by Rachel DeWoskin
(W. W. Norton & Company) $24.95
In 1994, Columbia graduate Rachel DeWoskin moved to Beijing to work in a PR firm, pushing doughnuts and gasoline onto a skeptical Chinese populace. Within two years, she'd vaulted to sudden fame as the star of the sensationally popular Chinese soap opera Foreign Babes in Beijing and was known to more than 600 million viewers as the hot American seductress Jiexi.
DeWoskin's absorbing new memoir, which takes its title from the television series, dishes predictably about the show (there's much prancing among pigeons and ice sculptures and pages of blunt, uproarious dialogue) and inter-linguistic contortions (the transliteration of the name "Rachel" means "bumper harvest" in Mandarin), but she's also an unusually adept observer of cultural tides and the history that informs them. Descriptions of episodes from her globalized life in the capital spin off into discussions of sudden panic about Chinese obesity or the anti-American protests orchestrated by the government. She also writes passionately about language, from the grammatical symmetry of Chinese questions ("Have you eaten or not eaten?") to the literal translation of "rubbernecking" (to "look at what's hot and noisy").
The memoir is loosely patterned after the third-century Chinese text Biographies of Model Women, through which DeWoskin traces the roots of cultural taboos her character Jiexi routinely breaks. Unfortunately, the Model Women structure also means that people she meets are confined to a chapter or two, and characters are introduced and even die in a numb, compressed rush. Incidentally, the risqué photo on the book jacket is the most misleading cover I've seen in forever. If you ever need to sneak some brainy reading material while convincing your girlfriends you're devouring chick lit, grab this book. And then dump your friends.