BEIJING — A job with a public relations firm brought American Rachel DeWoskin to Beijing in September.
Since then she's made headlines in the Chinese newspapers, been interviewed by China Central Television and filmed by a visiting American television network.
But it had nothing to do with her public relations job.
DeWoskin, 22, who grew up in Michigan and graduated last year from Columbia University in New York, is one of eight foreigners--three Americans, two Russians, one Japanese, one German and a Serb--who have joined the cast of "Foreign Gals in Beijing," a 20-part television series about the lives of foreign students that will debut before the world's largest television audience this summer.
After years in which only a rare foreign face graced Chinese television, programming featuring foreigners has become an overnight trend. Recent television series have included parts ranging from overbearing foreign bosses to Russian women struggling to make a living in northeast China.
What has not changed much--in keeping with a tradition of xenophobia dating back centuries--is that most of the foreign roles are bad guys or, in this case, bad gals.
Rachel DeWoskin plays Jessie, a spoiled, wealthy American student who seduces Li Tianming, a married-with-child tour guide, pays his wife off and takes him back to the United States.
In one episode, after dancing up a storm at a hotel disco, Jessie takes Tianming upstairs, sits him down on the bed and says, "We love each other, so what are we waiting for?" Frustrated by his hesitation, she asks him incredulously, "You can't love anyone besides your wife?"
Throughout history, Chinese have looked at foreigners as barbarians, as invaders intent on slicing up China and, since the 1949 revolution, as enemies of Communism.
Foreigners are \o7 dabizi\f7 --big noses. Foreigners are \o7 kaifang\f7 --too open with their feelings. Foreigners are \o7 youqian\f7 --rich. Foreigners engage in free love.
The breakthrough for foreigners acting in Chinese television productions came in 1993 with the hit series "A Beijinger in New York."
Starring former American diplomat Robert Daly and Chinese star Jiang Wen of "Red Sorghum" film fame, the show captivated Chinese audiences who wanted to see what life is like for their compatriots living in the United States. The 21-part "Beijinger" is being rebroadcast.
In fact, other than the late President Richard Nixon, basketball player Michael Jordan and a handful of pop stars, Daly may be the best known American face in China, thanks to the long-running series.
After the phenomenal success of the "Beijinger" series, directors began to seek foreign actors. The influx of thousands of foreign students in recent years, many of whom speak excellent Chinese and are willing to work for a Chinese salary, gave them a pool of actors.
China's central propaganda department still screens television shows and movies after directors finish editing and before audiences can view them. In most cases only those productions with what is deemed a socially redeeming theme pass the test.
Although "Foreign Gals" director Wang Binglin denies any moral didactic purpose in the series, it appears to be a typical warning of the social and emotional havoc a romantic relationship with a foreigner can bring.
While other series focus on economic issues, "Foreign Gals" tells the tale of cross-cultural romance. According to Wang, "It shows the differences between Western and Chinese culture, but in the end we see that everyone, no matter what nationality, pursues truth, goodness and beauty." The plot is adapted from a book by Li Weihai, who interviewed more than 50 foreign women students in Beijing. Depicting everything from hygiene habits and language barriers to open sex and easy money, the story realistically depicts foreigners in Beijing, says director Wang.
Asked which scenes accurately depict her own life as a foreigner in Beijing, DeWoskin puts down her chopsticks, rests her chin on her folded hands and thinks long and hard, finally admitting not one scene comes to mind.
The series portrays foreigners' lives as happily integrated with Chinese, but, she says, "foreigners and Chinese are not integrated. I never feel like I am an insider in China."
Being in the series, in fact, opened her eyes to the harsh conditions in which Chinese actors work.
"Chinese actors have no leverage," she observed. They are required to live in the studio dorms, eat in the studio cafeteria, wait around on the set for hours . . . and not complain. For 750 yuan ($90) per episode, "they own you," DeWoskin said of the Beijing Movie Studio.
In "Foreign Gals," many scenes have a lot more to say about Chinese than foreigners, and they say great things.
Chinese medicine cures an American's cancer after Western medicine fails. The Chinese lead punches out the American guy who criticizes Chinese manners and ends up winning his girl.
The series also presents an idealized version of proper foreign behavior.