While China says women hold up half the sky, nothing could be farther from the truth when it comes to literature about China (especially foreign women in China).
Then I discovered Rachel DeWoskin’s Foreign Babes in Beijing. While it still isn’t in the top ten reading list of China nonfiction on Amazon (probably because it’s been written off as chick lit, thanks to its misleading cover and title), it deserves far more attention, and notice. That’s because DeWoskin really knows China, having lived there for much of her childhood with her famous sinologist father. And, she knows how to pen a great narrative.
Since then, DeWoskin has moved on to teaching creative writing at NYU, and has a family and home in New York. But I suspect that her love for China has hardly waned over the years — which is evident by her latest labor of love, a China coming-of-age novel titled Repeat After Me: A Novel, which focuses on the surprising love affair between a young ESL teacher and her Chinese student, post-Tiananmen.
For those of you who have read Foreign Babes in Beijing, Rachel DeWoskin’s imprint is unmistakable in the main character of Aysha. Like DeWoskin, Aysha is Jewish, from New York City, loves Tang Poetry, teaches, attended Columbia, and ends up falling for a Chinese man. And, like Foreign Babes in Beijing, the China parts of the story take place in Beijing, DeWoskin’s old stomping grounds. Plus, Repeat After Me: A Novel also delves deeply into the cultural divide and misunderstandings that inevitably occur when people from two distant cultures become involved:
“I’ll marry you if you want,” I said. I had considered us in love for weeks; he might as well, too. Marrying Da Ge would be sinister and safe at the same time, a sexy combination. And since I had never seen a good marriage, I had the wild notion that this might lead to one.
“Are you sure it’s okay you can do can do that for me?” Da Ge asked. His eyes were glittering with excitement.
“Yes, I’m sure.” I felt a rush of adrenaline. “It’ll be like an extension of teaching English. Extra credit.”
Da Ge stood up. “Thank you,” he said. He walked over and I thought he might pick up my hand or kiss me, but he did neither. “I will make it easy for you. So no work for you. And I can pay if you –”
“I’m not interested in your money.”
What makes Repeat After Me: A Novel different is the psychological challenges — and their outcomes — that Aysha and her lover, Da Ge, both confront throughout the story. Seeing mental illness through two different cultures lends a certain distinction to the book, particularly with Da Ge’s perspective:
My father became rich. He have big black car with black window and big hands and big house and big plan. I will be the management of a company. My mother will hate this if she know. She already hate my father before, even hate the way the world became. So she self-kills in 1982. Mao is dead. She know my father will never do the thing they promise each other to do. Because my father is cynic but my mother not. And he is right. The revolution fail. And many people regret later, especially my mother who believe in it so much. Because even she would realized what she do is not good, that it don’t work out so the country sinking. This become impossible situation for her. My mother is kind of person who care about the truth. She want to find the truth no matter it’s good news for her or not. But she cannot even do that. She is pretty and extravagant when she swallow many medication. When I find her, she was already dead in the bedroom. Before that happen, she cleaned up and made some food for me.
Psychology is not an easy subject to tackle in a story, and the psychological problems she delves into are pretty heavy handed stuff. But DeWoskin’s treatment is just right, as she balances the major drama with lighthearted neuroses.
And, thankfully, Repeat After Me: A Novel has taken a detour from Foreign Babes in Beijing in terms of settings — there are no scenes in bars or clubs. Of course, since Aysha is an ESL teacher in New York City, much of the narrative occurs in the classroom (I had flashbacks of the presentations and skits and idiom discussions of my own English students back in China). But there are also cafes, Beijing and NYC apartments, parks, hospitals, gardens and more. It was a relief to step into a world that was so accessible and unpretentious at the same time.
On the same note, I felt right at home with a quirky and feminist cast of characters, from strong-willed moms to precocious daughters. For once, I was reading China novel that didn’t gratuitously promote the importance of having sons (even if it still is, sadly, much the reality today).
Now for the politics. The backdrop of Tiananmen can feel cliche to anyone well-read in the area of China literature (fiction or nonfiction), and in some respects, Repeat After Me: A Novel is no different. We’ve all seen tankman, we’ve all heard about the dissidents…probably more times than we want to admit in the leadup to the Beijing Olympics. So DeWoskin’s character of Da Ge, a suspected Tiananmen dissident, feels a bit worn at first. Yet, the more DeWoskin reveals Da Ge’s true character, the less he has in common with the typical Tiananmen story.
Meanwhile, Rachel DeWoskin’s take on life in China and Chinese culture will make any former laowai in China (like me) nostalgic. The prying — but well-intentioned — questioning from Chinese about your salary, marriage, weight and more. The banquets where a strange uncle does all of the ordering, leaving you with an array of dishes you barely find palatable. The Chinese view of marriage as something so practical and sometimes altogether divorced from love. The idea of praising babies as pang pang bai bai de (fat and white) and the importance of zuo yue after giving birth (if you don’t know what this is, just read Repeat After Me and you’ll find out). DeWoskin even sets part of the story in Beijing during the SARS period, and her descriptions of wearing masks on the top of your head — like a headband — remind me of my days in Shanghai when I’d catch my coworkers with masks clutching their chins or foreheads, but leaving their mouths and noses wide open.
The only time I raised an eyebrow was with DeWoskin’s depiction of the green card and citizenship process. Green cards, and citizenship for that matter, can hardly be taken care of within less than a year — unless there was a post-Tiananmen expediting process in place. Still, it’s a minor flaw, and it does nothing to detract from an otherwise outstanding read.
If there’s one Chinese expression I could use to describe Repeat After Me: A Novel, it would be suan tian ku la (sour, sweet, bitter, spicy). DeWoskin deftly blends tragedy and triumph with heartwarming, and delicious results.