Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China
W. W. Norton, 332 pages, $24.95
Babes in Beijing is a deliciously entertaining snack that
contains quite a few meaty chunks of serious information.
Some of Rachel Dewoskin’s observations are probably out of
date already, but the author’s story is hilarious and her
insights are revealing. In 1994, fresh out of college, Dewoskin
went to Beijing, where she got a tedious job with an American
PR company. She stuck with it for several years, because it
was her “iron rice bowl,” making possible other adventures,
including acting the part of a foreign temptress in a Chinese
soap opera called Foreign Babes in Beijing.
The plot of this 20-episode TV miniseries is good-naturedly
quaint by American standards. Even the author, who plays Jiexi,
an American girl who breaks up a marriage and steals the good
Chinese husband off to America, is, as director Yao frequently
reassured Dewoskin, “a good girl in the end of the show.”
When Jiexi and her new husband, Tianming, leave for the States,
Jiexi lovingly acknowledges her new family: “Father! You and
Mama are the greatest elders I have ever met. I will miss
you.” Her old father-in-law—a personification of goodness,
if a bit old-fashioned—says his last words to his expatriating
son, “Don’t let China lose face.” If this couple leaves, however,
China triumphantly absorbs the dangerous foreign influence
in the other plot line where a second American girl (played
by a German) stays in China to become a dutiful Chinese wife
to Tianming’s brother and contribute directly to China’s welfare.
Nonetheless, Chinese nationals going abroad also serve the
nation so long as they make China proud in the wide world.
(Even Tianming’s former wife makes out OK: She gets a promotion
and a raise.) Recognizing the story for the gold mine that
it is, Dewoskin structures her book around scenes from the
series, quoting short encounters at the head of each chapter.
While acting in the soap opera, the author dramatically learns
there’s a universe of stuff she doesn’t know, even though
she has spent time in China as a child and can speak Chinese,
more or less. Early in filming, on the freezing-cold soundstage,
she’s baffled by an order, tuoku. A quick flip through
her pocket dictionary shows it’s a sort of shorthand expression
meaning “drop trou[sers]” or, for her, “drop underpants.”
This is not your standard schoolroom vocabulary. Dewoskin
gets a good tutor, but to complicate matters, the woman is
a grandmotherly type, “conservative, patriotic, and overly
generous with advice,” who is horrified by the TV sex scenes.
The show is such a success nationwide—there’s a marvelous
discussion of how state-controlled programming has to try
to attract customers now—that “Jiexi” is universally recognized,
on the street, on buses, in the office. When she is finally
leaving China, even the Chinese customs agent, after solemnly
scrutinizing all her documentation, says in his “hard-studied”
English, “Jiexi, you are welcome to come back to China forever.”
But success also means that eager magazines fabricate interviews
with her, providing their own fascinating answers to their
own insightful questions. When Dewoskin complains about people
writing in her name, a friend tries to calm her: “Well, they
think it will be hard to communicate with you, so they write
your view themselves.” This says volumes about China.
The author accumulates a fascinating cadre of young Chinese
friends who not only help translate words, but also meanings,
situations, culture and the like. Through them she learns
how to rent an illegal apartment, and how to get the elevator
ladies to leave one running for her at night so she doesn’t
have to walk up eighteen flights. Some are artists (well-known
and not), some are clerks, some are married, many are divorced,
one has children in Finland (in Finland!), another had an
affair with a Saudi student and still wishes she was the one
he married: “If she has to wear a cloth over her face anyway,
then why couldn’t she have been Chinese?” These friends lead
relatively unfettered lives. But they know about their parents’
lives; they know about the Cultural Revolution; they know
about Tiananmen Square. Dewoskin’s friend Anna is perfectly
aware that political policies can swing 180 degrees in a heartbeat,
so she’s appalled to see the author writing in her diary.
The author’s notes, moreover, may endanger many more people
Dewoskin’s work in PR drives home the lessons she learns on
the set and in her private life about how rarely people from
vastly different cultures trouble to find out how the other
thinks and works or to discover how greatly individuals vary
within cultures. China is still pissed about Western imperialism.
At the Dunhuang caves, where a Western archaeologist found
a trove of Buddhist objects and scriptures, the tourism board
“now has outlines in the shapes of missing treasures, with
plaques beneath reading: ‘Aurel Stein removed this in 1899.’
” But don’t think all Chinese feel equally aggrieved; Anna
declares that since China can’t take care of its treasures
(remember the Cultural Revolution), at least they’re being
preserved where they are.
A great many excellent observations bubble around in Dewoskin’s
pot, such as her perception that the components of the Chinese
language are like a vast set of Legos that you can push together
in all sorts of interesting arrangements and combinations.
Nonetheless, the organization of her material leaves a lot
to be desired, and she often sacrifices careful exposition
for a clever remark or a humorous anecdote. I hate it, but
I can’t stop myself: Reading Foreign Babes in Beijing
is like eating the Chinese meal so scrumptious that you gorge
yourself, only to feel hungry, alas, a couple of hours later.