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Enticing! Foreign Babes In Beijing

Samyukta Bhowmick | September 28, 2005

I started reading Foreign Babes In Beijing right after I put down Jeffrey Sachs' The End Of Poverty. Although these books seem worlds apart -- one is a clinical appraisal of the world's development, and the other, well, has the word 'babe' in the title -- they actually complement each other quite well.

One of Professor Sachs' case studies is China. Back in 1949, the rural population (80 per cent of the total workforce) worked in communes, with little incentive for growth, while urban workers hung on to 'iron rice bowls,' guaranteed jobs in state-owned enterprises.

By 1978, however, after Mao Tse-tung's death, reform had begun and, by the early 1990s, China was enjoying a nine per cent growth rate. The change, though, was gradual: 'China partly liberalised, but did not privatise, the state enterprises in the 1980s and 1990s. The government did not attempt to break up the iron rice bowl,' writes Sachs.

It is at this point that Rachel DeWoskin finds herself in China. She lands in 1994, straight from a literature degree at Columbia University in New York. She has spent summers in China before, with her parents who are committed Sinophiles, but the move is still akin to jumping into the deep end of a pool with only a minimal grasp of swimming.

She starts with a job at an American PR firm, but finds its deep divisions between the Chinese employees and the American boss, Charlotte, hollow and alienating. Restless, she finds herself moonlighting as an actress on the television series, Foreign Babes In Beijing, or Yang Niu Zai Beijing.

Rachel's first steps into Chinese society are cringe-worthy -- she does not understand the language, nor the cultural context of gestures, intonations and social protocol. Her college Chinese fails her -- when her colleagues call her thin, she remembers her textbook, 'It is indecorous to accept praise.

'Thank you,' my textbook said, should be replaced with 'nali, nali?' or 'Where? Where?'

'Nali, Nali?' I asked, carefully clipping the syllables for clarity. They looked at me blankly, then smiled and went back to work. 'Where, where?' it turns out, is an archaic and stilted expression, so nerdy as to be almost unrecognisable.'

Rachel's easy, chatty style makes the China that Sachs describes so detachedly come to life, down to the iron rice bowls.

When she moves into her new apartment, Rachel makes friends with the women who run her elevator: 'Included in my rent was a priceless course in local Beijing life. The elevators were turned off every night at 11 pm, which meant that almost five nights a week I climbed 18 flights of stairs. This was a new building, and the elevators were automatic. But, when running, each had an operator, because they were not only elevators but 'iron rice bowls', stable jobs that citizens have forever.'

Despite early stumbles, Rachel soon settles into life in Beijing. Whole chapters are dedicated to describing the friends she makes -- her boyfriend Zhao Jun, Anna, a rebellious Chinese co-worker, Kate, an American journalist, and the artist Zhou Wen. If the book, however, had just been about Rachel, her life and her friends, it would not have been as compelling as it is.

Rachel is careful to position herself within the context of larger events, for instance the complexities of the upheaval of a traditional society: a book called China Can Say No, 'a bestselling manifesto encouraging China to 'say no' to the West', invokes intense debate among Rachel and her friends; the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade provokes furious riots in Beijing, to the point where Rachel has to pretend to be Swiss to avoid provoking suspicious cab drivers.

The book is finely balanced between Rachel's personal discovery of China (it is littered with various Chinese words she learns laboriously, from stringing two smaller words together: 'chuiniu,' literally 'blowing the cow,' or bragging; 'waiguo,' 'outside countries' or foreign places; 'tong-xinglian,' 'same-sex love' or gay) and China's rediscovery of the world.

Rachel left China in 1999, and doubtless much has changed in Beijing from the time that she describes. Despite this, Foreign Babes In Beijing is an enticing read -- and not just because it has a great pair of legs on the front cover.

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