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Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China Hardcover – May, 2005

3.8 out of 5 stars 46 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

DeWoskin moved to Beijing in 1989, shortly after the military squashed the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square, but just as China's younger population began embracing Western ideologies and commodities. This entertaining romp through her five-plus years in Beijing details her life as a PR consultant—and as the star of the wildly popular Chinese nighttime television drama Foreign Babes in Beijing. After getting the gig on a lark, DeWoskin became known, sometimes even in her real life, as the character Jiexi, an American who falls in love with a married Chinese man, in the 20-episode drama, which aired to an estimated 600 million viewers. Her memoir weaves humorous tales of Sino-U.S. culture clashes both on and off the set with astute observations of the two cultures, as well as a significant amount of Chinese history. Though she admits frequently to being homesick for New York, DeWoskin feels for the loss of more traditional Chinese culture: "Consumerism became a religion; companies arrived like missionaries... seducing the average Zhou Schmoe with products he had never known he needed." The book offers a generous helping of Chinese words (along with their English translations and insights into the young people's "Chinglish"), as well as Lost in Translation–esque glimmers of the differences between the Chinese and American acting worlds. Agent, Jill Grinberg. (May)

From The New Yorker

DeWoskin's memoir takes its title from a popular Chinese soap opera in which she starred in the mid-nineties. Working for a P.R. firm in Beijing, she was approached by a producer at a party and was cast as Jiexi, a sexually liberated American girl who embodies China's simultaneous excitement at and nervousness about the spread of Western influence (she seduces a married Chinese man). DeWoskin's cleverly layered account thus charts parallel culture clashes, one that she experiences as a Western woman in modern China, and the other, a TV-ready version of the first, tailored to Chinese expectations. The daughter of a Sinologist, DeWoskin has considerable cultural and linguistic resources, allowing such insights as an implicit comparison between Jiexi and the wilder entries in "Biographies of Model Women," a two-thousand-year-old text of the Han Dynasty.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 332 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (May 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393059022
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393059021
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.8 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,221,440 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Steve Koss VINE VOICE on May 13, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Having lived for much of the period from 2001 - 2004 in Suzhou, (about 50 miles west of Shanghai), I can categorically say that Rachel DeWoskin's new book, FOREIGN BABES IN CHINA, gets nearly everything right when it comes to Chinese culture and interpersonal relations. Her book is a fascinating account of a city, a country, and a culture in transition. The people around her, and she herself, suffer the contradictions of tradition versus modernity, socialism versus entrepreneurial capitalism, blind patriotism versus Westernization, and government control versus individual freedom, yet everyone zooms ahead to find their own way even as the book's timeline approaches the millennium.

Ms. DeWoskin arrives in Beijing on something of a lark, a college grad with an English degree, a little Mandarin, and a desire for something adventurous. She has taken a position with the Beijing office of an international public relations firm (we later learn that "P.R." sounds uncomfortably like the Chinese word for an unflattering body part) but quickly finds the work empty of content. She unexpectedly gets offered a spot as one of the two foreign female leads in a new Chinese soap opera entitled "Yang Niu Zai Beijing," or "Foreign Babes in Beijing." She is duped into signing a contract for far less than she's worth to the producers (there are still relatively few attractive young Western women in Beijing in 1995), and a series of acting misadventures and cast romances ensue. DeWoskin can barely separate her real-life feelings for her hunky co-star Wang Ling from their respective romantic roles in the soap opera. In the end, "Foreign Babes" is a huge success throughout China, and Ms.
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Rachel DeWoskin spent a great part of the 1990s in Beijing, China first as a post-college lost soul looking for a good job opportunity, and finally becoming a national soap opera star and remaining within the powerful and frustrating lure that China holds over many Western expats.

I myself spent the year 2000 in Beijing as a study-abroad from college and a part-time English teacher. I gobbled up "Foreign Babes" as soon as I read the review in EW magazine. I can categorically say, as a relatively kindred spirit to Ms. DeWoskin in many respects, that she nailed Beijing in every possible aspect 100% correctly. I usually refrain from overgeneralizations, but let me put it this way: my personal journal from my time in China reads almost exactly like this book.

There is a bizarre love-hate that most Americans in China have with their host country. At once exotic, larger-than-life, enormous, confining, frustrating, ancient, ultra-modern and flagrantly obsessed with Western imports the China of DeWoskin's pages is the China that anyone who up and goes to Beijing right now will find. She even hits on and offers some fascinating analysis on the difference between Chinese and Western patriotism, linguistic nuances that make intimate communication nearly unattainable between the two cultures, and delivers beautiful character studies of wily Western expats and locals from all walks of life. Her characterizations of the people that populated her dusty, seamy Beijing are so honest and human that I could swear I've met them (in some cases I probably have, of course). Oh, and she's right about the ease of attaining celebrity in China.
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This is not a travel book about China. It is too specific about a time (the 90s) and a place (Beijing), about social interactions among "expats" and "locals", and very much about roles and confusing roles.

RDW tells us how she came to Beijing as a very young expatriate executive in 1994, how she got "discovered" as a TV actress, how she met Chinese and foreign friends, how she left after 5 years that must have changed her. It is a very personal recollection.

Since I can relate to many of the elements of the "story", I enjoyed RDW's book very much. I was there at the same time, in the same office building, in the same party places, markets etc. Probably we met at least in the CITIC elevator, but we did not meet due to too many other differences - age maybe the most important among them. I remember vaguely the stories about her soap experience. I never watched the Foreign Babes show, but I remember the press coverage.

RDW is a great writer, very observant and with a tremendous sense of humour. Every China expat should be interested. Everybody with an interest in intercultural encounters should be very interested. Everybody interested in China beyond the numbers should love it.
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Format: Hardcover
I teach modern Chinese history at a Midwestern university.

I discovered Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China by Rachel DeWoskin when I heard the author's interview on public radio earlier this summer. I was intrigued by De Woskin's comments in the interview and wanted to know more about her experiences. I have to admit that I have watched many a trashy soap opera in China whenever I visit and so I picked up the book for fun this summer expecting a light summer read. I was quite surprised by DeWoskin's insights, however, and will definitely assign this book for my class, "The United States and China." This is not a book by a China specialist for an audience of China specialists but DeWoskin clearly did her homework for this book. This is one of the best memoirs ever written by a casual American visitor to China.

DeWoskin explains early in the book that she felt a connection to China. Her family often spent time in China when she was growing up due to her father's academic research interests in China. Yet this book goes far beyond most visitor memoirs I have seen. It carefully interweaves common language phrases in use during her stay with aspects of pop culture, business and social interactions, Chinese perceptions of Americans, and key political events. The overall effect is a rich mosaic of China in the 1990s that Americans all too often miss or mis-read.

What makes this book so useful to students is that DeWoskin presents an honest and often very entertaining view of her life in Beijing as she tries to find her way. She does not try to hide the mistakes she makes adapting her "classroom Mandarin Chinese" to Beijing slang (not the usual vocabulary students learn in school!) or relationship difficulties with Chinese business associates, friends, and intimates.

I would recommend this book for anyone planning to work or study in China.
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