the sort of nugget of information that possibly tells us more about the profession than we need to know. Little gems like that are scattered through the book and made me stop and laugh frequently. One of my favourite insights was when a local taxi driver tells her that Americans have no human rights. When she asks why, he tells her that President Clinton isn't allowed to have a mistress.
When she's not working on writing briefings for foreign business leaders on how not to offend the locals, or trying to come up with slogans that don't translate into something too bizarre, DeWoskin spends a lot of time hanging out at parties with her cosmopolitan friends, both Chinese and ex-pat. As a result of meeting lots of media folk, DeWoskin gets asked to audition for a Chinese soap opera - the 'Foreign Babes in Beijing' of the title. Playing the part of racy Jiexi, the 'open minded' American (we learn open minded equals slutty), she represents a lot of the clichés that locals believe about western women. The other 'American' girl is played by a German and the two girls' characters fall in love with two local brothers. In Jiexi's case, she gets the married one whilst the other girl's beau is single. Jiexi is supposed to be wicked and a representation of the lax morals of the west, but we soon learn that many of the 600 million regular viewers end up rooting for her to get her man despite the programme highlighting the poor hard-working and put-upon wife, showing her working hard every time Jiexi and her man are getting down and dirty. On the plus side, Jiexi makes DeWoskin into an instantly recognisable face, someone who is loved by many of the public. On the downside, it can be hard to convince people that you're not the same as the character you play. Playing Jiexi means that every Chinese thinks they know her and what she's like, sometimes in negative but often in surprisingly positive ways.
This is not a sensationalist book though admittedly the first chapter does start by telling us how to ask someone to drop their trousers in Mandarin and we do learn a lot about what Jiexi's character can and can't get away with in the TV series and how the programme makers can circumvent the rules of the censors by including moralistic story lines. What I found even more interesting than that tales of life on the film-set were her stories about her friends. There's local girl Anna who was disgraced in her home city for falling in love with a Muslim from the middle east, American Kate who has thrown in her lot with western men and only goes out with Chinese, and Zhou Wen, DeWoskin's Americanised Chinese-born boyfriend who worked hard to eradicate his Chinese accent and become more American than the Americans.
I learned a lot about the behaviour of Chinese people in a business setting, much of which I recognised or which make me think 'Aha, so that's what that was about'. Her observations about life in the office are fascinating - the conflict between trying to be 'one of the girls' and having to boss around people who are older and more experienced than her, the things people will tell you straight and the things they'll never say to your face. I loved the way the office ladies reacted when she arrived - "She can't be American, she'd too thin" - through to their analysis of her first night's appearance in the show "You film fat!" There are many handy and intriguing observations about how the Chinese language works - for example she explains that nobody asks direct questions like 'Are you hungry?', preferring to offer alternatives 'Have you eaten or not eaten?' The origins of many words and terms are explained in a way I found fascinating and enlightening whereas I'm often a bit resistant to being 'taught' in the course of an autobiography.
~What it's not~
Admittedly 99% of the book is about Beijing so you won't find out anything significant about rural life or life in other cities. Those looking for a 21st century account of life in the twenty-teens may be disappointed that the period covered is 1994 to 1999, and some will criticise that a lot of what she reports might be a little outdated in a country evolving and changing as fast as China. They have a point but a writer can only write about what they know and the period of her time in China is still an important one. It's the not long post-Tianamen era, in the relatively early days of economic (if not political) emancipation. Much may have changed but I'm willing to bet that much is just as it was at the time she lived there. Don't buy this if you're looking for a 'how to' book about living in Beijing or if you're looking for a step by step survival guide because it's neither of those things. But what it is instead is a well-written, fascinating account of DeWoskin's life in Beijing and equally importantly the lives of many of her friends.
DeWoskin's story is not an 'everywoman' tale because she's not a typical expat. This isn't one of those patronising books that treat the locals like a zoo animals, giving a 'Hey look at how funny the locals are' approach to the writing. Her language skills open doors that are slammed to most, and her role as Jiexi earned her a place in the hearts and minds of not just millions but hundreds of millions of people. She's thus both and observer of and a participant in Chinese culture in a way that few people could manage. Most importantly, she's also - and I thank goodness for this as I read so many awful travel memoirs - an absolutely excellent writer. I am reminded of another of my favourite writers, Tama Janowitz, who has a similar type of self-deprecating humour - something we Brits are hot on but not typically an American trait - and great sense of observation. DeWoskin writes so well that it almost doesn't matter what she's writing about, I am fascinated by what she has to say.
If I were to recommend this book it would be to people like me who enjoy reading about other cultures as seen through the eyes of 'people like us', to those who have an interest in China or who need to spend time in China for work and could use some basic insights into what the heck is going on. However, I think most visitors and tourists will struggle to have even a tiny fraction as much fun as DeWoskin and her friends.
'Foreign Babes in Beijing' is a cracking good read but don't judge this book by its cover.
Foreign Babes in Beijing, Rachel DeWoskin
Published by Granta