EPS Review #143 - Foreign Babes in Beijing

Foreign Babes in Beijing, by Rachel DeWoskin, W W Norton, 2005, 332pp.

I noticed this memoir a long time ago and was interested, but worried that it might be too fluffy or stupid. Then a friend recommended it, so I got a cheap used hardback from Amazon. The previous owner had done loads of underlining, and then gone through erasing it all, so my copy is plump with erasure gunk.

Ms DeWoskin comes from an intellectual background and writes rather well. She had an exciting childhood involving China:

I moved to Beijing because I wanted an adventure and was too weird to get a real job, and because I felt connected to China. My father, who was a sinologist for thirty-five years before retiring from the University of Michigan to be a China consultant, had been taking my family to China since my brothers and I were tiny. My parents, rounding out our privileged edges, had treated us to years of overnight train rides across internal China, and had served us thick, warm beer, since they could never be sure water was clean, even when it was bottled.

"This is just like Disneyland," my mother laughed, "except authentic. If we were at amusement parks, we'd be on rides, too! Without the views." Soot blew in the windows and glued streaks across our faces.

My mother brushed her teeth out the train window, rinsed with beer, and read us Charlotte's Web in hard sleeper bunks.

Rachel uses the 2,000 year old book Biographies of Model Women, with a chapter on Pernicious and Depraved women, to lead in to her role in China as a foreigner, a business person, girlfriend and soap-opera homewrecker on Chinese TV.

The bits about making the TV show were funny -- I wish there were more. I thought this was beautifully put:

We kissed for real for the first and only time. And I ruined it thinking about director Yao, expecting to hear, "Take." I have no idea what Wang Ling was thinking about, but the horrible awkwardness did not further inflame any kind of love. Instead it ruined our friendship, just as illicit kisses ruin friendships everywhere. This is a global fact, although at the time I attributed it to cultural misunderstanding.

I also liked the author's analysis of office life, and of expat life ("Poems of parting form a large part of China's lyrical Tang poetry. The world of expats is also marked and celebrated by partings.") Some of the factual bits about China bogged me down, but only slightly. There was a lot about her personal life, including a tragedy. Some parts of this were a little dull (artist friends), some poignant (she is a poet now), and some seemed to hide feelings behind artfulness. All in all, the book is very good.

I searched AltaVista Video, YouTube, YoQoo and a few others for "洋妞在北京", but alas no luck. The early 90s was probably before anyone was digitising TV broadcasts. A movie is being made of the book -- it will be interesting to see.

One member of my family is having expat adventures in China at this very moment. I hope she is keeping a journal like Ms DeWoskin's.

John wrote (a year ago): Her picture is somewhat scary.

Paul had written: It made us want to move to China! Really great bit of lightish but insightfullish non-fiction.

Darren wrote: Mr. China wasn't enough so you had to go for Ms. China?