Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Book Review - Foreign Babes in Beijing

Foreign Babes in Beijing has been around for awhile, but I've only just gotten around to reading it. As an American living in Asia, I'm always interested in the narratives of other expat women, particularly those in Asia and super particularly those in the Chinese-speaking world. If there was a book written by a female expat in Taiwan (is there? If so, please enlighten me. I do intend to pick up Among the Headhunters of Formosa next, but that's not really the kind of expat narrative I'm talking about) I'd happily review that, too.

Foreign Babes tells the story of Rachel DeWoskin's five years in Beijing in the mid-90s. It focuses on her time filming the campy Chinese serial of the same name - 洋妞在北京- and her role as Jiexi, the foreign temptress who seduces and eventually marries the already-married Li Tianming. While she's doing this, she's also working at a PR firm despite a dearth of experience, meeting new people and settling in.

It's tightly-written with attention to clear prose and contains realistic dialogue - the kind where you hear the speakers' voices in your head rather than being thunked back to the page by a clunky, unrealistic or overly whimsical turn of phrase. She's neither positive nor negative, just pragmatic and grounded. She does touch on issues surrounding being a female expat, but that's not the main thrust of the book. Considering the difficulties facing foreign women in China (and the difficulties facing Chinese women in China, but that's a different tome), I'd like to see someone explore such issues in more depth.

I did find the first few chapters to be a bit jumpy and hard to follow despite long scrolls of clarity and insight - first she's at the PR firm, then she makes a friend, then she's at the Beiying studio, then she's not going to take the part, then she takes the part, and here's this other friend, and now some more talk about the PR office, back to the studio...huh? - although this could be partly my fault, as I covered the first half in 1/2 hour chunks on the Taiwan High Speed Rail to Hsinchu and back. I never did get a clear idea of when she and her Chinese-American boyfriend got together and when they broke up. I never was clear on whether she really was a vegetarian or whether that was a made-up issue to avoid eating fatty meat lunch boxes every day.

It settles, though, into an entertaining and incisive account of what life is (was?) like for foreigners in Beijing at that time. I moved to Guizhou not long after DeWoskin left Beijing, and I can say that my experience was 100% 180-degrees flip-me-on-my-head, what-the-hell-is-this different, but I lived in the countryside. No weird nightclubs, expat bar strips, dangerously sexy Chinese boyfriends, expats (there were three of us kind-of-normals and one perpetually drunk pervert from Los Angeles, that's it), illegal apartments (school took care of that), office towers or Chinese celebrities. We had beer by the river, one kitschy bar, ugly skinny smoking local guys who wore white athletic socks with ill-fitting black dress pants whom you'd never ever date, a pachinko parlor shaped like the Sphinx (I'm not joking) and nights drinking hawberry liquor with locally made lemon lime soda that will probably be the cause of our stomach cancer someday. We had rampant sexism, roaches and pneumonia. We had some great adventures, too.

In short, I lived in China, but I have never lived in DeWoskin's China. That doesn't mean she's wrong, it just means that Beijing is nothing like Guizhou!

Something I want to note that I really loved about this book: it managed to strike a non-political tone while discussing some deeply sensitive political issues, and while it didn't get overly opinionated about the China-Taiwan issue, she pulled no punches over describing her Taiwanese colleague as a fellow "foreigner", albeit a foreigner who doesn't look the part. She never once implies that Taiwan is anything other than a country, although she doesn't say so outright. She uses no pandering language - you won't reading piddling words such as "territory" here. I appreciate that. Rachel, if you ever read this review, as a foreigner who deeply loves Taiwan and supports Taiwanese sovereignty, I want to personally thank you for that. So many authors get all wimpy-knuckled over this issue, and you didn't. You gave your former coworker Gary and Taiwan the respect they deserve. Good job.

There are other parts that I liked - describing what it was like to be called to film at 1am, not going and calling one's parents instead. Descriptions of other foreigners and her interactions with them, and what it feels like to be a part of the expat community (not a feeling I've ever had, mind you, but interesting to read about). Weird nightclubs. Being told that reporters are afraid it will be hard to communicate with you, so they write your views themselves, attach your byline and that you should consider this a compliment.

It also struck me while reading that my life in Taipei is so different - so very, very different - from DeWoskin's life in China that it was a worthy read just to explore and consider the contrasts. It reminded me that in so many ways life here is Easy Street, and why I chose Taipei over Beijing. Beijing has this ring of exoticism and fantasy in the minds of people back home - but I can honestly say that Taipei, despite not being as internationally noted as Beijing, is a better city. I've been to Beijing. I've seen the six lane boulevards with no crosswalks and walls on each side, hacked through the pollution and dealt with the locals who either don't care about you or want to sell you something (and after they sell it to you, they don't care about you unless they think they can sell you more). DeWoskin's portrayal of Beijing is more sympathetic, and yet it still reminded me: yes, sorry, Taipei is better. 

I do strongly recommend this book for any woman moving abroad, especially to Asia and super-especially to China. It's also worthwhile for those moving to Taiwan, mostly for the expat insights which are true in almost any foreign country as well as the counterpoint to what life in Taiwan is like.

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