The book is written by Rachel DeWoskin, who arrived in Beijing in 1994 at 23, not a total China virgin, but close to it. Within a short period, she had accepted a star role in a TV soap opera, playing a foreign hussy who breaks up a marriage and teaches the Chinese guy the meaning of true love.
There is a formula for memoirs of this sort, which begins with a – dare I say it – climax, a first chapter devoted to a symbolic moment in which all the key elements of the story come together (pardon my French, but that cover is provocative). Then, in the second chapter and beyond, we return to the start and find out how we got to the climax. Rachel's book agent called it right, and she got it published.
This book stands out for several reasons. It is honest and perceptive about China and about foreigners in China. It includes enviable detail, which hopefully proves the value of keeping a diary (the alternative would be disappointing). And best of all, it does it all from a female perspective, so much rarer, and on balance, more perceptive than the standard male approach.
"Expatriate small talk ran a predictable gamut," Rachel says of foreigner Beijing parties. "There was 'How long have you been in Beijing?' usually accompanied by the subtext 'I' ve been here longer.' Or the more direct, How is your Chinese?', which carried with it the thinly veiled 'Mine is better.'"
Guilty as charged, m'lud.
There is an unfortunate time element to this book because China changes so fast. The China that Rachel is talking about is that of the mid-1990s, an era I remember well and fondly. It is not totally unconnected to the China of 2005, but then again, China has moved on in so many ways that Rachel's stories from just a few minutes ago, as it were, are already dated.
She describes ways in which foreigners and Chinese interact and ways in which the authorities interfere in the lives of Chinese people, which are largely passe. They are still interesting, of course, and China as we know it grew from the seeds of the past. But there is also no point trying to pretend this is totally a picture of China today.
She describes, for instance, the "illegal" element of foreigners living among the locals, which was in force through to the late 1990s and is now a total blast from the past. Who today would think about such an issue? How wonderful it is to contemplate all the myriad ways China has changed for the better in recent years.
Tianming (the Chinese guy) and Jiexi (Rachel's character) were resonant symbols, fit for the new world because they were beautiful, fake, aspirational, in true love, and featured on a cheesy, prime-time soap. During the Cultural Revolution, personal love always gave way to love of the cause, and reform was demonstrated in the sacrifice of private feelings and redirection of youthful romance into passion to serve the state. In Foreign Babes in Beijing, genuine love was its own end goal.
Rachel has a unique story to tell, although she was probably unwittingly following a trend started by an English lady named Kate Flower, who hosted an English-language program on CCTV called Follow Me in 1982, and became a national sensation in the process. But few foreigners have become TV stars in China, and fewer yet have done it in a way that combines symbolism, fantasy and reality in the way a soap opera does. Foreign Babes in Beijing, the TV show, dealt with so many desperately difficult issues. How non-Chinese fit into Chinese society, love and sex between Chinese and foreigners, how China feels about itself in the world.
All of these elements are changing constantly, of course, but there are always threads of continuity that can be found, from Imperial China through the Cultural Revolution to the post-dotcom China world of Magic Baby (the online game moli baobei). In her book, Rachel illuminates many of those threads through the unique prism of a soap opera. Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China, by Rachel DeWoskin, published by W. W. Norton & Company. Available at amazon.com for $16.47