- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2006

PARIS — In the mid-1990s Rachel DeWoskin was perhaps the most famous Westerner in Beijing, with millions following her exploits as an American temptress in a torrid television soap.

At the height of its fame, “Foreign Babes in Beijing” (in which Miss DeWoskin played the lead character Jexi) drew audiences of some 6 million people, with crowds mobbing her in the street or rushing to buy her brand of lipstick.

It gave the young American, who arrived in Beijing in 1994 at age 21 and speaking only limited Mandarin, unique access to a country in transition and its people, as well as bringing her instant fame in the Chinese capital.

Miss DeWoskin’s 2005 memoir of the clash of cultures during her five-year stay also titled “Foreign Babes in Beijing” has just been translated into French by new Paris publishing house Gutenberg, with Chinese and Japanese versions due out later in the year.

And Hollywood has snapped up the movie rights, with writer/director Alice Wu signed up for the film version now in preproduction.

“In the ‘90s there were still a lot of people for whom the West had only been present in ‘Dallas’ or ‘Dynasty’ being beamed across Asia by satellite,” Miss DeWoskin said during an interview prior to the Paris Book Fair.

The daughter of a Sinologist, Miss DeWoskin moved to Beijing after graduating from Columbia, recruited by a U.S. public relations firm which was cashing in on the wave of American companies moving into China as it was opening up to the West.

By chance, she was offered a role in a new soap opera, which she naively accepted without reading the script.

Much to her embarrassment, she ended up playing a modern Jezebel who lures a Chinese man away from his faithful wife and family — a stereotype, but one which she blames squarely on Western media.

“If you’re only contact with Western women is ‘Baywatch’ of course you think they’re all sluts,” she said dryly.

Her book chronicles not just her own personal awakening as some of her own beliefs are challenged and laid bare, but it also tells the personal stories of her friends both Chinese and others, caught up in a particular time in China.

“My Chinese friends seemed to me to be experiencing culture shock in their own lives and their own world, even though it was geographically not a new place for them,” she said.

She also tries to set right some of the misconceptions and preconceived ideas on both sides of the cultural divide.

There is plenty of humor such as when she tries to tell her co-stars that her Chinese teachers in the U.S. were strict, only later to find out she had said they were castrated.

Or when she realizes that her carefully cultivated Chinese name Ruiqui (in Pinyin), which seemed to resemble “Rachel” the most, actually means “bumper harvest.”

And like any good tale there’s a fair share of tragedy.

The book ends with Miss DeWoskin leaving China to return to the U.S. to pursue her studies just as NATO bombs the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade at the height of the Balkans conflict, triggering a wave of anti-American protests in Beijing.

“The Belgrade Embassy bombing was a stark and very steep lesson for me because I realized not only was America in the business of doing things that I didn’t necessarily think were great, or understand, but also that my sources for information were limited and they were in fact propaganda.

“CNN at that time might as well have been the People’s Daily,” she said.

Now 33 and a professor of creative writing at New York University, Miss DeWoskin still spends much of her time in China and plans to move there permanently in the future with her (non-Chinese speaking) husband and 18-month-old daughter.

“I do think the West and China have made tremendous progress towards a conversation that will ultimately lead to understanding,” she said.

Yet she remains conflicted about the effects of increasing globalization, such as the 2000 opening of a Starbucks coffee shop in the Forbidden City.

“It’s fine to live in the West and to have your own Starbucks and to ask China to stay poor and quaint,” she said.

“But on the other hand Chinese people want to drink Starbucks too. You know everybody like’s a good frappucino.

“I don’t want China to stay poor, but at the same time there have been tremendous costs associated with globalization in China. And the front-runner right now is the income gap.

“The poor are very, very poor, and there’s been tremendous unrest and I don’t know what they are going to do about it.”

Should she return for good, she would like perhaps to write more politically and socially responsible books detailing the lives of women in rural China, bearing the brunt of the income gap.

But in the meantime she’s putting the finishing touches to her first novel, working title “Aysha’s English,” about an English teacher in New York who falls in love with her Chinese student.

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