Foreign Babes In Beijing, by Rachel DeWoskin

A taste of modern China's serio-comic noodle soup
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The Independent Culture

As China races towards global dominance, its culture remains closed for most of us. Rachel DeWoskin provides a perspective that is as unusual as it is revealing. In 1990s Beijing, DeWoskin starred in a television soap - from which the book takes its title. A soap opera may be a dramatically distorting window, but its simplifications play up the social developments hidden by more sober analysis.

Mandarin was a challenge. The language is fiendishly difficult and when she attempted to tell the cast and crew that her US lecturers were "strict", DeWoskin said instead that they were all eunuchs. The drama itself capitalised on misunderstandings. One scene showed a foreigner presenting a clock to an elderly Chinese man. He reacted in horror: clocks signify impending death.

The soap was unmitigated cheese, but it was a manifestation of fundamental change. If the Chinese masses could not have democracy, they were set free to seize its material trappings. When Deng Xiaoping declared that "to get rich is glorious", entrepreneurial frenzy and consumerism surged. Suddenly, everyone in China had TV; the series attracted 600 million viewers.

Female emancipation was a by-product of affluence. Divorce rocketed, the number of couples living outside matrimony soared, and the "one-child" law began to crumble. But traditional prejudices withered slowly. DeWoskin's part in the soap was Jiexi, a US vixen who lured local-boy Tianming away from his wife and family. The script presented foreign women as "open-minded", and DeWoskin found her married co-star primed to pursue their fictional relationship into reality.

The glamour of her role was far removed from daily life. The state continued to micromanage many aspects of its citizens' lives. At 11pm the lifts in her apartment block were switched off, so that she had to trudge up 18 flights of stairs. Against her liberal sensibilities she employed a servant, without whom negotiating the bureaucracy of bills and purchasing gas cylinders for her cooker was impossible.

More ominously, her diary-keeping prompted surprise. The locals shunned such practices, for fear that their recollections might be used against them. The Cultural Revolution was a fresh memory. Thankfully, DeWoskin persevered. The result is a serio-comic noodle soup, from which she snags out the fun of cultural difference with expert chopsticks.