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Behind the Scenes of a New China

by Rachel DeWoskin

Pub Date: May 1st, 2005
ISBN: 0-393-05902-2
Publisher: Norton

Expat TV star takes readers on a tour through a China in transition.

When dyed-in-the wool Sinophile DeWoskin graduated from Columbia University, she headed to China and took a job in public relations. But before long she landed the leading role in what became China’s hottest soap opera, whose name in English gives this memoir its title. The author lived in Beijing for the last half of the 1990s, when China was changing. As evidenced by her hit show (which sounds like a combination of Friends and Dynasty), Western culture was encroaching. By the time DeWoskin left, there were no more donkey carts in downtown Beijing, and street vendors had given way to cafés at which trendy Chinese sipped lattes. Her co-workers believed that all Americans were fat, but during the author’s years there the Chinese gained an unprecedented amount of weight and suddenly had an obesity crisis of their own. Both on the TV show and off, the Chinese all around DeWoskin wrestled with the institutions of daily life. Should marriage be based on love, or to please the family and the state? Should people dress in traditional garb, or opt for Timberlands and Levis? The author both chronicles and participates in this new Chinese revolution. The cast includes her delightful friends Anna, a hard-core expatriate, and Kate, a quirky, questioning Chinese woman. DeWoskin herself makes a charming, rather humble narrator, and her prose is as gripping as the content. Describing her attempt to understand rapid Chinese speech, she writes, “listening to people speak was like standing on my tiptoes and trying to catch their gists with a butterfly net.” Neither straight reportage nor navel-gazing memoir, her account slips in history here and there, as well as an analysis of America’s foreign policy.

A babe’s-eye view turns out to be surprisingly substantive.