Let’s clear up a few things first. Despite the title of Foreign Babes in Beijing — and the suggestive picture of a foreign girl in a sultry little silk black dress, fishnet hose and stilettos, towering over what seems to be her Chinese hotel fling for the evening — this is not a book about sex. Okay, yes, there are references to characters’ respective rolls in the covers, but they are just that: references. So, all of this is to say…if you want a blow-by-blow chronicling of bedroom exploits between foreign women and Chinese men, this isn’t your book.
Foreign Babes in Beijing is not some chic-lit fluff, either.
Sadly, the title, and the cover, are a little misleading. Which is unfortunate, because a lot of people who pass on Foreign Babes in Beijing might actually miss out on a rather informative read on China. That’s because Rachel DeWoskin’s account of her life in Beijing — a PR account exec by day, and soap opera star by night — is sprinkled with some of the most thoughtful insight into Chinese culture. Given that DeWoskin’s father is a revered sinologist — and she spent much of her formative years in China — she has some credibility to stand on in this department.
Okay, about the title of Foreign Babes in Beijing. It’s actually the title of the soap opera she stars in, which features lovely foreign women who fall in love with Chinese men. As she describes it, it’s the ultimate power play for China: the tall, handsome Chinese man conquers the West…sort of. DeWoskin plays Jiexi (pronounced like “jay-shee”), a foreign seductress who falls for a married Chinese man, and who ends up becoming the most popular character on the show.
The story starts out a little slow, even though it begins in medias res — in the midst of her director requesting that she drop her trousers on set. It’s an unfortunate place to start — just as misleading as the cover and title — because it suggests a certain salaciousness that never really plays out in the book. But by the fourth chapter or so, I was pretty much hooked, and desperately turning the pages to follow DeWoskin through her exploits. It’s not just her self-effacing nature, which is refreshing coming from an Ivy-league grad like her. Nor the narrative, which is captivating on its own. It’s how much you learn along the way. Even with all of the years I’ve spent in China, I was impressed with her hundreds of references to Tang-dynasty poems, which neatly illuminate the circumstances at hand. She also references history and politics quite confidently, often delving into lesser-known tidbits about China. All of this as she stumbles through the culture, hilariously at times.
I was nodding my head as I read about some of her bizarre encounters. I never had to walk up 18 flights of stairs in the dark because the elevator lady was sleeping, or was chided for not living at the studio (where the managers would push the limits of privacy by waking unsuspecting actors and actresses to film at night) — but I’ve known my share of equivalents. Such is the life of a foreigner in China, where even today, as modern as it may seem, there is always something to make you raise an eyebrow.
But yes, to speak to the “Babes” side of this, there are plenty of cross-cultural relationships in the book. DeWoskin and her American friend Kate — a serial dater of Chinese men — find boyfriends in the great northern capital of China, as do a number of other foreign women. And they connect with some high-profile people along with way, including the famous rock star Cui Jian (the head of China’s most celebrated rock n’ roll band). Sometimes the book seems to hover dangerously close to name dropping. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the portrayal of strong, feminist women in China, living over there and loving it.
Once the soap opera is over, the narrative does seem to take a turn, along with DeWoskin’s life. She becomes an overnight star, and, before you know it, she’s moving on to other jobs — the more bizarre the job offer, the better. This perhaps is what drove the NY Times book review to declare that:
It becomes a Chinese version of “Friends,” as the author, expertly playing the role of the bemused American, lurches from one cultural misunderstanding to another, then huddles with pals at cool restaurants to chew things over.
DeWoskin also declares, by the end (1999 — ironically, the year that I first entered China), that Beijing is no longer some cool, hidden place. Which is bound to happen as any country opens up. Still, I’m not convinced that more openness means a country or city is less cool or that there isn’t something left to discover. I discovered a lot in those years after DeWoskin left China.
Overall, Foreign Babes in Beijing is worth reading. And if you — or your questioning wife/girlfriend — still can’t get past the cover and title, just put a paper cover around it, and give it a new title. Something with more Beijing in it…and less babes.