An American Star Made in China

Next week’s Despres Lecture speaker, Rachel DeWoskin, is known in the United States for her books, more recently for her young adult literature. But she’s been a familiar face to Chinese television audiences for years now. In China, DeWoskin was known as Jiexi, the breakout character from the hit show 洋妞在北京, translated as “Foreign Babes in China.” Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1972 and raised by a noted sinologist, she was ideally suited to play a seductive Westerner in China’s hit show. DeWoskin arrived at just the right time for her to interact with the Chinese zeitgeist and become a transformative sex symbol.

DeWoskin graduated in 1994 and went to China to search for a job. Businesses from the West, including those from the United States like the PR firm DeWoskin eventually went on to work for, were allowed to invest in China and sell their goods. The inundation of Western goods and cultural artifacts that resulted from this decision led to the huge popularity of Western styles and culture in China. This desire to have the same kinds of goods and freedom that could be found in the West proved lucrative both for American and Chinese businesses. Television producers wasted no time in capitalizing on this new trend. “Foreign Babes in China” was one of the first and most successful attempts to serve this nascent interest in the West. Even today, foreign actors are highly sought after and are a constant attraction to Chinese reality television. It was “Foreign Babes in China” that proved how lucrative such shows could be.

Rachel DeWoskin documented her role both on the set and adjusting to a foreign culture in her critically acclaimed memoir Foreign Babes in China. In the book she demonstrates the fascination that the Chinese have for those outside their country. As a PR worker, DeWoskin was paid far more than her Chinese counterparts, and the show she starred in got insane ratings. The attention that foreigners received from the Chinese wasn’t all positive, however. The Chinese believed that those from the United States who thought that all the Chinese were lazy were racists. The producers of “Foreign Babes” exploited DeWoskin, paying her only $80 dollars an episode. Despite these stereotypes, DeWoskin’s character became the Rachel Green of Chinese television. Next time I’ll look at a typical episode of “Foreign Babes in China” and see what it has in common and where it differs from our television shows.

— submitted by B. King

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