Copyright – The International Herald Tribune
THURSDAY, MAY 19, 2005
BEIJING A career in modeling was the last thing on Lee Ambrozy’s mind when she moved here in 2003. But with her blond head and Caucasian features, she found her Chinese language studies at Beijing University constantly interrupted by talent scouts.
“Modeling agencies would hover around the foreign dorms,” she said. The 27-year-old Detroit native has since appeared in several advertising campaigns and performed in two music videos. “Being foreign in China is like being a beautiful person, no matter what you look like,” she said. “People are interested in you just because you’re different.”
Navigating your 20s can be difficult, even without the challenges of being overseas, underpaid and continuously under a magnifying glass.
Nevertheless, a growing number of young foreign women are moving to China’s capital in search of adventure, love, and good jobs in creative fields. These female expatriates have discovered a world of opportunity in China, where the simple fact of their foreignness affords them opportunities they only dreamed about at home.
That’s certainly true for Rachel DeWoskin, who lived in Beijing for more than five years in the mid-1990s. During that time, she starred in a Chinese television drama called “Foreign Babes in Beijing,” as the character Jiexi, an American vixen who falls in love with a Chinese man and seduces him away from his wife and family.
Now, 10 years later, DeWoskin, 32, has written a book with the same title, in which she recounts her experiences starring in the show, and offers insights into her life as a young, single American woman living in Beijing. “All things American, even women, both shine and writhe under a spotlight in China,” she said. “Even before I magnified the vision by parading on TV, I was representing all things American and felt a responsibility not to let my homeland lose face.”
Ambrozy, who currently works as an editor at That’s Beijing, an English-language magazine for expats, has encountered people who are fascinated by American culture. “It’s exactly like exoticism in the West,” she said. “It’s like Asiaphiles. Here there are Ameriphiles.”
Though she feels her exotic qualities have become an asset, she says she harbors no illusions about her appeal to modeling agencies. “There’s a lack of people with foreign faces,” she said.
Alison Friedman, 25, came to Beijing in 2002 on a Fulbright scholarship to study modern dance in China.
Her program ended more than a year ago, and since then she has been successfully pursuing a career as a freelance dancer and choreographer. “As a foreigner, it’s much easier to be one of a kind,” she said. “In the States, I’d just be a cog in the wheel. Here, everyone’s inventing the wheel.”
Helen Feng, 26, has found similar success in the entertainment industry. A Chinese-American fluent in both Mandarin and English, she has appeared on MTV Asia, worked as a D.J. for China Radio International, and is currently a television host for an arts and culture program that is shown on China Central Television. “I can play both sides of the coin,” she said.
The interest in American culture rarely breaks down other cultural barriers. “I’ve given up on finding a mate,” said Feng, who has lived in Beijing for over two years. “Dating is the biggest challenge for any female in Beijing.”
Friedman, who is from Washington, agrees. “Chinese men generally think you’re going to be easy. They have the idea from movies and TV that sex is a national pastime” in the United States.
In her book, DeWoskin recounts a similar experience: When a co-worker suggested that all American women are kaifang, she interpreted the term literally as “open-minded” and was flattered. It was only later that she realized that kaifang can also mean promiscuous.
Beijing’s foreign women often face cultural barriers when dating Chinese men, particularly differing concepts of romance and intimacy.
In “Foreign Babes in Beijing,” DeWoskin describes her relationship with a Chinese man, which eventually disintegrated under cultural pressures. Her candid emotions collided too bitterly with her boyfriend’s guardedness.
The traditional family values held by many Chinese men also present romantic difficulties. “Relationships can be hierarchical,” Friedman said. And in a society where the concept of face dominates most personal interactions, it can sometimes be difficult to ascertain your boyfriend’s motives. “Many Chinese men date Western women to gain face,” Ambrozy said.
There is even a Chinese word for foreign girlfriends: shuaitang, or colored candy.
Despite these obstacles, cross-cultural relationships are becoming more common. “I think the ‘Foreign Babes in Beijing’ scenario – imported girls and Chinese guys – is gaining popularity,” said DeWoskin, who is now married to an American. “I have many Western friends who are deeply in love with Chinese men.”
Ultimately, it is a combination of relationship and career issues that eventually propel Beijing’s female expatriates to return home. “I don’t see myself here for my whole life,” said Ambrozy, who hopes to pursue a career in Chinese-English translation. “If I had someone to share my life with here, then I’d be happy.”
Friedman cites professional development as her reason for planning to return to the United States. “There’s no one to challenge you to take it to the next step,” she said. “In China, for foreigners, it can be really easy to be too comfortable and not want to leave.”
The lure of China may always beckon, however, and many hope that the country will always be a part of their lives.
“I don’t think I could date a person who’s never been to China,” Ambrozy said. DeWoskin, who lives in New York City but returns to Beijing at least twice a year, knows she’ll always have a connection.
“I spent my twenties in the homes of my Chinese friends, on the sets of Chinese TV shows, and gleefully happy in China’s increasingly cosmopolitan cities,” she said. “And I’m certain and grateful that I’ll spend much of my thirties on joyful flights East.”