I just finished reading Rachel Dewoskin’s Foreign Babes In Beijing, a memoir of the author’s life in China’s capital during the mid to late 90s. For any just coming to or arriving in China, the book is a great supplemental read to your standard collection of guidebooks; and for those of us that have been here a while, it offers enough relatable anecdotes and “way it was” stories to keep it interesting.
When I first picked up the book, I wrongly assumed that it was going to be a staunchly female perspective on life in China, working to show women that China is indeed open to their visits as well. I was quite wrong. Dewoskin gives a well-rounded, and well-researched peek into post-post reform China.
She arrived in Beijing fresh out of university, having fallen into working for a PR firm with next to no experience. The story winds through nearly half a decade of her life here, but at its core centres around her involvement with the Beiying TV production called Foreign Babes In Beijing. The nighttime soap gave its Chinese audience a look inside the lives of foreign girls living in China and their relationships with Chinese men. The insight of the show is blurred by only presenting a Chinese-view of foreign girls. This stereotypical idea of ‘foreigners’ as one indistinguishable group is hit on again and again in the book, mirroring real foreigner-life in China quite well.
“The loneliest I ever felt in China was around other Americans, because they inspired mistaken hope that we would know each other intimately, instinctively. It took me years to accept the fact that American strangers are just as unknowable as any others. It was hard to decide whether to nod too, wave at, or in any way acknowledge other foreigners. Such gestures felt vaguely conspiratorial and racist; were we special friends because we found ourselves and each other in an exotic and uncomfortable land? And yet, not acknowledging other laowai was pretentious and dishonest, since I noticed every single one I saw (and usually stared unabashedly).”
The language of the book never feels condescending to either fellow expats living in China, nor to our hosts, the Chinese. Though stories are often told in candid ways, Dewoskin seems to have a very clear understanding of who the Chinese are, how much she can know about their culture, and when she should just accept that it’s crazy and different.
What I like most about the book is she really touches on things that as an expat I’ve felt or experienced. Knowing that even a decade ago the same bunglesome navigation through conversation about being a stranger in a strange land took place gave me some amount of comfort.
“In fairness to all Beijing’s expatriates, it is hard to find a language in which to talk about someone else’s country. Visitors to a country who get angry about the unsavory or unfamiliar aspects of that country will be perceived as racist, sometimes accurately and other times preemptively.
One choice is to celebrate even the most backward parts of a place and name them exotic. And yet, if those parts don’t serve the indigenous people or lack authenticity, then the celebration is pandering. If there is behavior you would never condone in your own culture, you condescend if you stand for it elsewhere.
At the same time, it’s necessary to approach and describe your love of a country’s relics, energy, and habits with care, lest you turn orientalist or fetishist. There is a delicate balance to be achieved.”
The book stays remarkably unpolitical, but still manages to paint a relatively clear image of what life, for a foreigner, is like in China. Despite rubbing elbows with famous Chinese musicians, artists and movie producers, the accessibility of this book shines through and I recommend anyone living in, or with plans to live in, China pick it up.