By Rachel Dewoskin
When I was twenty-one, I ended up acting in a Chinese soap opera called Foreign Babes in Beijing, a job for which I had neither talent nor qualifications, other than being really young and conspicuously Western. I got the part because a hot Chinese guy came up to me one night at a party in Beijing, where I was suddenly living—part of my ongoing, youthful effort to avoid leading “a boring life.” He looked me over and then asked if I wanted to be in his friend’s soap opera, “about foreign girls.” Like most questions people posed in those early Beijing days, this was baffling to me. Was it was code for something else, and if so, what? It seemed like a complex pass, if that’s what it was. I was stunned almost numb by culture shock, so having no idea what was happening wasn’t an unusual predicament. I said I wasn’t an actress, but that I would tag along to the studio the next afternoon. Why not? Once there, his friend, a director named Yao, turned a camera on me and said, “Pretend to be a foreign girl living in Beijing.”
I stood there, blinking, wondering why he pronounced “girl” the way he did: “niu,” instead of “nu,” thinking it sounded more like the word I had learned for “cattle” than the one I knew for “girl.” While I was trying to imagine a way to ask about the word, he said, “you’re hired.” And so began my career as a symbol of American girls, playing a vixen who was somehow simultaneously a nerdy foreign exchange student, a temptress/home-wrecker, and a subtle scholar and lover of Chinese culture and men.
It was on the set that I learned the difference between the Chinese words for “girl” and “babe,” when my costar explained that “niu” wasn’t cattle, but was a word you might call a girl who wasn’t your sister. Out a car window. Someone “sexy.” On the set, I learned the Chinese word for sexy, and I filmed several sex scenes with my Chinese costar, which, although tame by television standards, were some of the most disorienting, funny, and embarrassing experiences of my life. Our televised love-fest began with me (as my character, “Jie-xi”) shouting, “I love you! What are we waiting for!?” Unable to argue with this American logic, my Chinese costar (as his character, the virile “Tian-Ming”) carried me across the room, trying neither to trip nor drop me on the floor. A soundtrack of karaoke music blared in the background; blazing lights buzzed over us, melting my makeup; there were people everywhere, watching, working, laughing? Were they laughing? Each time we “kissed,” various artists ran over and tried to repair my lips, my blush, my eyes. To cover my freckles, which Chinese people think are awful. I laughed. A lot. Until Director Yao told me “no laughing.” When he directed me to “claw” Tian-Ming’s back, I misunderstood and gave a chaste backrub. “No, no,” said kind, shiny, handsome Tian-Ming, on whom I had been crushing until our sex scenes stamped that flame right out.
“Like this,” he said, and then he faked crazy sex, clawing his own back to show me my vocabulary mistake, leaving me burnt blank by confusion, as usual. My tutor, a seventy-year-old retired language teacher who helped me figure out the daily dialogue, had described these scenes euphemistically to me, as “love business.” I tried to recover my dignity by fake-clawing Tian-Ming’s back as sexily as I could.
When the show aired, to my great surprise—I somehow never actually believed it would be on television—the Chinese media called my character “a sex symbol.” This was a difficult distinction, and had little to do with me and lots to do with the way the world watches young women, especially those of us playing sexualized and rambunctious caricatures of ourselves on television. But I didn’t know that then, and I was panicked. If I had known what it meant to be sexy on TV, or a “sex symbol,” I probably wouldn’t have signed up for the assignment. Of course those sorts of humiliating mistakes are the core of growing up, and Beijing is an especially elastic playground for young expatriates; it offers up the chance to try on roles you might not get to experiment with elsewhere. Like a naked vixen seducing a married Chinese man on national television, for example. Or a Western sex symbol.
Being a symbol of anything, particularly sex, is a little bit unsexy. Once there was a conversation happening about my own sexiness, one I could see and hear but not control, I began fretting. I was a terrible actor; that was a fact. On TV, I looked like a pale puppet being yanked from above by strings. What incredible vanity or obliviousness had inspired me to sign up for acting in a soap opera? Why was my body being beamed all over China, rolling around on a hotel bed in the “Great Wall Sheraton” with a Chinese man I hardly knew? A sex symbol? Was I actually even sexy in my real life, let alone the bizarre fantasy version of that life I was “acting” out on TV? If what the show depicted was symbolic of sexiness, then maybe I’d never been sexy at all. What had it meant to be sexy before? In my real, present-tense life, I wasn’t shellacked with makeup, mispronouncing, “What is it with you Chinese guys; can’t you love anyone other than your wives?” Or throwing my head back, drinking the TV-kisses of my costar. I was in my leggings and undershirt, at home, watching the show, cold sweating and wondering what made a person—me or any girl—sexy. Or real.
If what people saw, wanted, liked, was something so deeply artificial, then I might lose it any moment. Never have had it. Not want it? Now, people came to my house to “become friends”; there was constant knocking on my door. Now I started wearing lipstick even when I was in my pajamas, lest I disappoint anyone. Now people stopped me on the street to say, “Wow. You’re much thinner in real life!” And “How old are you?” And “Is it true love? Do you love Chinese men?”
I was thinner in real life? Did I look fat on the show? Now I started eating slightly less, thinking about that more, because maybe I was a fat person and had somehow never noticed? Was I old? (I was twenty-two.) Did I love Chinese men? Who the fuck was I, even?
Maybe I was an especially suggestible young person, or maybe magnifying a false vision of yourself for that many people while you’re trying to keep a slippery grip on language and your identity anyway—would make anyone feel wobbly. But I no longer felt certain of much, least of all who I wanted to be—the ludicrous cartoon character I played (so self-consciously, so badly) on TV; the apologetic girl on the streets, who now wore makeup and earrings all the time, my small, sad shields against vulnerability, and who tried to be as real as I could (“No, not true love, sorry!” “Yes, I guess we all film a little fat”). Where was the nerdy American student I had, my entire childhood and life, prided myself on being? My mind often ran on a defensive loop, too insane to be spoken out loud: I speak Chinese! I read books! I’m not actually lobotomized. Here, look at this report card, poem, paper on Shakespeare. But, wait, had I been smart, after all, and if so, what was the relationship between being that and being this? The simple way of putting it is that I was a recent undergraduate, panicked about how and whether I might do anything meaningful in the world, thinking, could acting like a sex symbol on Foreign Babes in Beijing turn out to be a socially or artistically reasonable contribution to society? Oh, shit.
I also had no idea what sexy meant anymore, even though I read it and saw it everywhere, like my body, like my face. I felt less sexy then than I ever had before, and in an odd and counterintuitive twist, I didn’t get my best groove back until I made the hot swap from being a fake ingénue to being an actual mama. To having babies, two girls who spun and spin my world on a faster, different, better axis.
That being a mama could be the solution to my particular brand of confusion came as a giant, sparkly surprise to me. Who knew, especially someone so suddenly outward-worried, that getting knocked up and parenting would define and make me sexy? My mom would say, as she often does when I say “who knew” about the jolts of joy that come with having babies: “Everyone, honey. Actually, everyone knew.” But I wouldn’t have understood the possibility that being older and having children could be sexier than being young and not having children—without living the neurotic experiences required to get me to that revelation on my own. If someone had told me in my sex-symbol-twenties that someday I’d be okay, that I’d feel 3-D-sexy for real, charged, vivid, and sure—it would just take two enormous pregnancies and years in the gauzy days of my own babies’ milk lives, the words would have been wasted anyway.
Here’s a funny caveat: I had an unusually confident, dreamy adolescence, during which I loved only those boys who loved me back. I had an army of close girlfriends and never gravitated toward anyone who was mean or made me feel bad. My first experiences with sex were melty and lovely. I felt both safe and smoldering somehow, okay in my body and life, boy-crazy in a joyful way that included certainty about my own worth as well as my ability to choose and get naked with people I liked, rather than waiting to see who might like me. This now strikes me as absolutely remarkable, and I wonder how I came by the delicious, lucky quality of teenage confidence—about sex! And how I later lost my grip on it. I want to duplicate the good part for my two little girls when they’re teenagers and young adults. For them to feel confident in an inward-looking-outward way, neither as a pose nor as an object of other people’s projections, interpretations, or desires. Except those few people whose opinions and appetites they value.
Because I lost that ability for a bit in my skinny, middle twenties. I kept thinking about what everyone else might be thinking, people I knew and didn’t know. Some of them I slept with as a way to look in various mirrors, trying to catch a glimpse of a self I might like to be. Trying, on the surface, to find sexy, and in my marrow, to get back to some truth about who I actually was. And failing. And worrying about the wrong things: if I wasn’t unsexy and/or fat yet (I conflated these two things, horribly, stupidly, in part because so many people talked about my “skinniness,” and in part because that conflation is the default, lowest common denominator way of thinking about prettiness in both American and Chinese pop media culture), maybe I’d lose control soon and become monstrous and undesirable, disappointing, publicly. My whole framework for thinking about myself in the world became not about joy or any experience of beauty, but instead about control. Maybe because I had less of it than I’d had before. What did I even look like? I thought everyone was looking at me all the time, which wasn’t true, but felt true and scalding and awful.
I spent more hours than I can bear to consider now, on whether I was enough—thin; polite; apologetic; beloved; desired; pretty; smart; sexy, sexy, and for what? To parade in preposterous costumes on Chinese TV? To seduce my own boyfriend at the time, a loving, complicated human being who would have been thrilled if I could have said no to the soap opera and all the shallow insanity that surrounded it? He didn’t care how anyone else thought of me, knew somehow who I was—or had been, anyway—even though I seemed to have lost track. I had a new, insatiable restlessness, increasingly about being small, reckless, and appreciated, rather than happy or appreciative. That copious energy I spent tearing up and reconfiguring my life—both publicly and privately—would have been much better spent on loving people who mattered to me, or studying physics, or practicing Chinese flashcards, or writing an epic. On anything, really, other than trying, with utterly unnecessary and yet Olympic effort, not to fail at being a sex symbol, not to get fat, not to age, not to become a real person.
When I was twenty-seven, I fled my life in China to study poetry in the West, because as muddled as I was then, I somehow saw that my focus would be better spent on content less external. And poetry struck me as a potentially excellent antidote to the specific toxin of having been so publicly “sexy” and confused. And it was; it helped, all those clear words, lines, and stanzas I memorized, read, and wrote. The quiet, anonymous days I learned to make helped, too. I stopped thinking so much about myself, went less wild, even began to feel like a tolerable person, one I might get along with.
When I was just out of graduate school, teaching and trying to make sense of China by reading and writing about it, my mother, whom I adore, was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was living with a big-jawed, profound-thinking, radical playwright I had met in a translation seminar—let’s call him “Zayd.” I was still half-full of the drama of my own life, grappling with the moral nuance of my participation in Foreign Babes in Beijing and a lot of needless pulp I’d left in the wake of my Beijing fury. I was busily writing a memoir called Foreign Babes in Beijing (the last time, until this essay, that I wrote first-person nonfiction).
Then my mom got sick, was in danger. My world flipped, and in a way so instant it gave me vertigo, whiplash, cardiac surprise, I wanted a baby. I wanted a baby with a sort of certainty I hadn’t ever experienced about anything, an unambiguous, bright sureness that felt to me like a possible definition of what it meant to be alive. I was desperate for my mom not to die, so terrified when I let myself imagine losing her, which I almost never did, that I blacked out and whacked my head on the floor of our apartment. The post-mom world I envisioned was a howling, shadow zone ruled by creepy dream logic. My childhood house had unhinged doors banging open, webs draping the lively kitchen where my mom cooks joyfully and elaborately, something dark obscuring the couch where she grades papers. Before I fainted with it, I saw her and our family in a drained tomb. I had just memorized the Thomas Hardy poem “In Wind and Rain” for a class, and I woke up over and over, cold with the last line: “Down their carved names the raindrop ploughs.” It seemed to me for a reason both primal and totally irrational that the only way to stave off my mom’s death and frankly all of our names on rainy graves was to have a baby.
Maybe that was the first time I had ever bathed in the luxurious feeling of being absolutely certain about something. And it was this want, this future baby who would be Zayd’s and mine, who would know and love our four beautiful parents while they were still alive and healthy, still themselves. In its most sensible form, this was just a regular urge to build something, to tie myself back into the world and to my parents. But it was also so uncharacteristic of me as to feel foreign, possibly crazy, a little wild, dare I say it, sexy? We were so young, especially Zayd. He was twenty-six. I asked him did he want to have a baby with me, and did soon sound good, would right now this instant be okay? Zayd has always been a calm thinker, and he agreed to what I think he considered the slightly-earlier-but-what’s-five-years-here-or-there baby plan, and I began bargaining with a non-denominational God I only contacted in crises: thank you for Zayd, for my parents—can my mom please not die, and while we’re talking, how about please making the body I’ve been abusing and directing relentlessly toward sexy for everyone else in the universe—suddenly useful? Is it possible that my skinny, labored, flaunted, loathed body can now build a baby with this person I love? I was full of dread and doubt.
I don’t have one American girlfriend who has felt, before getting pregnant, like she could get pregnant. We all believed, at various stages, that we were infertile, ill-suited, at the very least going to have a wildly uphill time of it. This body? No way. My thin, bluish hips, which had been grinding and slicing? My waxed, polished, impossible body, morphing into something human, generous, big? The various parts of me, even when I had liked them most, were vehicles, means. I had arrived sometimes at ends that involved genuine love and delight, but had also, for a stack of years that felt insurmountable to me then, exercised like I was outrunning some hideous monster, eaten mostly sparkling water and air-popped popcorn, dressed outrageously, undressed suspicious of myself and whoever else was present, paraded on TV, arched, stretched, posed, and worked. And worked and worked. My body was a labor, something to be continuously reckoned with, improved upon, controlled. Imagining pregnancy, let alone childbirth or parenting, wasn’t possible. My latish-onset anxiety about being a sexy rail was so second nature by my late twenties and so common to all the women I knew that it didn’t phase us any more or less than any other aspect of growing up. To struggle against ourselves was part of being a girl. In graduate school we spoke the beautiful line from poet Robert Pinsky’s poem “Samurai Song” to each other like a mantra: “When I had no enemy, I opposed my body.” It was a core truth about so many of us. And frankly nobody I knew—or had ever known—talked about her body in a way that indicated she felt fully connected to it. Or respectful of its creative potential. And neither did I.
But when I bought a pregnancy test at the Jingan Supermarket in Beijing over a Christmas break when I had flown back for hotpot and nostalgia, a beautiful pink plus appeared in the window. I was dizzy with thrill, so ecstatic that I exhausted myself celebrating and had to take a six-hour nap. That was the first nap of my adult life, and a signal of something to come, a (write it: sexy) new ability to slow down, to sleep, to feel good.
When Zayd told his young, incredulous friends that we were knocked up, a charming and well-intentioned one said, “Well, at least Rach is hot enough that she probably won’t be ‘rocking the mom vibe’ for a while.” He meant getting a bob, driving a lot of small, screaming people to sports practices, talking exclusively about diapers and the tedious achievements of toddlers; and God forbid, using my once-svelte disco hips to balance chubby babies. As the Saturday Night Live mother’s day commercial for “Mom Jeans” hilariously put it back in the day: “Because you aren’t a woman anymore—you’re a mom.”
But he was wrong—that I wouldn’t rock it, and also about what makes a regular girl into a mama. Not to mention what hot means and feels like. I was pregnant more sexily and less apologetically than I had ever been anything. It started simply, with the sleeping, a luxury I’d hardly permitted myself during my years as a rapacious, busy symbol. I quit drinking alcohol and fifteen cups of coffee a day, taking medications, diet advice, eight-mile runs, and cigarette puffs. I took yoga, drank some milk, and celebrated each pound I put on (there were sixty of them); that weight was insulating a tiny person with pointy ears like Zayd’s, building something. It mattered.
I danced around our New York City apartment in a bikini. I flashed Zayd and all of my girlfriends: look at this body! Whose is it? I swam and biked and snorkeled and danced and slept millions of hours every night in a tumble of glorious pillows, like an empress. I finished writing my memoir, the stakes of which now seemed less dire; how much easier that made editing! I ate ice cream and caramel apples and took photos of my moon of a stomach. When Zayd’s mama bought me a “belly band,” I wore it over everything.
What shocked me most about the changes was how effortless they seemed. Why hadn’t I made some before? Why couldn’t I have been fed, sleepy, inward-focused or happy & sexy for my own sake? Why had I not thought of my body as a productive, capable part of me, or me myself, rather than a decoration designed and maintained for an ill-defined audience?
I was walking down Broadway with my new belly and body one day when I was almost seven months pregnant, and I had accidental eye contact with a stranger smoking outside a restaurant on 109th. He said, “Hey. . . ” in an unmistakable register, low grade lascivious, flirtatious, uninvited. I was surprised. Really? Even when? I stopped, and watched him for a minute, in disbelief, until I realized he hadn’t seen my stomach yet. I had a hoodie on, one that slightly obscured my belly band. So I pivoted toward him—swung, even, did a bit of a laughing twist—to make sure he got the full view, and waited for his gaze to make it there. When it did, when he realized how pregnant I was, he jolted to embarrassed attention and looked away before glancing helplessly back at me. Because I held his eyes, grinning. He smiled sheepishly and said “hey” again, in a tonally improved way, as if he’d just been saying hi all along.
I said, “Hey,” back, delighted. It was the first time I had ever responded to a cat-call.
Being pregnant made me the object of new kinds of attention: loving from other mamas and grandmas and pregnant girls, embarrassed from the kinds of guys who had once shouted “niu” or “babe,” or “bitch” or even just “hey” out car windows or on the sidewalks; unconditionally celebratory from everyone who loved me—my girlfriends and brothers and parents and in-laws, who fed me and bought me tight pregnancy clothes and made plans for the lovely baby whose life we were all awaiting. And rollicking attention from Zayd, whom I ravaged daily, and who said once, with his hands up my big silky tee-shirt: “Yum.”
I love that word. It reminded me then and reminds me now that as soon as I was ravenous, I was electrified by sexiness. That wanting to be fed, and being fed, are sexy. I gobbled everything then: love, sex, books, poems, lamb-chops, marshmallows, popsicles, cities, my friends’ stories and details, my own life, joy, more. Happiness? Hot.
I wondered only vaguely whether I’d start to mind my new body, when the gleeful, productive, grateful surge would wear off and I’d struggle the way women I saw on the covers of various sad magazines are asked to: to “get our bodies back.” But I didn’t, not then and not now, a new set of years later. Partly because of the many promises I made around the if-I-can-just-please-get-pregnant time that I would never be that symbol-of-a-person again. I don’t want to renege. And partly because this body, the one I own and live and dance and frolic and swim and bake cookies and snuggle in now, is the one that made our girls. This body isn’t a symbol of anything; it’s just me; what an improvement upon the lithe, tense, camera-ready one in which I spent my twenties.
Of course trading your former self for a new one can be brutal. There’s a big dose of loss each time we have to become some new version of ourselves, but changing and aging feel to me like the hot opposites of dying. Even though I’m not twenty anymore, I’m delirious with the feeling of moving forward, of transforming, even if it’s toward a less young me. For me, being a mama is the flip side of the project of my young life, which was to carve out as separate and difficult an identity as I could, in opposition to everything—and everyone—around me. Now I’m anchored—by our girls and my own certain self. And that lets me roam in my mind, makes me more empathetic, imaginative, productive, and free. Maybe because drive, desire, and motion are forms of rocking some of my favorite things: babies, boats, beds, “the mom vibe.”
My mom recovered from breast cancer a decade ago; she has taught—and teaches —countless students (including me) how to write analytical papers, how to read deeply, how to live happily. She has taught our little girls to quilt, cook, and jitterbug. This year, she decided, in her badass seventy-two-year-old Grandma way, that she was going to learn to swim. And did it. In a straight year of private lessons and determination, in a sleek black bathing-suit, always changing, moving, learning, celebrating forward.
She asked me recently, after seeing “American Pie” ten years after everyone else and learning the word MILF ten years after everyone stopped using it: “Is there such a thing as a GILF?”
“Obviously there is,” I said.
I keep thinking how much I hope my girls can grow up feeling the way I did about myself before I thought everyone else was watching. And then again after. Sexy. The way my mom clearly still feels about herself. I hope they can be girls who know that the opinions that matter are those held by people who love them and whom they love, especially, essentially, and always foremost—their own.
The truth is, my hope is vast and breathless: that all of our girls get to grow into their most confident selves, never symbols of anything except meaningful, glorious living. That their sexiness is lived and felt, rather than beamed away from them. And that they can be imperfect, delicious, hungry, and fed; that they’ll be busy building the world and themselves up and out, expansively.
If my own sweet, belligerent, inimitable daughters eventually have babies, I can’t overstate how happy I’d be if I just could rock the GILF vibe, privately, off-screen, with the kind of ferocity and fine-aged grace my mom rocks it with now. Because maybe. Because hey, more life please, yum.
Rachel DeWoskin’s fifth book, the novel Second Circus, will be published by Penguin in 2017. Her critically acclaimed novel, Blind, was published by Penguin in 2014 and is a Library Guild and an Illinois Reads selection. Her novel Big Girl Small (FSG, 2011), received the American Library Association’s Alex Award and was named one of the top 3 books of the year by Newsday. DeWoskin’s memoir, Foreign Babes in Beijing (WW Norton, 2005), about the years she spent in China as the unlikely star of a Chinese soap opera, has been published in six countries, optioned by Paramount, HBO and the Sundance Channel, and is now in development at BBC America, where DeWoskin is co-writing a TV series based on the book. DeWoskin’s debut novel Repeat After Me (Overlook Press, 2009), won a Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Award. She has written essays and articles for Vanity Fair, The Sunday Times Magazine of London, Teachers and Writers, and anthologies including Found: Requiem for a Paper Bag, and Wanderlust. Her poems have appeared in journals including Ploughshares, Seneca Review, New Delta Review, Nerve Magazine and The New Orleans Review. She teaches fiction at the University of Chicago.