NEW YORK — From Ziyi Zhang and Wong Kar-wai to Shanghai’s induction into the international club of hip travel destinations, modern China is highly visible on the current American cultural radar. But for Rachel DeWoskin, author of “Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China,” it has always been a source of fascination.
Born in Kyoto, Japan, to a sinologist father and English teacher mother, DeWoskin grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., but spent most summers traveling with her family in Taiwan and China. Right after graduating from Columbia University in 1994, where she majored in English and studied Chinese, she decided to forgo a conventional New York job and moved to Beijing to work as a consultant for an American company. “I like the chaos of Beijing,” explains DeWoskin. “Shanghai is very glamorous, but Beijing is more rough-hewn. For me, it is the artistic and cultural center of China.”
Her book captures the city’s bustle, chronicling her five years of living in Beijing and the dynamics of her group of young Chinese hipsters grappling with sex, love and work. During DeWoskin’s first year there, she was cast as a young Western girl on “Foreign Babes in Beijing,” a television show exploring modern Western-Chinese romantic pairings. As “Jiexi,” the spunky girl who captures the heart of a married Chinese man, DeWoskin found herself taping sex scenes in the studio and enduring seven-hour bus rides to undisclosed locations — all through the haze of a linguistic and cultural gap.
“On the set, the producers and directors had very specific ideas of foreign women, which were not my ideas,” she says. “But then I often found that I was kind of following the script, like falling in love with Zhao Jun [her Chinese boyfriend in real life at the time] without ever having had a conversation that made any sense. These were their ideas about me and I ended up kind of playing them out, both on screen and in my real life, even when I was trying to convince everybody they weren’t true.”
Though language lessons and the patience of her friends and co-workers helped DeWoskin gain a solid footing in the foreign environment, there were certain cultural idiosyncrasies to which she never fully adjusted. “One of the things I never got right was gift-giving,” she says. “I have never given a Chinese person a gift that the person didn’t despise and I’ve never received a gift from a Chinese friend that I didn’t think was totally bizarre. I mean, Anna [a consultant co-worker she befriended] is my best friend and yet she buys me things like a ceramic moose.”
Since moving back to the States, DeWoskin has earned an MFA at Boston University, gotten married to an American and recently had a baby, whom she will take to Beijing next month (she’s now eight months old). The family divides its time between apartments in New York and Beijing, in the mobile lifestyle DeWoskin prefers. “I don’t want to live anywhere all the time for the rest of my life,” she says. “I like the feeling of being in between and of being on the periphery of things.”