foreignbabesbeijing.jpgI 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.

dewoskinauthorphoto.jpgShe 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.


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  3. I am reading it and totally disagree that it is not condescending in its style.

    Lived China since 2001 and wrote The Fake Celebrity In China.

    These were my comments about it recently:

    Just recently picked up a copy (haha from Chaoyangmen, great for illegal copies) and started reading Foreign Babes in China.

    Certainly got a lot of rave reviews on the sleave.

    I can’t ever remember seeing the TV show but it is about some expat US chick who got on a TV drama.

    Have to say I am not into chick writers at all unless they have some balls. Style is usually too weak and boring and lets face it overly sensitive.

    In my humble subjective opinion she over-descibes everything and has no emotion in her writing. After the first few chapters she leaves me with no doubt that anyone reading who had not been to Beijing would not want to even visit there.

    And she has a condescending narrative style that only chick writers truly can possess.

    I think The Fake Celeb.,, is written from the perspective of a person who in no way wants to immerse himself in Chinese Culture or language but enjoys the in beteween life that China offers whereas she writes as a person who wants to immerse herself into the language and culture yet condescendingly attacks it and puts it down in a western way, so for me the thing doesn’t exactly read true. Though I can imagine what kind of expat she was/is.

    Nethertheless it is interesting as it is set in beijing if not a boring over descriptive style of writing and I will battle on and try and finish it.

    have read on past half way and it has improved.

    She is a Jew and it really reads in the style of Sex In The City, just without the sex, hehe.

    But it is readable and I simply do not read boring books.

    Her descriptive style is absolutely cold. When I read it, even here in Beijing in summer, it depresses me. Then I go outside into the Beijing summer air and breathe all the familiar smells and feel better to be here. So, I guess, she didn’t like living here at all or just could not describe any of it in a positive way.

    And it is very condescending and I am getting tired of her sweeping judgmental, all knowing statements, which often I disagree with but she states as fact.

    Well, she is a chick writer after all. And it is a chicks book. Anyone who respects the narrative style of Sex In The City should give it a go (as I do) because it is to me almost a direct copy of the style.

  4. Just finished it.

    I have to say the book exposes a great deal of truths about China.

    However, it is written in such a negative voice, negative about China and her time here. In fact, there are very few if any positve things, things celebrated in the whole book. And I wonder whether this is how she felt about her time in China, or whether this is how she lives her life.

    Also, it is written in a very kind of looking down and analytical and academic way. And it exposes how she lived in Beijing, the crowds she mixed with and the life she led. Especially the Chinese crowds. Most, if not all of the Chinese she describes having contact with had already had a western life or an exposure to the west. Most had western wives or husbands, bf’s and gf’s and if anyone knows the Chinese well they would know that these kind of Chinese are far removed from the true traditional Chinese who have never been out of China, or who have had little close dealings with westerners.

    For example, on page 285 she describes the difference between Chinese males and western males as the Chinese males allowing their gf’s to do their own business without question thereby allowing them to be more independant.

    This could not be further from the truth as anyone knows, Chinese boys are smothering of their gf’s and text and ph them dozens of times a day to make sure where they are and what they are up to.

    It is western men that allow independance of their gfs.

    Finally, in the last 20 pages or so, she writes in a pleasant, “show it don’t say it” style. The rest of the book is all a choke of say it. But unfortunately the topic she used was She Wei an ex-con, knife scarred face who is a drunken loser and kills himself drunk driving after being dumped by his weird western gf.

    It shows me that this was the only experience that impacted her hard enough to take the care to write it this way. But even then, sadly, if it was so heart-felt why did she not even bother to go to the funeral and not only that she almost blames the Chinese for not allowing her into the hospital room to see him dying, then is critical of the hypocricy of being judged for not attending the funeral. She exposes herself as being very shallow here.

    That is why I say she condescends, she has adopted this so called thinly veiled neutral approach but in the end she never ever criticizes herself, rather just self justifies every thought or action she ever had in Beijing.

    But, it is a first novel.

    Overall, it achieves some purpose and I would give it 6 out of ten.

    It is readable but exposes a very shallow, excavation of the true Chinese seen from a person who seems to claim that by speaking Chinese, yet hanging around cynical westerners and cynical (of China and the west, as of course they are double standardised) westernised Chinese, the true modern Chinese will be exposed, which is absolute bs.

    Of course, anybody who reads the book, who has not lived in China a long time will not know this and call the book a success.

    The Fake celebrity in China, now blogged


    Humbly yours,

    Robert Black.

  5. I would say more like a self-promoting, self-justifying, critically-blinkered and almost certainly sexist douchebag – whose unorthodox spelling does his claims to be a writer very little service. Foreign Babes, on the other hand, is well worth reading. (But I’ve only lived in China 19 years, not nearly long enough by Mr Back’s high standards to qualify for an opinion, no doubt).

  6. @Max — Yes, but I love the delicious irony of “And she has a condescending narrative style that only chick writers truly can possess.”

  7. Get over yourselves

    If you guys keep going, I will make sure they see you right to the bone

    I smell your insecurity and unhappiness miles and miles away

    Personally I hope we do meet, even at 43, I would like to see what you got little girl

    You never EVER support my enemies!

    You got me on your back for at least a year now.

    “I just defend myself and don’t take prisoners.”

    You ever, ever reply to one of my posts again things will get nasty.

    I do have a beautiful gf. She is sleeping to the right of me and I can see her if I tilt my head to the right slightly.

    You like me I know. But I just don’t give a sh*t about you. I care about my gf and me. End.

  8. Bcomplex you have no idea of the Pandora’s Box you are opening!

    MK you’ll wish your teenage wife DIVORCES you and takes all your money.

    I am going on an exciting trip with my imaginary gf while you two cut and paste PMs.

  9. Robert Black is a very nasty, bitter person that started posting people’s personal and facebook information all over the net because he got turned down by a young lady.

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  11. Robert I would advise you understanding what a novel is before you make yourself look like a fool. You said,”But, it is a first novel.” A “novel” is a work of fiction with a specific definition. Foreign Babes is a memoir.

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