Rachel DeWoskin is a writer and professor at the University of Chicago. She has written three novels, including a memoir of her time in China, Foreign Babes in Beijing. During a recent trip to China she took the time to talk with us about her lifelong connection to the Middle Kingdom.
When and why did you come to China?
I came to China in 1994 as a 21-year-old. I had just graduated from undergrad and had no idea what to do. I had traveled here as a kid because my dad was a Sinologist and I had spent my childhood with him and my mom traveling across rural China, excavating dusty instruments from ancient Chinese villages. China was always a part of my family and we spent our summers here even when I was a kid. So coming back wasn’t as far-fetched as it might have been for some other American girl from the Midwest.
I moved here to see what it would be like and then I stayed for six years instead of the six months or a year that I had intended.
Tell us more about your six year stay. What did you do?
When I moved here I had a corporate job. I was representing western companies who were trying to sell things in China like washing machines and donuts and automobiles. I was at a party one night and some guy says to me, “You’re white, do you want to be in my soap opera?”
He was a friend of the director’s and I said, “I can’t possibly do that. A, I’m a terrible actor. B, I have no aspirations to an actor. And C, I have this horrible corporate job where I work 90-hour days.” Then I ran into him a couple of weeks later in a moment of tremendous anxiety about my job and he said, “Just come check out the studio with me.” So I agreed to audition.
At the audition, Director Yao and some producers had a Handycam and they said, “Pretend to be a foreign girl living in Beijing.” I just stood there and then they said, “You’re hired.” It was a job for which I was totally unqualified but I got it because I was the only laowai they found, so I did the soap opera for a couple of months.
After Foreign Babes in Beijing came out, I did a bunch of other things in the interest of making up for it karmically, because it turned out not to be the best artistic product that I’ve been involved in. My friends in China still make fun of me about it.
I did two things: one, I tried to do other movies that were better but they also turned out not to fix the problem. Two, I worked for the Ford Foundation. I took this project writing case studies on Ford Foundation projects in rural China that were largely about women’s reproductive health and freedom. I wrote for the Ford Foundation for quite a while.
Then I produced this show for an Australian TV station, also about Chinese women. I interviewed women whom I thought were pushing the envelope in some way. It was very frontier living in the 1990s and I feel like I had opportunities to do work that I would never have been given if I had been in the U.S.
And what have you been doing since you left China?
I left China when I was almost 27 because I admired the poet Robert Pinsky, who was teaching in Boston. I had begun to feel that my English was deteriorating. My Chinglish, on the other hand, was actually improving. I was living in this space between the two languages which, while very fun here, made me feel a little bit rusty in terms of my writing. So I decided I was going to go home and do an MFA in poetry.
I had never exactly imagined that you could just be a writer in the world. But I watched my professors, and I saw these people who lived in the world of writers, and I was like, that’s what I want to be. So I worked really hard at that and I taught undergraduates at Boston University and New York University. Now I’m teaching at the University of Chicago and I’ve written four books.
How has China influenced you and your work?
China is such an intricate part of my imagination and my resources and my reference points, that I can’t separate it. The way I think about English is impacted by a lifetime of hearing Chinese. It’s not possible for me to tease the threads out.
What I can say is that when I was ten, we went to Leshan, to see the Giant Buddha and I remember looking up and thinking it was the biggest thing I’d ever seen in my life. Then at the top in the parking lot, these guys called microcarvers were carving characters on single strands of human hair. Even as a little kid, China contained for me the possibilities for what was biggest and what was smallest in the world.
I think living in China as a kid and moving back and forth gave me a sense that we were not central to the workings of the world, that my small life was only one life, that there were many ways to live and many ways to talk. I think that’s an important idea for American children.
What do you think is one of the biggest misconceptions about China?
It’s changed. In 1994 and even later when I was writing Foreign Babes in Beijing, Westerners thought that China was stuck in 1949. But in fact, my Chinese friends were like everybody else. We had very different backgrounds but very similar aspirations. And they were utterly modern. I wanted to show Americans what my Chinese friends were like. That was the impetus behind my writing Foreign Babes.
I think now there’s a sense of confusion in America, a false dichotomy. Either China’s is this historical, mysterious place or it’s this monolith, a waking dragon that’s going to take over the world. I don’t think it’s either. I think China is extremely complicated.
If we could just get the government, every member of the government, to come for two weeks and meet some Chinese people, that would be fantastic. Talk to a couple of young Chinese people, talk to a couple of old people, go to Ritan park, do a little water calligraphy in the mornings. It would make a huge impact because people just don’t know what to think.
That sounds like a great idea for an NGO. Can you tell us one of your most memorable experiences in China?
I remember once, somebody was writing something about Foreign Babes and I was in Ritan park taking a picture for the article, and I found this group of old men who were playing Go, and they were super, super nice. They spent hours teaching me how to play and we never got the photo. I don’t even remember what happened to the article because these guys were so generous and awesome. Immediately, the following weekend, I went to Panjiayuan and bought a marble Go table and played every day for the next three years.
I also remember walking through the Silk Market after Foreign Babes was on TV and girls following me and buying whatever I was buying, fake Prada purses. Once I was buying fish paste. My co-star was giving me cooking lessons and he had told me to buy some esoteric condiment. I was in the basement of the supermarket buying fish paste and the women behind me were like, Jiexi loves fish paste! Americans also love to eat fish paste! I remember being so interested in the idea that A, I was representing all of America all the time and B, these women had the idea that my character in Foreign Babes liked fish paste and so they bought it as well.
You’ve been in Beijing on-and-off for a while. What’s the biggest change?
You look around and it’s a first-world city. The buildings are unbelievable. The landscape in Beijing has been utterly, utterly transformed.
And Beijing is proud. There used to be a sense in the 1990s that maybe the meek would inherit. Now I would say the no-longer-meek have inherited. Beijing is a thriving, appealing first-world metropolis with everything you could need or want.
The magnetic pull of Beijing is so huge. When I moved here it was considered a hardship post; now everybody wants to come here. Although we have to clean up the sky a little.
How do you see your future relationship with China?
Endless entanglement. I love being here. I love it and I don’t know why. I don’t know if it’s because this is the first place I ever rented my own apartment, the first place I ever had my own bank account. This is where I came to be a grown-up. I was 21 and moved here and had to figure it out. Everything here from getting a job to speaking Chinese to buying vegetables felt like such a huge triumph for me.
I plan to be back forever and I plan to bring my kids back of course. In the short term, we have to live in the States, but later I would love to live here. In the meantime, we’ll come every summer.
Transcription by Huizhong Wu.